Being a sailmaker is generally a lifetime passion. Dave Hirsh, a great sail designer with North Sails, recently retired. He has been quoted as saying that to be in sail making you need two key attributes: First, you have to like sails. And second, you have to understand that the key to any sail is mid leech twist.
As I start my 30th season here in the Caribbean, I know exactly what interested me as a child discovering sail making. It was primarily the idea that small seaming adjustments, just a few millimetres, produced a surprisingly large shape change. Many other discoveries followed. For example, adjustments in one part of a sail had an influence elsewhere in the structure, and materials were rarely static and could have a greater influence on shape than design.
I started and still love river sailing. Certainly the worlds of inshore and offshore sailing are, from my experience, very different. When you are young, rivers teach you about tides, reverse currents and ‘lee bowing’. When you’re an aspiring sailmaker river sailing gives you the luxury of a stable rig. The lost stability, created from pitching, over complicates our rig/sail model when inexperienced.
At this young age all that counted for me was how to point high while still footing fast; how to pinch past a moored boat and keep way, how to make life uncomfortable for the other boats when beating through crowded waters and, when crossing the tide, how to either ease and limit the damage or how to stick the bow into it and be pushed up to windward.
I raced National 12s and Merlin Rockets, both wonderful boats. They are said to be ‘Restricted Classes’. Sails, rigs, hulls and appendices are given fairly free interpretation, but have to fit a formula or within a box. This was the ideal environment in which to think and fiddle. It was an incentive to seek and embrace change.
When river sailing, waves are not a problem and power is not really required. I learned that you could sheet in at very close angles if the mid leech remained open. The headsail whose role was to accelerate the wind behind the mainsail had to do just that. The air movement aft had to be clean.
I made my first sails at this time. The leading edge of the jib did not have to be full and forward but the leech had to be in harmony with the luff of the mainsail. ‘Slot’ was my important childhood term. I remember imagining that the space between the jib and main had to be regular especially vertically, not to push the air either up or down onto the lee of the mainsail. Lamina flow was the key. Hence no leech tapes or lines, just hot-knifed edges to keep the air smooth.
I fitted simple means to inhaul the leads, to Barber haul them and to control mast bend and hence mainsail draft and twist. I always ensured that the mast gate was sound to avoid any disturbing turbulent need for a fore stay. Things were easy, they functioned and for nine months of the year life had a simple purpose.
Much later, after earning a living as a science teacher, I set up work as an independent sailmaker. That’s when things got a lot more complicated. My customers did not see sailing like I did. I felt that I had to adapt my way of thinking in order to keep customers happy. Worse, they were sailing on the rough Caribbean seas with squalls and swell.
Sails had to be strong, even overbuilt. Cloth weight was just one aspect of this, patches had to be large and leeches reinforced. The customer did not want any creasing and certainly no leech flutter. The simple solution (still practiced by many) was to build the sail with excessive depth. Let the shortest distance from clew to head be the leech tape and be sure of that. Then, if the sheeting angle is wrong and the halyard stretches, the sail will most likely still just sit there, even if it performs poorly.
But to the young dinghy sailor this was frustrating. Slowly, with time, I learned to dialogue and to be more confident. I encouraged ideas and concerns to be shared. I like to greet any new potential customer with a discussion about how they sail. Then I will talk about how I build sails. We can and should always share not only expectations of cost but of value. How long will the sails really last, how will they perform in time. Forty-five years after building my first sail, my feeling about building sails is much the same. But I do like the extra challenges of offshore sailing. I learn new things and extend my pleasure in being a sailmaker.