It's Smooth Sailing for Textile Firm : * Boating: Although the industry is shrinking, the owner of a Costa Mesa importer of sailcloth says business is growing for him.


This is a nautical neighborhood, this wedge of territory at the southern edge of Costa Mesa just a few blocks inland from Newport Harbor, a batch of lower-middle-class neighborhoods sprinkled with ships' chandlers and sailmakers and boat builders. The air here is laden with salt.

It's only natural that Mark Olson would have his office here, too. Mark Olson Textiles is one of the largest importers of sailcloth in the United States. Not bad for a guy who operates out of a tiny office with a couple of desks, some pictures of sailboats on the wall and a receptionist.

But that's the sail business for you. The worldwide industry probably does no more than $150 million in sales a year. By comparison, personal computer manufacturers sold $51 billion worth of products last year in the United States alone.

That's not to say sails are cheap. A mainsail (that's pronounced mains'l by those in the know) for a 40-foot boat costs $1,500. That's for a sail made of Dacron fiber, the everyday fabric of sailmakers. A big sale made from a high-tech material such as Kevlar--the same tough fiber used in bulletproof vests--can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Kevlar does not stretch as much as Dacron, so in a race it can be yanked very tight to catch as much wind as possible. That's no little advantage in big-time racing where an edge as small as a 10th of a knot can mean the difference between winning and losing.

The new stuff is about as far from plain old traditional canvas as you can get. But even Kevlar will stretch if you tug on it hard enough, and serious racers must replace their sails twice a year or more.

Olson, 42, did not know how to pronounce mainsail like an old salt either when he started hanging around the Newport Beach docks as a child. A guy was sanding his boat one day when young Olson stopped to watch. When the guy asked if he wanted to help, Olson said he did. He raced competitively while a student at Cal State Fullerton. After college, he sold Hobie Cat sailboats and then sails.

Making sails is a New England business, tracing its history back to Colonial times. All four of the big U.S. sailcloth makers are in New England. Olson, on the other hand, is a native of Orange County. But he had that New England preppie-sailor look down pat one recent day: a dark-blue V-neck sweater, conservative but casual; tattersall shirt; deck shoes.

Olson spends just about every other weekend on a sailboat. But it's mostly for business.

"It's work," says Olson, not entirely convincingly. "I'm with customers, and that takes up most of my time because the customer always comes first."

Most of his customers are either rich yachtsmen or sail lofts, worldwide. Sail lofts are the industry's retailers and the places where sails are cut and sewn. There are 17 of them from Marina del Rey to San Diego. And the biggest market for sailboats and sailing equipment is not California but Florida.

It's a business that has hit some shoals on both coasts, however. The boating business, in fact, is shrinking. Take, for instance, the neighborhood where Olson has his office: It was once home to a raft of well-known sailboat-builders such as Columbia and Islander. But Florida lured most of them to the East Coast years ago, and many of them have since gone under. They left behind the cabinetmakers and repair shops that still dot the neighborhood today.

Olson and others lay part of the blame on the 10% federal luxury tax that applies to expensive boats and cars. The recession has been an even bigger factor in slumping sales of boats.

But there's more to it than that, because the sail business has been in the doldrums for nearly 10 years, some people in the industry acknowledge. One major reason: Boats are so technically advanced these days that they have become hugely expensive.

"The sail business was never that big, but it's been shrinking dramatically for the last 10 years," says Peter Mahr, president of North Cloth in Milford, Conn., the nation's largest producer of sailcloth.

"And that's largely because the cost of owning a boat has gone through the roof."

That's especially true for racing boats, whose designers often borrow technology and materials from the aerospace companies that make rockets and jets.

At the same time, most people who already own a boat aren't trading up to bigger ones anymore. That means slow times for boat builders, the biggest buyers of sails.

"The expense is one reason racing is dying," Olson says. "You have to be fairly well-heeled to play even at the minor levels. The sport is getting way too expensive, even for guys who don't care about the money. And it's surprising how many of them there are.

"Even those guys are starting to question why it costs $150,000 a year to keep their boat in sails. The industry needs to get the multitudes out sailing again."

You would think all this would be bad news for Olson, but he insists that his business is growing; he exports or imports about a quarter of all the sailcloth sold around the world, he says. Including sales to kite and para-sail makers, Olson says his company will do $20 million in revenues this year.

In the United States--the largest market for sails in the world--Olson imports sailcloth from the Japanese company Toray. Toray is said to be the biggest textile concern in the world, but competitors say its selection of sailcloth is relatively limited. Toray makes nylon for spinnakers, the second, smaller sail that goes in front of the mainsail. Since mainsails tend to block off some of their wind, spinnakers need to be light to take advantage of whatever breeze they get.

Olson also imports sails made by Sati, a Spanish manufacturer that makes middle- and low-end sails of Dacron.

In the back of his tiny office is a small storeroom with an open loading bay for trucks. Inside are three-foot-tall rolls of sailcloth in several Day-Glo-bright hues of green, red and purple--colors that appeal to the fashion-conscious sailor, says Olson.

The air in the office is redolent with the smell of the resin used to coat some of the sailcloth.

With Dacron sails, a sail loft will sew these three-foot-wide strips together horizontally to form a sail, Olson explains, gesturing with a swatch of sailcloth in one hand.

Despite what he does for a living, Olson rarely sails anymore. Unlike many fellow sailors, he is tolerant of powerboats, which some sailors call "stinkpots." Olson owns a 38-foot Bertram sportfishing powerboat.

"The time I spend on the water for pleasure is limited," he says. "So when I'm going fishing or to Catalina, I want to get there in plenty of time to enjoy myself."

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