Enter the bustling Westrem Building of the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding in Port Hadlock, Washington, and you’ll find students planing planks, sawing frames, shaping pieces on the router and vacuum-bagging composite parts. Climb the stairs to the second floor in the back and you’ll enter a different world. It’s no less industrious, but the ambiance is bright, calm and clinically clean. Welcome to the loft of Northwest Sails and Canvas.
There are other small and successful sailmakers in this area, like Port Townsend Sails, which retiring founder Carol Hasse sold to the Port Townsend Shipwright’s Co-Op, and Force 10 Sails run by the Chimenti family a couple of miles down the road. Each of them caters to a specific clientele, with NW Sails and Canvas serving perhaps the most diverse set of customers.
“I came from working in very large lofts around the world and that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” said Sean Rankins, the loft’s owner and chief sailmaker. “I like making a broad scope of sails, from very traditional canvas or cotton sails with hand-sewn hemp bolt ropes and grommets, to high-tech modern cloths and everything in between. Not doing a lot of the same work all the time keeps it interesting.”
When I visited, I got a firsthand glimpse at the historic side of sail making. The loft was working on the square sails for the brig Lady Washington, which required making soft cringles in the bolt ropes that can be used as reef points. In addition, dozens of grommets from seine twine had to be tightened on a wooden fid before they could be sewn into the fabric at precisely determined locations. In this quiet atmosphere the soundtrack consisted of the rustle of heavy sail cloth and the voices of the sailmakers who strictly used age-old hand tools like needle, palm, serving mallet and the hole punch, which punctuated the silence off and on in startling fashion.
Lady Washington, built and operated by the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport in Aberdeen, Washington, is a 1989 replica of the first American vessel to make landfall on the West Coast in 1788. Later, it became the first American ship to visit Honolulu, Hong Kong and Japan.
“Traditional sail making is labor intensive, and there are only a handful of lofts that still do it,” said Jamie Trost, port captain of the Historical Seaport. “There’s a lot of skill and knowledge involved, but it is difficult to understand the engineering of synthetic materials that are made to look old. We intentionally chose a heavier cloth that adds three to five years to the sails’ life.” New sails, according to Trost, should last about 10 years or 70,000 nautical miles.
The material of choice for Lady Washington is Oceanus, a modern warp-oriented polyester fabric with a soft hand that is available in cloth weights between 7 and 16 ounces per square foot. It features the color and texture of traditional cotton cloth, which makes Oceanus especially popular with traditional vessels. It was developed by North Sails with the help of Nat Wilson, a traditional sailmaker from East Boothbay, Maine.
Part of the routine maintenance schedule for those heavily used square-rigger sails is restitching them after a few years, because twine deteriorates faster than cloth. “It’s not the sailing that wears them down the most, but sunlight,” Trost said.
It is worth noting that every bid Rankins sends out includes an invitation to the client to come and help make the sails, an offer that Trost and several of his crew gladly accepted. Teaching and sharing knowledge is part of the ethos at NW Sails and Canvas, which is why Rankins has held workshops and taught sail making and rigging to students of the boat school, in addition to building sails for his clients. One of his students was Emma Gunn, who did well and showed interest in learning more of the craft, so Rankins offered an apprenticeship, which turned into a part-time job at the loft, an arrangement that works well for both parties.
“I like sailing,” Gunn declared with a smile. Growing up in Port Townsend, she was one of the “pollywogs” who took to boats early and stuck with it, first sailing small dinghies, later as a sailing instructor, a deckhand and delivery crew. She’s now studying for the USCG 100-ton master’s license. Gunn is gone often, but “plugs in” whenever she’s around and the loft needs help. Working here, she said, is a continuous learning experience, but with practical value. “There’s no AAA to call on the ocean, so I try to fix it myself, not just for thrift, but to keep stuff out of the landfill by extending the useful service life of a sail.”
The longest-tenured member of the NW Sails and Canvas crew is Holly Kays, who started working for Rankins in 2003. “Sean wanted the loft to stay small and fun and was great about me coming and working when I could,” said Kays, who took up sail making because she “loved boats and wanted to do something useful, producing something.” When she’s not working in the sewing pit or repairing huge workpieces like the heavy Norlam-mainsail of a 96-foot Sparkman & Stephens motorsailer, Kays runs the Schooner Martha Foundation with her husband, shipwright Robert D’Arcy. It’s a nonprofit that offers sail training vacations for families and youth aboard the 1907-built, B.B. Crowninshield-designed vessel of the same name. “Teaching and mentoring, which has been part of my work on Martha, still challenges me,” Kays noted. “I show apprentices what works for me and let them figure out their own solutions.”
Figuring out solutions is also part of the job for Inger Rankins, Sean’s Norwegian wife of nearly 30 years, who runs the canvas portion of the business. “I like big boat covers; they are very satisfying for me,” she says. Like her husband, she relishes variety. She learned at a canvas shop in town that only dealt with sailboats, but when she went into business for herself, she started to make powerboat covers and interior and exterior cushions. Inger’s reasoning? “It’s fun to do different things instead of the same stuff over and over again.”
She met Sean in Greece on a ferry while crossing the Meltemi-tossed Aegean Sea as most other passengers were feeding the fish courtesy of mal de mer. They lost contact but ran into each other by coincidence years later at the central train station in Munich, Germany, with Sean recognizing Inger’s colorful wool pullover that she had been knitting on that ferry trip. Both were globetrotters, Inger often traveling with her sister, while Sean worked as a sailmaker for North at big regattas. Before the Internet and social media, they kept in touch by writing letters, arranging to meet in different places around the world, but serendipitously ended up in Port Townsend in 1989. They have called it home ever since. In their leisure time they sail their 1937 spidsgatter Cito or the iconic little double ender Havhesten (Norwegian for sea horse), which they imported from Norway.
As work was winding down for the day and the hand tools went back to the storage and workbench area, I asked Rankins about his company’s niche, as it covers a lot of territory, from teaching to serving small-boat artists, cruisers and nonprofits with traditional vessels. “I worked at big sailing events with boats that came with a lot of money and just wanted to win, win, win,” Rankins replied. “But I also saw cruisers, young people, couples with kids, singlehanders and competitors that had no backup of any type.”
One of these unsupported racers, the late Mike Plant, left a deep impression on Rankins. He met Plant and his self-built Open 50 Airco Distributor during the Sydney stopover of the 1986/87 BOC Challenge. “Everyone had an army of people around and lots of money, but Mike had nobody and was just trying to get on. I always was attracted to those people and wanted to work for them. And that’s what happened when I came to Port Townsend. There were people who were getting boats together to go off and realize their dreams.”
After 45 years of building sails, Rankins’ commitment is still obvious to anyone who makes it past the ground floor of the Westrem Building to climb the steps that lead to the quiet refuge of Northwest Sails and Canvas.
Photography by Dieter Loibner
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.