It’s a typical humid, southern Chesapeake Bay summer day when I show up on the doorstep of Latell & Ailsworth Sailmakers in the one-stoplight, one-lane-roadway, rural tidewater town of Deltaville, Virginia. I’m late getting here to work on a new jib for my 29-foot, Bill Tripp-designed sloop, Teal. Loft owner and founder Jerry Latell doesn’t mind my tardiness or my do-it-yourself nature. He welcomes me with a big hug and puts me to work right away bringing my new sail to life.
I had met Latell a few times while passing through on various boats. Later, after I’d purchased Teal and was working on her, I ran into him again and regaled him with stories of my latest engineless misadventures from Maine to Maryland. He rolled his eyes at my antics after taking one look at my roller furler and the pathetic, much-too-small jib I’d gotten off a Compac-25.
When he learned that I’d acquired my new main from an online sail loft (see “Made to Measure,” October/November 2021), he was appalled and immediately called me a sellout. I retorted that my undersized bronze winches for the halyards—which I’d salvaged off a rotted wooden boat in Maine—and my used sails evened out my mainsail’s economic globalism. Latell took it a step further and invited me to come and see what it’s like to build a new jib at a local sail loft.
So, here I was at Latell & Ailsworth Sailmakers, a division of Evolution Sails Group, which, despite being based in a loft building originally built in the 1930s and used as a bowling alley, has functioned as a sail loft for almost 50 years. It’s now home to one of the top sailmakers in the country, counting among its clients the high-end cruising sailboats of Pacific Seacraft, the Midwest-based, performance catamaran producer Aquarius Sail, and the U.S. Coast Guard, whose 295-foot sail training ship Eagle carries Latell & Ailsworth sails.
I’ve arrived at the height of the season and of a yachting industry upswing unlike any other Latell has seen in the nearly 25 years since he started making sails.
“The industry is booming,” Latell says. “Last year was a record year, but 2022 is off the charts. Demand is going to stay high, but it’s hard to ramp up small businesses that quickly.”
So, it’s first come, first served, and generally it takes a couple of weeks from the time measurements are made or a repair is dropped off before they’re ready. Of course, they make exceptions for a sailor on a deadline. Theoretically, they can crank out a new sail in one week, and often do.
In part, this is because the loft so expertly weaves together the fundamental, hands-on art of local sailmaking with the latest sail technologies as part of the New Zealand-based Evolution Sails. Membrane and laminate panels are fabricated in New Zealand, then joined and custom-finished in the Deltaville loft. This partnership also provides access to a few overseas lofts for overflow, and allows the Deltaville sailmakers to service bigger boats that they simply don’t have the space or equipment for otherwise.
“It’s a good balance with the overseas lofts,” Latell says. For the most part, however, all the magic from start to finish happens hands-on, face-to-face, in the shop and on the water.
“I think that’s the best part,” says loft co-owner and sailmaker Justin Ailsworth, gently setting down his awl. “One day you see a roll of material come in, and it’s just a tube of material. Then you cut it out, put the parts and pieces on, watch it go up, and it could take someone across the world.”
Brand new production cruising yachts, tall ships, and high-performance boats just touch the surface of Latell & Ailsworth’s clients and services, but they illustrate the partnerships Latell has nurtured over the years. Chief among these are Ailsworth himself. Ailsworth is the craftsman behind the scenes, along with his right-hand lead sailmaker and best buddy of seven years, Jake Pender. But that’s not to say Latell can’t sew. That’s how he started in 1998, before buying the business in 2005 and founding Latell Sails.
You’ll often find Latell, Ailsworth, and Pender side-by-side on clients’ yachts—from local to international—taking measurements or doing installs. Ailsworth joined the team in 2008 as a young sailmaker and spearheaded the loft’s traditional sailmaking division after a long career as a high school and collegiate champion dinghy racer. Now, the team’s relationship with Evolution has allowed the sailmakers access to everything they need to serve high-profit-margin race boats while remaining fiercely invested in the local community.
This devotion to local is critically important to Latell. With a master’s degree in educational counseling, Latell runs an ethical business with community values. As clichéd as it sounds, the loft functions under a framework far closer to that of a family than a traditional company. He aims to foster an environment for economic growth in the local community and entrepreneurial opportunities in the marine industry.
It can be a tall order in a place that, while rural, also serves as a bedroom community for professionals from Washington, D.C., and Richmond. Local watermen making a traditional living crabbing and oystering, as well as other blue-collar workers and small-business owners who make up most of the economic demographic, find themselves amid a population of condo-, second-, and third-homeowners, with new and old Virginia money dotting the shoreline.
As a former guidance counselor for Lancaster County High School, Latell is no stranger to the disparities that challenge the community. His wife is also a local mental health counselor. After almost a quarter-century in sailmaking, Latell aims to use his resources to offer employees opportunities for livable wages, professional advancement, mental health services, and more.
This is one reason why my mainsail choice so pained him.
“It’s like buying a sail from Walmart—a business that adds nothing to the community,” Latell says in reference to the rise in online sail lofts. “During the pandemic, a little girl just wanted a rainbow sail for her dinghy and none of the bigger lofts would do it, because there’s no money in it. So, we did it.”
“If I lose a sale to one of the other, smaller, regional lofts, it still hurts since I’m commission-based,” says Stephanie Sweeney, a sales representative for Latell & Ailsworth, who counts among her clients’ racers, cruisers, and local nonprofit organizations—including the Sail Nauticus Academy, a sailing program for Title I middle-schoolers, as well as the Schooner Virginia, an educational tall ship. “But to lose a sale to a company that is nothing but a website? When [the client] didn’t even buy a sail from us, and we still connect that sailor to the local marine services they need, we still donate to their community, we still support their local regatta—that hurts.”
When I visit the loft, I take in the main loft space, where the tools of the trade—industrial sewing machines, leather palms and other traditional hardware, bobbins of thread, reels of cloth, tape, neatly coiled line of all sizes, fabric of all colors, and work orders from the smallest dinghy to a 73-foot-catamaran—encompass the perimeter around the open loft floor.
Next door is the repair and canvas shop and design office. About eight employees are repairing old sails, installing hardware, sewing dodgers, and heading out to measure boats. Longtime employee Tiffany Ruddock, skilled in nearly every part of the job from the front desk to production, now works part-time while studying to be a nurse. Her two small daughters pretend the plywood shelves and various ropes are a ship while their mom finishes a few designs.
Customers and visitors are in and out, picking up and dropping off sails all day. An experienced boatbuilder who lives locally comes in looking for a long-term job. His skills will translate well.
“There is a surge of boating activity from the broader existential effect of the pandemic, and the explosion of YouTube sailing channels,” Latell says. “People realized they want to do more and don’t have to be chained to a desk.”
For my boat, we decide to go with some leftover cloth the loft had to make a triradial, 120-percent furling headsail. The tighter fibers will offer me a flatter sail for better performance in general and when reefed, although a downside of the triradial for a cruising boat is that the tighter fibers have less UV performance over time. Also, they use more cloth because the sail must be cut into more panels. More material means more expensive.
Still, for those on a super-tight budget, the loft makes all kinds of options available. You can remove your sail yourself and the loft can just copy it. You can work there, as many cruisers and sailors do, and make your own sails, or volunteer and learn to sew on cost or free leftover material.
“You can end up with a pretty good deal,” Latell says.
In my case, I end up being so late bringing my boat down, I have to bring my own measurements and go from there.
We take my measurements and set to designing—a two-dimensional triangle first to calculate how long to make the edges (which Latell used to do on paper but now does using computer software). Then the three-dimensional mold, flying shape, patches, some build-up in every corner, more patches for reefing and furling that baby in.
Then it’s time for nesting; the process of fitting the panels on the table digitally. Think measure twice, cut once, or patterning before inputting the final design from the computer to the cutting table. We unroll the tightly packed fibrous material and tape it down on the perimeter, switch on the vacuum (actually, I forget on one of the runs, but the cutter never falters). It takes three working table lengths of 30 feet for all of my panels, and the sail starts to take shape!
As we pull the individual pieces off the cutting table, each crinkles with that new-sail sound and makes the motion of small waves, like the ones it would soon be flying over. We roll up, organize, and label every panel. The material then goes next door to become a sail.
The sailmakers put my sail together in record time, with only two people on the floor in under one afternoon—and I’m in awe of the results. The panels are stitched together, the corners reinforced and fitted with hardware, the telltales pressed on, UV strip added, and foam for roller reefing.
We flake and roll the sail, finish it off with a sail tie, and stuff it in an iconic red and black Evolution-logo sail bag.
What was once only an idea is now ready to fly.
Photos by Emily Greenberg