For my second book, Death in a White Dacron Sail, I did some research while I was vacationing in Maine two years ago. This was before our winter adventure and believe me, Maine in summer is far nicer than Maine in winter. I made three excursions during that trip, one a morning on a lobster boat, one a visit to a sail maker’s loft, and the third, a walk around a bog. All of these figure into the new book.
Today I’d like to tell you about Nathaniel Wilson, the sail maker. Mr. Wilson is probably one of the foremost sail makers in the country, if not the world, and I stumbled on him doing research online. He has made sails for the USS Constitution and the Mayflower II, the Godspeed and Discovery for the Jamestown Settlement, as well as for many of Maine’s schooner fleet. I made an appointment with him to visit his loft for a short interview one morning.
His business is located on the second floor of a barn on his property, and when we arrived, he was striding across the lawn from his house, a tall, lanky man with white hair, cornflower blue eyes, and a tan, chiseled face. Wilson is very modest and prefers to talk about his business, but told me that he has his own boat, large with two masts, and has sailed virtually everywhere in the world as crew or skipper, including a transatlantic trip. He also owns five antique cars, including the beautifully restored Model A truck that was parked outside the barn. Instant karma for me, because my first car was a Model B Ford phaeton.
Inside the barn, the main floor is lined with pictures of sailboats whose sails he has made, most of them quite famous, and in one room he has a masthead from an old sailing schooner. In a corner of that room was an old, discarded sail. It was one of the original sails on the Mayflower I, and since I was a native of Plymouth and a tour guide when the Mayflower I sailed into the harbor from England, he gave me a cutting from the sail. This is now a prized possession.
Magazine covers featuring his handiwork paper the stairwell to the second-story loft: a single, large, bright room with a planked wooden floor and windows all around. There are three sail maker’s benches on each of three sides of the room – low, wooden, elongated benches scored with the marks of years of labor. One old bench was tilted back to take the pressure off the back of the sail maker when he or she leaned forward over the sail. On the benches are hand tools that haven’t changed in 200 years: bench hooks to stretch the sail, seam rubbers to flatten seams and fids to stretch the grommets. Industrial sewing machines, charts, drafting table, and a wall telephone occupy the shop.
Here, Wilson teaches his craft to workers. He never uses the word “traditional” when referring to his craft, as he feels it indicates that his profession is on the decline. And that’s hardly the case. His shop is busy.
Wilson learned sail making when he was in the Coast Guard; he discovered he liked the craft while taking a turn making sails for the Coast Guard’s square rigger, the Eagle. He liked it so much, he deliberately failed his bosun’s exam so he could stay with sail making. He opened his business in 1975 and in 1979 bought the shop he’d been leasing, building the company through hard work. It’s still not a large operation, employing only two or three people plus himself. What is unique about his business is that unlike the sails that are mass made and marketed from China, his sails are constructed from woven fabric, synthetic and natural, as opposed to laminated material. The sails are cut on the loft floor, then shaped by eye and experience. Everyone in the loft learns to do that and he gives it the final say. While his sails are mainly polyester nylon, he will use whatever is needed for a reconstruction, for example, flax for the Mayflower II sails. He chooses cloth that holds its shape under a range of design factors, so that the sail is the perfect air foil.
Next time you see a square rigger or a group of windjammers proudly sailing into New York harbor, you can bet that many of those ships have sails made by Nathaniel Wilson. And look for my inclusion of a sail maker in my next book.