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Computers Design Sails as Lofts Adjust to Modern Times

Times Staff Writer

In keeping with the increasingly high-tech nature of the race to recapture the America’s Cup, many of the sails that Dennis Conner’s San Diego-based Sail America Foundation will use to fine-tune its Australian challenge have been designed on computers in North Sail’s San Diego loft.

North Sail’s computer-aided designers can “create” sails and monitor their performance on a computer screen, using a software program that “races” the sails under varying wind conditions. A computer-driven cutting machine then speedily cuts sails that are sewn together with powerful, hydraulically powered sewing machines.

Sailmakers have turned to technology to survive in a dwindling market.

New sailboat construction, which generates as much as 75% of the industry’s revenue, has fallen by 40% over the last five years, according to the results of a survey conducted by the St. Paul, Minn.-based Sailmakers Institute, an organization funded by sailcloth makers.

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That lull in new-hull construction hit as lower-cost, foreign-made sails were starting to take the wind out of domestic sailmakers’ sales.

Setbacks in Market

Offshore lofts, led by manufacturers in Hong Kong and Taiwan, have recorded revenue that jumped by 71% to $7.2 million between 1981 and 1984, according to Sailmakers Institute.

Those setbacks occurred in a market in which “there are fewer people buying sails and more (lofts) splitting the business,” observed Gary Weisman, manager of North Sails’ San Diego loft.

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Nationally, increasing competition for shrinking markets forced many sailmakers to band together in multiloft associations that provide improved buying and marketing efficiencies that generate profit margins.

Although the San Diego Yellow Pages list a dozen sail lofts, the four major sailmakers--including North Sails (which operates a pair of lofts in its Shelter Island building), Sobstad, Ullman and Hood--are either owned by or affiliated with a national or international sail-making company.

Although that industry consolidation has helped many sailmakers stay in business, it also has changed the way sails are made.

Legendary sailor and sailmaker Lowell North, who opened the first of his worldwide string of 30 lofts in San Diego in 1961, turned to computer-aided design and manufacturing after an associate witnessed General Motors’ use of computers to design and build cars.

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The San Diego loft’s specially designed hardware and software packages “paid for themselves in the first year” through reduced design and labor costs, said Weisman. He added that the computer revolution has helped trim the cost of sails--some of which cost as much as $10,000.

High-Cost Machines

Even the lower-tech end of the business has grown expensive. Weisman said North has paid as much as $18,000 for sewing machines that use hydraulic power to help punch through the tough materials used to make sails.

Although that kind of technology has boosted North’s overhead costs, the technology has helped boost the company’s San Diego revenue to about $2.3 million during 1985, said Weisman, who also acknowledged that profit margins have been shrinking.

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“During the 1970s North’s lofts were growing quickly,” he said. “It’s easy to make money with that kind of rapid growth. But when you’re not growing as fast, it’s harder to make money.”

Additionally, higher overhead generated by North’s 20,000-square-foot loft and 40-person work force means that “on a retail basis, we’re usually more expensive (than) the smaller lofts (which) generally compete with us on price,” Weisman said. “So there’s a lot of price wars and (profit) gouging” in San Diego.

Surprisingly, perhaps, North’s San Diego loft, which has built a worldwide reputation for its racing sails, has weathered the local slowdown by selling nearly 75% of its sails to out-of-town and foreign sailors.

Although North’s other lofts are equally capable, Weisman said, some sailors prefer the San Diego loft’s craftsmanship, even when foreign currency relationships make the sails more expensive.

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Bob Henderson, who recently was chased from Shelter Island by skyrocketing rent payments--has survived at his Kettner Boulevard loft by crafting traditional sails such as the courses, gallants and royals that soon will power the Star of India when it sails from its anchorage at the Embarcadero.

Traditional Sails

“I’m not in competition with North because they can’t do what I do,” said Henderson, who occasionally gets referrals from North and other sailmakers that don’t make traditional sails.

Although Henderson said his revenue has held steady, he observed that the number of “tire kickers” has fallen off. “You just don’t get as many people coming in off the street to merely look,” he said.

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And sailors who don’t require the extra edge created by using tailor-made sails have been turning to foreign-made sails, which “for the money, aren’t that bad,” as another sailmaker acknowledged.

Still, even though computers have driven North’s success, owners of smaller lofts maintain that their accumulated knowledge of sail design obviates the need for expensive technology.


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