If you walk along the harbor of any coastal city from Baltimore, Maryland, to Rockland, Maine, try to imagine a scene from 200 years ago, with hundreds of ships lining the docks while others float in the inner harbor. Thousands of men are moving cargo or repairing ship parts, and there are acres of furled white sails. When everything in the world moved by sail, sailmaking and repair was a major industry that employed thousands of people in sail lofts.
Those days are long gone, yet some professionals continue to craft sails, keeping the industry alive. Among them are Tony Rey, Alex Clegg and Dave and Rob MacMillan of Doyle Sails Newport. In 2018, after a complete renovation of their sail loft in Middletown, Rhode Island, this company became part of the worldwide revitalization of the Doyle brand.
Dave and Rob MacMillan own the complex of several buildings. “I was glad to put in the capital to renovate the loft because we need to keep and add skilled jobs in Newport,” says Dave. “I knew with Tony and the team we would succeed in having boat owners want our sails and services.”
Rey has decades of experience in one-design boats, America’s Cup campaigns, round-the-world offshore sailing and superyacht captaining. He is still very active and campaigns sailboats in a wide ange of regattas, from the J70 Worlds in Miami, Florida, to the legendary Bucket for superyachts in St. Barths.
“We wanted to create the most modern facility in New England, where we could make and service sails for everything from family cruising boats to superyachts,” says Rey. “We are now able to build a sail with a 55-meter luff length right here.”
The process works like this: Membranes (underlying sail) are cut by computers in New Zealand from everything from basic polyester to super-high-tech modulus carbon. These membranes are then shipped to the Newport loft for the finish work. That includes building head, tack and clew corners; luff, leech and foot tapes; and reef and cunningham grommets. For downwind sails, membranes aren’t required, so Doyle engineers them from scratch. As an example, a massive superyacht spinnaker was recently built under the supervision of downwind manager Irina Beloborodova. Damon Burton is the upwind expert.
“At first I thought the loft would feature a really nice customer meeting room with fine furniture,” says Rey. “But we learned that clients really want to see an active loft, with the seamsters and cutters at work.” Often, the floor hums as 15 employees (they are looking to hire more) dig deep into the process of sailmaking. You may see several standing in pits dug out of the floor, so the underside of the sail is accessible. Or others might be working from complex computer diagrams that outline how the hundreds of panels fit together.
As for its customer base, Rey says Doyle Sails serves the owners of superyachts, grand-prix level racers and cruising boats in equal measure. “Sailmaking is a very people-oriented business,” he says. “There is a tremendous amount of interaction with owners, during which we learn what they want to improve, how they plan on using the new sails, and their expectations for performance. After all, regardless of whether it’s a 30-foot production boat or a 100-foot custom superyacht, it all comes down to the sails. They determine how fast you go.”
On larger yachts, several people—usually the boat designer, the captain, and the owner—are involved in the decision-to-buy process. Rey has to navigate complex dynamics and make sure everyone is “on board.”
His time on the water makes it easier to understand the needs of his customers. For instance, he still sails competitively, and that allows him to learn about the latest developments in the regatta world, which translates into better sail design and production back at the loft.
Fortunately Newport continues to be the Mecca for summer sailing on the East Coast. Enthusiasts are drawn here for many reasons, including access to shipyards that have undergone impressive upgrades. (Safe Harbor New England Boat Works is one of them.) The port is home to some serious campaigners who use the services of Doyle Sails, such as Wendy Schmidt's Botin 85 Deep Blue, Hap Fauth’s Whisper and Bella Mente, Jim Madden’s Stark Raving Mad, and Austin and Gwen Fragoman’s Interlodge.
There once was real Yankee pride in the craft of sailmaking. Today, a lot of that work has been offshored, and the skills are lost. That’s why the Newport loft of Doyle Sails (and its sister lofts in Salem, Massachusetts; City Island, New York; and East Greenwich, Rhode Island) are so inspiring. Now you don’t have to close your eyes to imagine sailmaking as it was some two centuries ago. You just have to visit the Doyle loft for a 21st-century update. —Jonathan Russo
This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.