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You're a what? Sailmaker.

Amidst the artifacts of ancient Egypt found in London's British Museum is a piece of pottery that depicts one of the Pharaoh's galleys under full sail. This relic, dating from around 2500 B.C., is the earliest evidence we have to document the use of sail power. It also affirms the ancient heritage of a profession and craft that still flourishes at the waterhs edge--sailmaking.

The sails of linen, canvas, and even bamboo that caught the wind and powered the galleys, schooners, dhows, and junks of many civilizations are rarely seen today. Synthetic fabrics have taken their place. But the sails are still designed, cut, and sewn under the watchful eyes of the sailmakers. It's their job to shape the sails so that they can attain the most aerodynamic profile. To determine this, a sailmaker must know how a sail will behave under certain conditions. The characteristics of the boat and her particular equipment must be considered as well as the conditions of the wind and sea where she'll be doing most of her sailing. And, ideally, the sailmaker must have some knowledge about the owner of the boat and what's really wanted from the sail.

The 1984 Sailboat and Equipment Directory lists over 200 sailmakers in the United States and Canada. To find out what goes on in one of these modern "sail lofts," we visited Bruce Empey, sailmaker and consultant with Hood Sails in Annapolis, Marland.

OOQ: How did you first become involved in sailmaking?

Empey: It was a natural offshoot of my love for sailing. When I was growing up, the father of a close friend ran a sail loft where I worked part time. When I completed school, I worked at a number of things, sailed extensively, and finally decided to return home and concentrate on one thing. I chose to return to the lofts. I began as a bench-worker in the loft and worked my way up.

OOQ: Do sail lofts specialize in particular kinds of sails?

Empey: In a way, yes. There are lofts where production is oriented towards "weekend sailors," those whose boats are of a one-design class under 25 fett. Sails for these boats are subject to fairly strict rules and requirements on the exact dimensions of the sail. There are other lofts, such as ours, which cater to a much broader spectrum of boats, let's say keelboats over 25 feet. With these boats, sail choice and design are more varied, as are the owner's needs and desires.

OOQ: Is it your job as a sailmaker to help the boat owner determine what these needs are?

Empey: This is a very service-oriented business and sails can represent a very considerable investment. For a 30-foot cruiser, they may cost as much as $7,000. There are also many variables to consider, so customers naturally seek some advice. I'm not just a sailmaker. I'm also a consultant.

OOQ: What are some of the variables you must consider?

Empey: Initially, I have to ascertain what kind of sailing the boat owner will be doing--whether cruising or racing--because the answer dictates what kind of sailcloth would be best for the owner's particular needs. Different cloths have different characteristics. There is a constant battle between the stretch of the cloth and its longevity. The cloth with the least stretch has the shortest life. It is also the fastest cloth and naturally preferred by racers.

OOQ: After you make these determinations, what's next?

Empey: Actually, the next step is paperwork. We're a small business, in effect a small manufacturing business, and like any other we have to attend to administrative details and arrange our production schedule accordingly. After this, we move into the design of the sail, in both two and three dimensions.

OOQ: Can you explain the difference for us?

Empey: At the drafting table, we draw the two-dimensional shape of the sail, which is called the profile. We determine how many panels will be in the sail. Sailcloth comes in a 36-inch width. So if you have a sail 36 feet tall, it will have 12 panels. We look at other details as well, such as what kind of edging and rings the sail will have. When the profile is determined, we look at the three-dimensional aspects of the sail. This third dimension is called camber. By this I mean the shape and fullness of the sail.

OOQ: Do you put your drafting skills to work here also?

Empey: To an extent, but the industry is becoming much more technically advanced. In times past we would make the sail, photograph it, sail with it, examine its performance, and then head back to the loft and recut it. But what used to be done by trial and error can now be done with computers. The computer enables us to look at the three-dimensional shape of a sail and take into account different areas of stress and the different qualities of cloth. We can try new ideas and experiment with different cuts before the sail is even made.

OOQ: After the sailcloth is selected and the two- and three-dimensional designs completed, what's the next stage?

Empey: What follows is the actual sailmaking, which takes from 5 to 7 working days. This is a team effort. Once the design is complete, the floor-workers take over. First, they the lay the profile of the sail on the floor with tape. Then the cloth is rolled out and the panels cut and arranged. The following day the sails are seamed by stitchers. At this stage, we incorporte the camber into the sail by the carful shaping of the seams and the edges. Once the stitchers have completed their work, they are followed by the bench workers who sew reinforcing patches into the corners. The patches are included to accommodate the varying degrees of stress to which the different parts of the sail will be subjected. Finally, the finishers go to work. They put on the edging tapes and complete the points of attachment.

OOQ: This production work in the loft sounds like and real education for aspiring sailmakers.

Empey: Doing is the best way to learn. It's also important to be an accomplished sailor in order to understand how a sail behaves under differing conditions of wind and sea.

OOQ: Are there any other special qualities or skills necessary for the job?

Empey: I guess it requires a certain amouth of chutzpah and a fair amount of native intelligence. If you're interested, you'll do it. A knowledge of

physics and aerodynamics can't hurt. Good drafting skills can e valuable too. It's also important to remember that sailmaking is not only a profession and a craft but a small business as well. Not only do we have to turn out a good product, we have to manage our resources effectively.

OOQ: How's the pay in a sail loft?

Empey: You're not going to be rich. Our production workers start off at a little above the minimum wage. With experience, that sum naturally increases. A sailmarker or consultant may make anywhere from $16,000 to $30,000 with salary and commissions.

OOQ: Any disadvantages to the job?

Empey: This is a very service-oriented, hands-on job that can require a lot of hours. Aside from the time spent in design and production, we also do repair work. As with any business, we have to promote our product effectively. Weekends are the busiest time on the water so it's important that we be available. But, there are tradeoffs with every job. Though the hours may be long, I get to do a lot of what I like best. I get to sail.
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Title Annotation:interview with sailmaker Bruce Empey of Annapolis, Maryland
Author:Stanton, Mike
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 22, 1984
Words:1277
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