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Waterfront Q&A with Charles "Butch" Ulmer of UK Sailmakers
Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - 2:49pm
Butch Ulmer is the president of UK Sailmakers, manufacturers of technologically advanced, high-performance sails for cruising and racing boats. Based on City Island in the Bronx, UK Sailmakers was founded in 1946 by Butch's father, Charles Sr., and today is part of an international group of sail lofts in Hong Kong, South America, Europe and the Middle East.
Forty years ago, there were half a dozen sailmakers on City Island. Today UK Sailmakers is one of two.
How has the sailmaking business changed since you joined the business almost 50 years ago?
The only thing that's a constant is the use of a sewing machine. Other than that, the materials and the design of the sails have changed dramatically. The reason it's called a sail loft is that you used to have a sail plan for the boat in profile and you would lay out the sail, full size on the floor. That's called lofting. From those drawings on the loft floor they would literally curve the wood and the frames to conform with the actual design.
Tell us about the materials.
When I started we were building sails out of cotton. You used what you got. We quickly moved to Dacron. It was a very simple woven fabric but the thing that made it revolutionary was the difference in stretch and strength. Today we still use Dacron, but all the sails are designed by computer. All the shaping of the seams and the edge of the sail is determined by computer. When you're done, the panels are cut by a computer-driven cutter. The more sophisticated, high tech racing sails are made of Kevlar or carbon. These are probably closer to an airplane wing that they are to a sail from 1965 because they stretch so little and they're so strong.
What's in your hand in the photo?
That's a roll of laminate fabric. The yellow threads in it are Kevlar. Kevlar is what they make bullet proof vests out of. It's stronger than steel.
Do you sail?
I've done a lot of ocean racing, but I still sail a little dinghy, too. Just this past weekend I was sailing in Stamford Yacht Club Vineyard race. It's a 230-mile race from Stamford, Connecticut to Martha's Vineyard, around Block Island and back to Stamford. We won the race. Most of the boats in the race were using my sails. Evidence of the fact that we build good, fast, longlasting sails.
The boat business and the sport right now are not in good shape because the economy isn't. Sailing is a very expensive sport. Participants are using discretionary income and there's not a helluva lot of that around these days.
Portrait by Paul Margolis