Today, opening a new sail loft and finding qualified staff is at least as difficult in sail making as in any other trade. Through the centuries sail makers would be based in ports ready to build or repair sails. Most seagoing vessels of any stature generally sailed with two suits of sails and would, if at all possible, only carry out fairly minor repairs while at sea. Lofting was the original term for tracing or laying out a new sail. At the time the sails were traced with line held in place by awls and all of this in the sail maker’s loft.
The Royal Navy never really had a sail makers’ code or manual. Plans were recorded but the building skills were the property of the sail maker who handed down his knowledge to the apprentice sail makers. Some form of control was applied to the trade during the American Civil War. The northern fleet had limited cloth stocks quite early on in the war and deemed it necessary to license sail makers. Each would register and identify their sails by a personalized logo at the tack of the sail. Only in the last fifteen years have we had our Blue Book defining how a North Sail should be built. This documentation and its continual renewal is a genuinely difficult task…no wonder the Royal Navy did not try.
Early sails as used by the Vikings had signs of technological reflection as they supported the sail cloth with crossed fibers to spread the loads. This is fairly common in other early sails, such as those used on the Nile. While thinking about this short article, a thought came to mind that despite the numerous centuries of sail making, I have never met a Mr Sailmaker, though know a number of Smiths, Bakers, and I can remember at least one Thatcher. I know now, looking seriously for staff, that even today there are not that many Sail makers about.
I have always made my own sails though had never imagined sail making as a serious job. Even today my second son, who is serving an apprenticeship with the famous rigging company THL from Lymington and Falmouth, says that one day he might take the company over!! I have only heard “maybes” and “mights” on this subject.
In a changing world sail making, over the short time that I have been involved (professionally just over thirty years now), has changed considerably. Marc Fitzgerald, the skipper of Sojana, joked last week with Tin Tin, our renowned sail maker in Antigua, as we worked on the valve system on the Aramid/Carbon No 2 with inflatable battens, that “this time next year we’ll be plumbers."
My first introduction making sails as a child was Boker and Budds’ book. I believe that they were linked with Jeckel sails which is one of the oldest established sail makers in the UK. At Musto and Hydes at the age of eighteen, my first job was not a glamorous one, but I would observe with great interest our research department that would on a horizontal rig try sails, note changes, go sailing and then modify the mylinex patterns that were rolled and conserved. I can remember copying a competitor’s Merlin Rocket Spinnaker only to discover that this new ‘must’ was a copy of one of our own earlier models. In the seventies I suppose that not that much had changed since the earliest days. The materials were advancing which allowed for new shapes, but the technology was the same. A way of describing the change over the past thirty years is perhaps that sail making has become more of a science.
My early days with North Sails, I learnt the usage of the early design programs. These were powerful arithmetical tools that were appealing to someone like me that has had a good Mathematics back ground. To be honest, the biggest default was not as much the output from the program which from given points over a virtual shape would smooth curves and give arithmetical signs of bumps or flat spots. The problem was my input. Working keenly in isolation is not good enough. The designers in our group now rely on honest clear input but master their art and share information. We have a web-based design library with a common language which has improved the majority of the sail shapes we are putting on boats today.
The next stage for a number of projects was to go beyond defining sail shape only but to implement computer sail design and structural load analysis. Now the shape was right and the material distribution, patch size, etc, would be proportionate to give longevity and shape retention. This becomes the work of a designer who is specialized in his work. There are still ways to learn and for a young post graduate there are a number of openings.
My oldest son this summer did a three month paid post graduate study on the temperature mapping and control on the carbon heating blanket for 3DL. There are more engineers at present working on our development projects than perhaps there have been for the entire history of sail making. Through linked University projects we have a “twisted flow” wind tunnel, which accurately simulates differences in apparent wind speed and apparent
wind angle between deck level and the upper part of the rig. The virtual pressure mapping program is the current phase of development.
As a sail maker running a company such as North Sails Caribbean, I am not expected to be able to run these programs personally. These are available tools so we must understand their potential and their language. Projects now require different team members. For example, with an interesting project as the three Holland America Line ships, I worked in partnership with Ernst Looser from St Maarten, but also Brian Doyle, the cloth designer within our group out of Connecticut, and Andy Mitchel, our designer in Cape Town.
Sail making is not yet a dinosaur. Though our rotary molded sails, our 3DL sails or centralized production all are having a great affect on the business, in a service loft, the sail maker with scissors and awls still has his place. His need to fully understand the new materials and techniques is what has changed, and a sail maker’s choice to specialize in a given field is a new option in this trade. The thought that even after years you still learn something each day is a reality as soon as one travels and opens one’s eyes and mind as a sail maker.
So who wants to join me??
Andrew Dove is Area Manager for North Sails Caraibes, based in Guadeloupe.