Dick Durham: The hoary expertise of the sailmaker is eagerly sought after by his customers as we like to affect the stance of aficionado

There is a cartoon drawn by Mike Peyton that sticks in my mind. Two boats are sailing abeam from an anchorage in light conditions. The helmsman of the one nearest is staring studiously ahead pretending not to notice the boat under his lee. His crew, who is emerging through the cabin hatch, wearing the innocent expression of the novice, looks up and asks his skipper: ‘Do you think he knows you’re racing him?’

I don’t suppose I’m alone in recognising this stereotype – whether we admit it or not we’ve all been there. I look the other way when I’m overtaken and fiddle with anything that’s not to do with making the boat go faster. If I’m the overtaker however, I try to calm my thumping heart by looking casually forward as though, for me, thrashing all comers is the norm.

Understandably sailmakers are even more competitive, but like those of us who use their wings they will never admit it. A stitch in time can save nine minutes, or even nine miles between craft on passage, but the sailmaker’s canvas is in the hands of so many other factors – fouled hulls, poor sail trim, or duff navigators – that they never crow about their products. They just hope others will. And others always will. Extolling the virtues of that new genoa bestows a salty know-how on the sailor: ‘I know a good sail when I see one.’ In any case, even a poorly cut new sail will hold a breeze more efficiently in its unstretched weave than the one it replaced.

Recently I ordered a new mainsail for my 26ft gaffer Wendy May. The old one had done well – it is 25 years old and will now serve as a lay-up cover – but in half a gale of wind last summer it had started tearing around a reef point. Visiting the North Sea Sails loft at Tollesbury in Essex was like entering the holiest mosque. I had to remove my shoes before mounting the staircase to the loft itself.

‘Extolling the virtues of that new genoa bestowsasalty know-how on the sailor’

As I ascended the stairway in socks I became aware of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony playing and entered the loft imagining gambolling spring lambs, the rush of thawing mountain water, and sunlit pine kernels, but instead found the figure of Steve Hall in the middle of a powder blue floor with needle and palm in hand, beneath rafters festooned with ropes, cringles and rolls of sailcloth. I was offered a pair of slippers to keep even my socks from the sacrosanct floorboards.

There was something deeply satisfying knowing that my new sail had been born to the sound of Beethoven and that it came to life at the hands of a man who actually enjoys his work. Steve’s loft is a lost world of how humanity once conducted life at a pace more suitable for homo sapiens. Measurements are in feet and inches, which suits my imperial manner, invoices are hand-written on scraps of notepaper, the only computer required is that of Steve’s brain, and if the sail he is laying out needs an area greater than his loft will accommodate, why then the local church hall will suffice. Its wooden floor is already pockmarked with the pegging pins for many a Thames barge’s topsail.

My new mainsail is a work of art. It is almost too good to hold up to tempests, salt spray, and sunlight and I kept it at home for a while, hanging from the dining room skylight like some magnificent tapestry just to admire its construction and enjoy its smell.

Before bending it to mast and spars I have been preparing the new leatherwork for my gaff jaws, bowsprit traveller and lift strop, also stitched on by Steve, with lanolin, the waxy oil secreted by the pores of sheep, ensuring they never have a bad hair day. This wonderful slime, I discovered, is an effective lubricant despite leaving the applicant smelling like a New Zealand sheep-shearer.


Dick Durham