Features February 1, 1999 Issue

What’s Going On With Sailmakers?

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the major sailmakers have undergone considerable reorganization in recent years, including establishment of offshore facilities that offer low-cost sails to the sailor willing to take his own measurements. Through extensive interviews with sailmakers and their customers, we size up the state of the industry.

During our recent cruises through boat shows and seminars, we were surprised that changes in sailmaking are occurring as rapidly as consolidations in the banking industry. Sailmakers claim that technological changes in the construction of sail fabric are producing better products. Do these changes bode well for the consumer? Some people may be confused by all the hype about new fabrics, designs, manufacturing and distribution.

The good news is that manufacturing sails is not a dark science. It is possible to make a good purchase decision by doing a modest amount of homework.

Sailmakers are pursuing the cruiser market and most, we were happy to note, advocate the use of Dacron rather than the high-priced racing laminates. If you’ve bought the hype that laminates are appropriate for everyday use, and worth the money, we think you’ve been misled.

Here’s the PS take on the market.

The Shape of the Industry
Once a business dominated by independent, locally owned and operated lofts, the sailmaking industry is completing an evolutionary process that has resulted in the ascendancy of five companies (North Sails, Sobstad, UK Sailmakers, Doyle Sailmakers, and the Quantum Sail Design Group), and four types of organizations. The most prominent are, a) centrally located companies like North Sails, Hood and Sobstad, which produce their own fabric, design and manufacture sails at central locations, and ship them to lofts that are primarily sales and repair facilities, or directly to customers; b) similarly structured organizations, like UK Sails, Doyle and Quantum, that purchase fabric from several manufacturers, have a centralized design facility but locally owned production and service lofts; c) direct marketers like Quest (a subsidiary of Quantum Sailmakers), Cruising Direct (a subsidiary of North Sails), and JSI (Johnson Sails, Inc.) of Florida, which market mail-order sails, often at prices as much as 25% lower than the typical loft, and which are taking a large slice of the non-racing pie; d) the rapidly disappearing, locally owned loft that focuses on sales, production and service in a small geographic area.

All agree that North is #1 in total sales. Because some firms were unwilling to provide sales figures, and some figures included international sales, it’s difficult to identify #2 in the U.S., though Doyle ($10 million), Quantum ($8 million) and UK ($6 million), are all in the hunt. Hood, with nine U.S. lofts, has domestic sales of $2-1/2 million; most of its business is now in Europe.

Companies have been restructuring in an effort to improve efficiency, which directly impacts the bottom line. We were told by Jim Allsopp of the Chesapeake North loft, for instance, that his company began converting its lofts to service centers four years ago because “most of our production occurred in three months of the year but the overhead goes on for 12 months, and there was tremendous duplication of effort.”

North’s response was to centralize the design of sails in Maryland, where computers store a database of information on most production boats. Actual sailmaking occurs in three lofts and orders are shipped to the loft that can most quickly produce a sail. The final product is shipped to one of 40 local lofts for delivery. If necessary, recutting and warranty work is handled at the local level. The local reps now are primarily responsible for sales, working directly with customers, measuring boats and handling warranty issues.

Sobstad has been going through a similar metamorphosis for the past three years, following President Peter Conrad’s conclusion that a sail loft could “no longer afford to be in the business of tuning rigs and training people how to sail.” The founder of Sobstad in 1972, Conrad pioneered the concept of seamless laminated sails with the development of Genesis fabric built of Dacron and synthetic films, and a patented “load distribution” system that the company says produces stronger, more efficient sails for racing.

But Conrad believes that 90% of the market lies with cruisers, so his company is focusing on providing “top-end sails for a discriminating constituency that is looking for value.” The key, he said, is, “We must pay attention to detail in the beginning of the process because we can’t afford to re-work a sail.”

During the company’s transition, what once was a nationwide distribution system has been whittled to three lofts that focus on marketing laminated Genesis sails to the racers’ market; cruising sails marketed by Sobstad from its Georgia headquarters; and by JSI. The two companies formed a joint marketing venture in 1994 that couples both firms’ sailmaking experience—Sobstad’s manufacturing process and JSI’s 50-year history as a catalogue marketing operation. Dacron cruising sails, constructed of Challenge Sailcloth, are cut at Johnson’s facility in Florida. Sobstad’s Georgia plant produces laminated fabrics and racing sails.

UK Sailmakers, Doyle Sailmakers and Quantum have adopted many of the new-age design and construction techniques of their largest competitors, while maintaining three important characteristics of the traditional distribution system: Independence from fabric manufacturing, local ownership of lofts, and local service.

A bastion of the industry, UK was formed in 1946 as Ulmer Sails by Charles Ulmer. It operates today under the stewardship of Ulmer’s son, Butch, a 1950 graduate of Annapolis who joined the firm in 1965 and took over the reins in 1969. The company pioneered the use of computers in sail design by using a program similar to that employed by Sparkman and Stephens in developing the CCA rule. It was also the first to franchise lofts when, in 1973, it opened 28 nationwide, including a shop in Houston owned by John Kolius. Following his successful America’s Cup campaign in 1983, Kolius became co-owner of the company and his name was added to the company letterhead. He left the firm three years later.

UK’s focus is on marketing its patented “Air Frame” technology for Tape Drive sails. According to Ulmer, construction with the 10-year-old Tape Drive concept places reinforcements in heavy load areas to resist stretch and failures. Fourteen locally owned lofts represent UK in the U.S.

Though more expensive than Dacron sails, the company’s focus in the cruising market parallels its approach to the racing market. Though UK will build a traditional, cross-cut Dacron sail, they are something of an exception among the big firms by still pushing laminated cruising sails of Kevlar, Technora and Spectra.

Doyle Sailmakers shares similarities with both UK and Quantum. Formed in 1982 by Robbie Doyle, who had been in charge of North American sailmaking for Hood Sailmakers, the company experienced a rapid growth spurt by affiliating with lofts throughout the country, then it retrenched, and now is re-expanding its North American operations.

“We found that we had to standardize everything we do in order to produce a consistent product,” Doyle said, “so we encouraged several lofts unable to accept the standardization to find other homes.”

Doyle maintains a full-time cloth analyst at its headquarters in Marblehead, Massachusetts, as well as a loft coordinator who oversees operations at 11 lofts and coordinates purchases of sail components. “This way, we don’t have excess fabric, battens or sail hardware sitting on shelves,” Doyle said. Four professional sailors contribute to sail development and testing, and a designer produces computerized sail plans.

Doyle advocates Dacron sails for cruising boats (which account for roughly 50% of the company’s sales), and the development of low-cost alternatives for casual sailors.

“I think Dacron is the best fabric for cruising sails because of improvements in the quality of weaving machines and the ability to shrink polyester to produce tight weaves,” he said. “Laminates just don’t have the long-term staying power of Dacron.”

He also was a pioneer in the development of an offshore production facility. His company owns DuraSails, a loft in Barbados established to utilize Doyle technology in the construction of sails sold at prices lower than conventional products. Boats are measured by loft sales representatives, designed in Marblehead and constructed of Challenge High Modulus Dacron in Barbados. The Barbados loft, which also produces sails for several other distributors, produces half of the company’s business. Warranty issues rest with local lofts, however.

The Quantum Group consists of three partners, one on each coast and a third on the Gulf Coast, who were three of the five principal manufacturers in the Sobstad operation. Disgruntled with the direction Sobstad was headed, they formed the company in September, 1996. In 1997, they reported $6 million in sales.

Like UK, Quantum derives sales from three production lofts, as well as 22 independently owned franchise lofts that provide local support. David Flynn of Quantum Atlantic in Annapolis Maryland, told PS that franchisees operate under an agreement that details operating aspects ranging from the method of building and pricing sails to the type of graphics allowed on the company van.

Flynn said that the guts of Quantum is the experience of the firm’s principals in design and construction, much of which was learned on the race course, and proprietary software used to match sail shapes with their intended use. Like North and UK, design starts at the local level, where measurements are taken by a Quantum representative, after which sails are designed at one of the manufacturing centers. Once cut, sail panels are shipped to local lofts for final assembly, installation and, when necessary, recutting. Repairs and warranty issues are dealt with locally.

From a consumer’s standpoint, UK, Doyle and Quantum may have the edge on the competition because of their ability to act independently in a given situation by purchasing the newest products from all of the major fabric manufacturers. This means it is free of the temptation to sell sails made of outdated fabric. Quantum also offers local service, which is reflected in its pricing.

The Low-Cost Alternative
Because direct mail and discount houses have appeared in virtually all other areas of retail sales, it was only a matter of time before the concept would appear in the sailmaking industry. North Sails’ entry into the marketplace, Cruising Direct Sails, operates in an office in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, under the direction of Steve Gilbert. The Quantum offshoot, Quest, is managed by Bill O’Malley from its Annapolis office.

Gilbert’s operation started in August, 1996, with the intent of responding to the needs of owners of 35-foot and smaller boats, “self-help types looking for a no-frills sail, who tell us they don’t spend enough money to warrant good service, or who are intimidated by the racer mentality of the big lofts,” including, presumably, parent company North.

To maintain the high-volume (400 sails in 1997), low-cost approach, Gilbert said there is little client-sales contact. Instead, he provides customers with a Sail Buyer’s Guide that assists in the establishment of an owner’s goals and budget, and includes a system for measuring the boat. He then provides quotations and fabric samples. Polyester sails are constructed of North’s proprietary fabric, NorDac, which is manufactured in 4- to 8-ounce weights.

Designs are simple, crosscut mains and genoas, radial genoas and tri-radial gennakers. “We are building simple, basic sails, no full-length battens, one reef point,” Gilbert said. Sail numbers and insignias are extra.

About concerns expressed regarding direct mail operations, he said, “The key to the process is getting good measurements.” To date, he told us, less than 1% of the sales produced have been returned, all due to measuring errors.

Once the sail is made, service becomes the responsibility of the nearest North loft. North’s warranty states it will handle problems at its expense, except the owner’s measuring errors. The key benefit is significant cost savings. A mainsail for a 30-foot production boat was priced at $1,413 by North, and $975 by Cruising Direct.

Quantum’s approach with Quest is similar to North’s but with a couple of interesting wrinkles. First, sails are constructed of Challenge high modulus polyester; a Cunningham and reef point are standard on all mainsails; and full-length battens are an option. Second, sails are designed using Quantum software, ordered over the Internet and constructed in South Africa. Third, in conjunction with the announcement that West Marine is distributing Quest sails, the company announced an unconditional 60-day trial period, during which a new sail can be returned for any reason, and a two year warranty program, with Quantum lofts providing service.

Pricing for Quest sails probably will be lower than Quantum sails, and higher than those offered by Cruising Direct Sails because of the margins required by the middleman West Marine and because it appears that Quest is offering higher quality fabrics and hardware.

We evaluated the instructional materials provided by Quest, Cruising Direct and JSI, and consider them to be clear, concise, well-illustrated and understandable. Several owners who purchased sails via mail told us that the measuring process, supplemented by sailmakers available on toll-free telephone, was fairly straightforward. Another commented that he made several calls and was treated courteously.

Evaluating Sail Fabrics
Attempting to understand the jargon of the sailmaking industry is not much different than trying to decipher the language of the personal computer world. We’ve seen the eyes of sailors glaze over as a sailmaker attempted to explain the difference between “warp” and “fill” (the directions threads run in a roll of fabric), and “denier” (a unit of fineness equal to the fineness of a yarn weighing 1 gram for each 9,000 meters; big numbers produce heavy sails).

For most of us, there’s only a handful of terms that are important when evaluating sail fabric—initial modulus, a material’s ability to resist stretch; tenacity, the measurement of the load necessary to break a fiber; and flex, the number of times a sail can be folded before the fabric begins to deteriorate. The most important factor in making a sail perform is the ability to trim it to its designed shape on various points of sail over its useful life. Inexpensive fabrics stretch under load or break more quickly than higher quality fabrics.

Armed with this basic information, your criteria in selecting the type of fabric to be used should be based on several factors: a) the type of boat you sail (heavy vs. light displacement); b) typical wind conditions (you’ll never hoist a 150% genoa in San Francisco in July, but you can’t do without one on the Chesapeake); c) the number of days you sail every year (which will determine the useful life of the sail); and d) your budget.

Perhaps the most dramatic development in the sailmaking industry occurred with the introduction by DuPont of Dacron, polyester threads woven tightly to produce a durable, stable fabric that replaced cotton. Polyester sails are 1,000% more stretch-resistant than cotton, as well as being stronger and lighter.

But because polyester will stretch over time, fabric manufacturers continued their search for a more stable product, which resulted in the introduction of Mylar in the 1970’s. Mylar, a synthetic film, was laminated to woven polyester to lock in the sail’s designed shape. However, in high winds the laminates distorted and eventually failed. That resulted in the development of Kevlar, a bulletproof product that is totally unsuitable for cruising purposes because it deteriorates quickly when exposed to UV radiation, and has a short flex life.

The newest, most appropriate laminated product available to cruising sailors is Vectran, whose primary characteristics are the retention of shape, durability, flex life, resistance to UV radiation, and reduction in weight aloft. Unfortunately, in the short run, these improvements come at a cost that is two to four times that of traditional polyester. However, they also provide better shapes and boat performance. North’s 3DL and Sobstad’s Genesis, both patented fabrics, are laminates with similar characteristics. 3DL, however, has proven inappropriate for the average cruiser, and Genesis, though longer lasting, is also best suited for the race course.

Conclusions
The past four years’ of change in the sailmaking industry are mirror-images of those that occurred in most other areas of American industry. They reflect a tremendously competitive marketplace in which consumers are driving the demand for high quality and low prices. The entire industry seemed to realize concurrently the need for changes at all levels. It could no longer have production facilities that were idle 75% of the time. It needed standardization and computerization of sail design rather than the intuitive approach taken in past decades, and it needed efficient marketing and service facilities.

If you’re a consumer looking for value, the first thing you should remember is that you’ve been pumping your own gas for the past 15 years. Gas station attendants have all but disappeared.

It’s still possible to find a sailmaker who will provide boat inspection, rig measurements, rig tuning and on-the-water assistance. In most cases, however, if you’re not a racing customer, that type of attention comes at a significant price, either in a flat charge or higher priced product.

Of the choices in the marketplace, we think the Quantum, Doyle and UK approach may be best suited to the needs of the average sailor. We all will benefit from the grand prix expertise of the loft staff, their design system, which is used for sails at all price levels, and their independence from a single cloth manufacturer. The downside is that the sales staff, like the other major players, is race oriented, which can be intimidating if you’re looking for a jib for a family boat.

But if you own a production boat and are looking for a moderately priced sail, the direct marketers are well worth considering. You must, of course, overcome the inherent risk inherent in measuring your own boat, and you need to communicate your requirements to the loft. If you can, you should get a good sail for less money.

One also shouldn’t forget his local sailmaker. His prices may be higher, but to compensate he should be providing faster, more personal service.

While it once may have been thought that laminated sails were equally suited for the cruiser, the laminates haven’t yet proven their long-term durability in the cruising marketplace, and are too expensive for most sailors.

Most sailmakers are unequivocal in their endorsement of new, high quality Dacron fabrics.

In the long run, it’s important to acknowledge that your boat’s real engine isn’t the mechanical beast down below. It’s the fabric overhead that powers you into the sunset. Buying and maintaining an efficient suit of sails will increase your enjoyment of sailing and will add value when it’s time to sell.


Contacts- Cruising Direct Sails, 200 Highpoint Ave., Suite B-1, Portsmouth, RI 02871; 888/424-7328. Doyle Sailmakers, 89 Front St., Marblehead, MA 01945; 617/639-1490. Hood Sailmakers, 23 Johnnycake Hill, Middletown, RI 02842; 800/888-4106. JSI, 3000 Gandy Blvd., St. Petersburg, FL 33742; 800/234-3220. North Sails, North Marine Group, 9 Research Dr., Suite 2, Milford, CT 06460; 203/874-7548. Quantum International, 951 Bay Ridge Rd., Annapolis, MD 21403; 800/711-6996. Quest/West Marine, 10125 Westlake Dr., Suite 581, Charlotte, NC 28273; 888/254-7245. Sobstad, 1500 Air Industrial Pk., Greensboro, GA 30642; 800/577-5888. UK Sailmakers International, 175 City Island Ave., City Island, NY 10464; 718/885-2028.

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