Art of the Sail
May 11, 2011
While the centuries-old art of sailmaking has changed dramatically in the last 30 years thanks to high-tech materials and computer-assisted design and modeling, it still takes craftsmen with a working knowledge of boats, wind and water to get it right—especially when it comes to building a sail to match a specific boat or set of sailing requirements.
An example of this blending of old and new is Sperry Sails of Marion, Massachusetts. Founded 35 years ago by Steve Sperry, the company is managed today by Steve’s nephew and principal sail designer Ben Sperry, who has continued the tradition of blending old-school know-how with modern sailmaking technology and tools. Sperry also specializes in custom marine canvas, rigging and sail inspection, and sail wash, repair and storage, but the company’s main focus has always been sailmaking.
Ben and the rest of the crew who work in the wooden 2-story loft (made from pine milled by Steve Sperry) tucked into a side street not far from the Marion waterfront pride themselves on working closely with their customers to get a sense of their individual needs. Ben grew up around boats, and remains an avid sailor and racer. Part of his job as a master sailmaker involves working one-on-one with clients to design the ideal sail for their needs. Sometimes that means spending a day aboard the customer’s boat or chatting at length over the phone. It can be time-consuming—and often fun—work, but it’s a key part of the sailmaking process.
Once the initial information has been gathered, Ben sits down at his drafting table and begins plotting the dimensions of the sail using those most basic tools of the trade—pencil, paper and ruler. The numbers are then entered into a computer program, which presents a virtual model of the sail and the boat’s rigging, so that Ben can see how the sail will perform under a variety of scenarios based on the material, boat type, wind conditions and other variables. The program also reveals certain stress points on the sail where reinforcements will need to be added.
When the sail design is finalized, the computer-generated model is broken up into individual panels and the data is sent to another computer connected to an automated cutting table in the loft. A section of the chosen sail material, which is stored on large rolls, is placed on the long table and unrolled to the desired length. Then a vacuum is applied to remove any wrinkles from the material. Once activated, the automated cutter whirs into action, moving with remarkable speed and ensuring a perfect cut and a minimum of wasted material.
Once all of the sail panels have been cut, they are laid out on the loft floor, connected with 2-sided tape and sewn together using a pneumatic, air-cooled sewing machine that can handle even the thickest material. Reinforcement panels are sewn into the sail at specific stress points, followed by extraneous hardware and items such as telltales, reef points, sail slides, internal ropes and webbing. When the sail has been completed and inspected, it is rolled up, packed in a bag and shipped off to the customer.
Sperry ships sails all over the world, although the majority of their customers are located in New England. Of course, that only makes sense for a company that has built a reputation on bringing hands-on sailing experience and personalized customer support to the modern sailmaking process.
New England Boating Video:
For more information:
- Sperry Sails
- 11 Marconi Lane in Marion, Massachusetts.
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