It’s been decades since a Sperry has owned the sailmaking business in the loft above the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway and boatbuilding operation on Vineyard Haven Harbor. That changed when Ben Sperry, 37, stepped to the helm to run the Vineyard sail loft after Sperry Sails purchased the business in June.
Ben’s uncle, Steve Sperry, first opened the sail loft approximately 30 years ago. Then Gretchen Snyder took over, and most recently, Sarah Smith.
“And now she’s passing it back to us,” Ben said on a recent afternoon, sitting in the loft among a half-dozen industrial sewing machines.
Sperry Sails, Sperry Sails MV’s parent company, is based in Marion on Buzzards Bay, and recorded more than $800,000 in sales last year, according to Ben, who said he will be dividing his time between the two locations. Meanwhile, he’s hired Ian Ridgeway, 34, to keep the operation going full-time on the Vineyard Haven Harbor. The two sailors met last year at the Vineyard Cup.
“I’ve only been making sails since January, but I love it,” Ian said. “I took the job so that I could learn new things, a new trade. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, and my skills and confidence are growing, and Ben’s a great teacher.”
Both Ian and Ben have at least 20 years of sailing experience, which comes in handy for sailmakers.
“I love the work,” Ben said. “I think my experience in sailmaking has been not too far from how it was a long time ago. Technology plays a role, but the elements are still the same.”
Materials used to make the sails are changing, but the majority of the sails leaving Sperry Sails MV are made of Dacron, the most common sailcloth worldwide, Ben said. Some customers require more high-tech sails for racing or performance cruise boats. Sperry Sails MV will also specialize in handcrafted sails for classic boats. Sail costs, Ben said, can range from $300 to over $30,000, depending on the vessel.
“We service boats from the smallest dinghies to the 92-foot Tabor Boy, and many boats in between,” Ben said. “Our average sail costs $3,000.”
The type of material used for a sail depends on the boat and whether it’s used for racing or for recreational sailing.
“The best sail from a performance standpoint is stable; you pull on it from several directions and not have it stretch too much,” Ben said. “Sailcloth is tightly woven polyester heated to shrink the fibers together, and is dipped in resin to finish the fabric.”
The significance of the location of the sail loft isn’t wasted on the two sailmakers. “Vineyard Haven is my favorite harbor in the world without a doubt,” Ian said. “To have a boatbuilder on the harbor building boats all the time — the Shenandoah and the Alabama are here — to be a part of that community is just awesome.”
Ian said he’s heard that Vineyard Haven Harbor has more wooden boats than any harbor in the world.
“You’ll see the Sperry logo on sails all over the world, but the majority of our customers are right here,” he said.
One of the benefits the new sail loft brings to the community is that if there’s a job they can’t handle at the loft, they can collaborate with Sperry Sails in Marion to get the work done.
“Our plan is to bring in expert crew members from Marion for specialty work,” Ben said. “I’ll work here with Ian on sailmaking projects; that’s one of the things I’m most excited about, getting out of the office and doing meaningful work.”
The men plan to handle all aspects of canvas work, from the smallest detail to the largest sail. Ian recently finished making a canvas pipe berth, a stowable bunk much like a hammock. “That’s something I’ve never done before,” he said. “We do pretty much anything that’s textile-related.”
Nat Benjamin, one of the owners of Gannon and Benjamin and a well-known wooden boat designer and builder, welcomed the men. “We’re very excited to have them here, and we’re happy to have them take over the loft,” Nat said.
With possible customers coming from the Island’s marinas and boatyards, Sail Martha’s Vineyard, and the Edgartown Yacht Club, Ben is hoping the sail loft finds its niche. He said he’s shooting for approximately $100,000 in sales his first year. “We could be a great service for boatyards, and so far I’ve seen a pretty wide range of people,” Ben said.
“In this industry, you’ll see a lot of logos on sails made in Asia; that’s not us. We make our sails in Marion or right here.”
For more information, go to sperrysails.com or call 508-693-3312.