Few enterprises, it would seem, are more timeless than the ancient art of sailmaking.
But the industry that once thrived in Southern California, and in Orange County in particular, is undergoing perhaps its period of greatest change since the development of the triangular sail made the galley slave and his oar obsolete.
"It's very cutthroat out there, an ugly scene," said Joan Woodbury, part owner of Baxter & Cicero Sailmakers Inc. in Newport Beach.
First, many of the area's sailboat builders fled California's high labor and land costs and shortage of boat slips and went to Florida in the late 1970s, curtailing local demand for sails for new boats.
And now, competition from Asian sailmakers has combined with a relatively strong dollar and a decline in sailboat sales to buffet the industry and threaten the existence of sailmakers remaining in Orange County.
'Tough Time Competing'
The industry "is having a tough time competing with Hong Kong," said Seth Morrell, president of Ulmer Kolius Sailmakers, a Connecticut company whose loft in the Cannery Village area of Newport Beach is at the center of the county's surviving sail industry.
To improve their chances of staying alive, Kolius and other sailmakers have diversified or found a specialized niche.
Baxter & Cicero now sells sportswear and canvas products such as luggage. "If it wasn't for that, we would have been out of business a long time ago," Woodbury said.
With 23 lofts around the world, Kolius can realize substantial savings in purchasing, Morrell said. Even so, the company said it is "exploring a Hong Kong connection."
"Hong Kong sails can be 30%-50% cheaper because of labor," said Greg Nelson, sales manager of Hood Sailmakers Inc. in Costa Mesa, which has diversified into the manufacture of furling equipment for sails.
"The business has thinned and gotten more competitive," Nelson said. "There are more, smaller operations."
One such operation is Kern's Sails of Costa Mesa. Kern Ferguson and his wife, Jodene, have built a steady business making custom sails, principally for cruising boats. Ferguson has been able to stay competitive by renting another sailmaker's loft at night to do the measuring and cutting. He then brings the pieces home where his wife sews them together and completes the fittings. Last year, the couple's business grossed $60,000.
Getting a new suit of sails is an expensive present for your boat.
Kevlar Costs More
A set of three Dacron sails for a 42-foot cruising sailboat costs about $7,500. Sails utilizing some of the newer, more exotic materials like Kevlar could double the cost.
Kevlar, a synthetic fiber five times stronger than steel, also is used to make bulletproof vests. Racing sailors prefer Kevlar because it does not stretch, holding its shape better than Dacron, a polyester cloth.
Other exotic materials seem likely to appear soon. Researchers "are constantly working in labs to develop new fabrics," said Steve Andrews, traffic manager at Neil Pryde USA in Stanton. Pryde makes all its sails in Hong Kong but Andrews said that cheaper labor there is not as big a factor as people might think. More important to Pryde, he said, is that Hong Kong taxes are low and the colony imposes few restrictions and requirements on businesses.
Although American manufacturers universally contend their quality and service is better than that offered by Hong Kong companies, some concede that such an edge may not be worth much. "To the average sailor, (Hong Kong) quality probably looks pretty good; (the sail) is white and has three corners," said Greg Nelson, sales manager at the Costa Mesa shop of Hood Sailmakers Inc., which is headquartered in Marblehead, Mass.
High Tech Business
Like just about every other industry from aircraft assembly to zipper-making, sailmaking has gone high tech.
Almost all sailmakers use computers to design sails and thus are able to produce in minutes a print-out that shows the exact dimensions of a new sail, where to make the cuts and where to put the grommets and fittings.
"It's more efficient," explained Dave Ullman, owner of Ullman Sails Inc., which also has a loft in the Cannery Village section of Newport Beach. With the push of a few keys on his computer, Ullman can call up a sail display which shows where every stitch is to be made.
For centuries, sail panels have been sewn together. But that time-consuming practice seems likely to disappear soon as stronger glues are developed, said Morrell.
Still, a sailmaking loft today has the look of a timeless enterprise as workers measure, cut and pin down panels on the wood floors. Sailmaking operations almost always are in the lofts of industrial buildings because they need a large, beam-free floor space.
With the competitive pressures and slackening sales of sailboats, the sailmaking industry in Orange County seems likely to diminish further. "Ten years ago, things were really booming," said Don McKibbin, owner of McKibbin Sails Inc. in Irvine. "It's very uncertain now."
There is one bright light in the sailing picture. Sailboards, a modified surfboard with a sail attached, have experienced a phenomenal gain in popularity with an estimated 50,000 sold last year, said Frank Scalpone, executive vice president of the National Marine Manufacturers Assn., the Chicago-based industry trade group.
But American sailmakers failed to capitalize on the growth of sailboarding, or wind-surfing, and most of the sails for the boards are made where most other sails are made--in Hong Kong.
Jeff Rowe is a free-lance writer.