“Overhead, the white sails stretched their arms to catch the night wind. They were my sails—my wings—
and they had brought me to the sea of my boyhood dreams.”
— William Robinson
Sailmakers have been catching the wind night and day since 3,500 B.C. Some of the first sailmakers were in Egypt. The Chinese started making sails in 3,000 BC. Using sails instead of oars caught on and spread from Egypt to Crete, Phoenicia and to mainland Greece. Early sailmakers made their sails of cloth, papyrus and even animal hides. The Greeks were the first to recognize sail-making as a trade around 1,200 B.C. By the mid-1400s the Western Europeans used square and lateen (triangular) sails combined with a deep-hull and stern-hung rudder to produce the deep-hulled carrack, a type of ship which incorporates the castle structures into the hull along with the basic rigging elements.
On the old wooden ships the sails were the only motive force, without them the ship was nothing more than a barge. When a sail tore in a storm, it was the sailmaker who was summoned to quickly repair it. Ashore the sail loft, the place where sails are made, in any port was a busy place. Onboard a wooden ship the sailmaker was held in very high esteem because it was his skill at making perfect stitches that could mean the difference between a blowing sail holding together or tearing apart at the worst possible time. But, being a good sailmaker involved more than just making good stitches. Most tall ship sailors believed certain types of stitching were lucky. Other types of stitching was considered unlucky and could bring disaster to a ship. The sailmaker had to be extremely careful that he always used the same kind of stitch. The superstition held that different types of stitches would become jealous of each other and pull out. Even the place where the sailmaker worked had some rules based on old superstitions. He knew never to sew sails on the quarterdeck which was the domain of the officers. To have officers stumbling over sails was indeed bad luck. The importance of the sailmaker on a tall ship was recognized in that on many ships the sailmaker did not have to stand watch.
In the Middle Peninsula and the Northern Neck 150 years ago sailmaking was an integral part of daily life. Sailmakers
like James Croom made sails in the Remlik area of Middlesex County. Fisherman sailed out to fish, oysterman sailed out in all sorts of boats, as the saying went “to catch the bank.” Beautiful powered skip jacks could be seen all over the bay. Modern sailmaking is vastly different from those days when majestic clipper ships raced across the seas. Many of the old techniques are still used but they are augmented with state-of-the-art computerized pattern making, cloth cutting and the lessons sailmakers have passed down through the centuries.
To learn how sails are made today we visited with Mr. Jerry Latell, master sailmaker and owner of Latell Sailmakers and Ullman Sails in Deltaville, Va. Latell runs his sail loft in Deltaville once reputed to be the wooden boat building capitol of the Chesapeake Bay. In the glory days of sailing, the sail loft was generally the second floor of the building. Boats were built on the ground level; their sails were made on the floor above. Latell’s modern sail loft is all on ground level with sewing machines in pits at the same level as the loft floor.
The process of tailoring a sail to a particular boat starts with Jerry having an in-depth interview with the boat owner. Jerry needs to know how the owner intends to use the boat. A sail boat that will spend its life on the bay requires a different type of sail than the same boat that would be going out to sea or even crossing the ocean. A racing sail is yet another type of sail utilizing special materials never used on conventional cruising craft. Once the type of sail is established, Jerry visits the boat to better understand precisely what he must design to provide the best sails for a particular boat. The sailmaker then goes back to his drawing board and creates a sail to do the job. Once the owner approves the design, it is entered into the design computer which creates a graphic rendering of the sail.
The approved design is then programmed into the cutting machine which cuts and marks the cloth that will then be sewn into a new sail. The full sail is laid out on the sail loft floor according to the computerized plan and the marking made on each piece during the cutting process is used to assemble the sail. Special sewing machines built into pits on the sail loft floor make it easier to sew the pieces together. Once the sail takes shape, the handwork begins much in the same way sails have been sewn for centuries.
The sailmakers at Latell Sailmakers designed and made the sails for the shallop Explorer built by the Deltaville Maritime Museum. The Explorer is a replica of the boat John Smith sailed in the area. The experience with the Explorer got Latell interested in creating sails for the Susan Constant. Latell’s main business is providing new sails for yachts and repairing existing sails.
Jerry Latell and his crew spent about 600 hours making the 4,000 square feet of authentic sails for the replica of the Susan Constant, the largest vessel of the three that brought the first settlers to the Jamestown Settlement in Jamestown, Va. When the USS Eagle, the 295 foot training ship of the US Coast Guard, needed many of her massive sails repaired, Jerry Latell and his crew were called upon to do the job. The 114 sailing vessel Ring Andersen2 was extensively repaired in Deltaville for a trip to France. When it came time to repair the sails, the job was awarded to Latell Sailmakers.
While the days of the sail-powered workboats are long gone, the era of sailing yachts is in full swing. Latell and his crew of six sailmakers spend hours kneeling on the sail loft floor, at the cutting table or in the sewing machine pits. Their skills make them sought after sailmakers. Whether he is making an experimental sail for his own 30 foot S2 sailboat, replacing a sail on a luxury sailing yacht or designing a slick mylar film sail for a racing yacht, Jerry Latell is a sailmaker schooled in the age old traditions of sailmaking who combines that skill with state-of-the-art computerized sailmaking technology. An avid racer, Latell competes in sailing yacht races testing his sailing skills and his sailmaking expertise.
Latell Sailmakers is affiliated with the nationally known Ullman Sails founded by the legendary sailor Dave Ullman, one of the world’s greatest competitive sailors and three-time 470 World Champion. Among Dave Ullman’s many accomplishments is being former coach of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team.