Photos by Alison Langley
Overlooking the harbor at East Boothbay, Maine, Nathaniel S. Wilson Sailmaker Inc. is in its 37th year of making sails the old-fashioned way, hand-sewing the woven fabric just as Wilson learned to do it at the Coast Guard Academy sail loft in the early 1970s. “In those days the Coast Guard did all its sails in-house,” says Wilson, 64.
Eschewing computers, he designs his sails on paper — a “cut sheet” — the way the Herreshoff lofts designed theirs a century ago. His sailmakers — he employs four — finish the sails with hand-stitching using a stout needle, waxed thread and a leather “palm” — a strap that wraps around the hand and has a hole for the thumb and a metal disc at the heel of the hand to push the needle through the cloth.
Wilson says the time-honored practices — “well-proven and well-tested” — that he learned as an enlisted man at the academy and as an apprentice at legendary lofts such as Ratsey & Lapthorn’s in City Island, N.Y., still work well today. One of his aims has been to pass those practices to new generations of sailmakers drawn to building classic sails for classic yachts and ships, a niche market that values craftsmanship and authenticity. (His son, Eben, is pictured at left.)
Wilson has made sails for such historic and replica ships as the USS Constitution, the Coast Guard barque Eagle, Sultana, Clearwater, Spirit of Massachusetts, Pride of Baltimore II, American Eagle, Lettie G. Howard, Mayflower II, Godspeed and Discovery. This winter the loft was building sails for the 1926 Frank Paine-designed Q Boat Falcon, four Murray Peterson-designed schooners and the schooner Kalmar Nyckel, Delaware’s tall ship.
Wilson makes sails in soft woven fabrics only. He often uses Oceanus, a synthetic polyester cloth closely resembling natural cotton duck, or Egyptian cotton.
His clients, usually owners of lovingly restored yachts and ships, want sails that look, feel and perform like those from the era when the boat was built. Wilson delivers.
“It’s an art and a science,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the Apri 2012 issue.