Look at the Sailmaking Process

The basic tools of sailmaking are no longer the stuff of charm and tradition. Where bolts of sailcloth, spools of wax thread, and hides of tanned leather once filled corners of sail lofts, and old men with character lines in their faces and stories to tell worked their craft, there are now talented young men and women operating high-powered computers. Gone too are the large open wooden floors marked with awl holes and chalk marks with patterns drawn on the varnish and templates hanging on nearby hooks. Instead, there are laser cutters and plotting machines whirring quietly off to the side, while efficient workers assemble sails on lofting tables. I fell in love with the old sail lofts and wonder if I would have been as intrigued with the business of sails had I come upon it in recent years. Certainly something is missing, although then again nothing ever remains the same, and a loss for some has been a gain for others. Sailmaking has evolved and has made extraordinary gains since computers became readily available. Still, because of the nature of sailing and the infinite variety in the forces encountered out on the water, some art remains in the process. At least I choose to think so.

Despite the advances and no matter what the sail, the sailmaker's job remains the same: to take flat fabric and turn it into a three-dimensional aerodynamic foil that will hold its shape through a variety of wind conditions. Even with miracle fibers and computer programs this is no easy task given the number of variables. Fabrics that stretch, rigs that bend, and sailors with differing opinions of what looks right all make the job more complicated. It was only once the stretch characteristics of fabrics became predictable that sailmakers were able to build upon empirical data gained by experience. Up to that point they had to start anew with each new bolt of sailcloth since they had no idea how the fabric might stretch and how their design should compensate for this distortion. It was only after this variable was eliminated that they could begin to build upon the design information they already had. If a new luff curve or chord depth ratio proved faster, for example, that information could be repeated and improved upon. This incremental improvement eventually led to sails that were lighter, more efficient, more durable, and easier to use. But it took a long time, at least by modern standards, and could often be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest sailors. In fact, a benefit of modern technology is that, factoring in inflation, sails are actually cheaper today than they were a few decades ago, and they last longer.

The Quantum sail loft in Cape Town, South Africa, is a modern, high-tech facility that turns out quality sails for export around the world.

The Quantum sail loft in Cape Town, South Africa, is a modern, high-tech facility that turns out quality sails for export around the world.

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