An interview with Butch Ulmer
This is the second installment of our conversation with Charles “Butch” Ulmer about the history of the company founded by his father in City Island, New York in 1946. Part 1 can be found at windcheckmagazine.com/article/75-years-of-uk-sailmakers/.
WindCheck: So, you started working full time at Charles Ulmer, Inc. in 1965…
Butch Ulmer: Yes. I had worked during the summers in high school and when I returned home after leaving the Navy, I went back to work on the floor right where I had left off.
WC: Who was the design team?
BU: My father, and my brother-in-law Chuck Wiley. At that point, the transition from cotton to synthetics had begun. Cotton to Orlon and then Orlon to Dacron. Sail shaping in the early days of Dacron was mostly luff curve and in the case of mainsails, foot curve. There was very little broadseaming done and most of that was leech or foot tightening to keep those edges from flapping in a breeze. Sail design was largely a function of familiarity with the behavior of the material being used under load and how to keep it from stretching too far from its intended shape.
In 1958, Columbia defended the America’s Cup. Columbia was built by Nevins in City Island and she used Ratsey sails (the Ratsey loft was adjacent to Nevins). However Vim, a pre-war twelve meter almost beat Columbia in the trials. She was sailed by Bus Mosbacher and she had Hood’s sails. This was the start of Ted’s domination of the sailmaking industry which he accomplished by engineering his fabrics and perfecting the way his fabrics were woven. He still edge shaped the sails, but he’d spent a lot more time analyzing how the sails were loaded and therefore how the cloth should be woven. Early Dacron was great just because it was Dacron! The yarn was much stronger than natural fiber and much more resistant to stretch. But the weave was just a square weave (equal numbers of yarns in the warp & fill) with very little tension on the yarns.
The story was that Ted’s father was very knowledgeable about the textile industry and so Ted’s fabrics had different thread counts for mainsails and genoas and the yarns were tensioned while they were woven making the weave much “tighter”. The “Professor” as Ted’s father was known, also used 18” looms making Hood sails visibly different from the standard 36” fabric.
The whole thing with sails in those days boiled down to controlling stretch to keep the sails flat. For instance, most genoas were cut with mitres. A mitre was a seam that bisected the clew angle. The panels were aligned perpendicular to the foot and perpendicular to the leach, so you had a thread line on each edge. This was the strong part of the weave. OK, now you have this big diagonal seam where the leech and foot panels join and it’s on the bias or diagonal to the thread lines. The bias is going to stretch more than the thread line, so how do you control that?
Well the miter was not a straight line sewn to a straight line. Its seams were foreshortened to allow for the increased bias stretch and the miter itself had a concave curve or what sailmakers called “hollow”. In order to flatten the sail, you actually had to cut away some fabric to compensate for stretch. If you did this properly, when you sheeted the jib home in the wind it was intended for, it would be perfectly smooth. Hood mastered this technique. His big boat sails were beautiful, because the cloth was better and he knew how to shape it.
Then along came Lowell North, who was a Star sailor that I met in 1949. I was just a little kid at the Star Worlds in Chicago. He won four out of the five races and fouled out of the fifth. In those days, you only had one race a day and no throw-outs. Otherwise, he would’ve been World Champion, which he subsequently became many times over. Lowell started making sails and was the guy that masterminded the broadseam. He built the shape into the panels and sails rather than waiting for the wind to stretch the fabric into shape.
Lowell’s sail designs were based on the fabric he used holding its shape and coincident with his rise came the use of resins in sail fabrics. These resins literally glued the yarns together. Think of the glass that’s made with chicken wire in it. The wire is the yarn and the glass is the resin. Fabric with lots of resin was awful to handle, particularly in big sails and the sails were short lived because resins broke down quickly but they were FAST so sailors bought them anyway.
As commercially produced woven Dacrons improved, North’s share of the market grew and ultimately Hood lost momentum and the #1 spot to North.
WC: Talk about spinnakers. UK has a history there.
First a short digression that subsequently has a big influence on Ulmer Sails and the spinnakers. When I was a Midshipman, I tried out for the Pan Am Games sailing a Finn. The trials were held in Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco. It’s a long, skinny bay made by the San Andreas Fault. I met a man named Warwick Tompkins. Look him up – a wonderful guy. “Commodore Tompkins” as he was known, took me under his wing and showed me around San Francisco. Knowing my father was a sailmaker. Commodore introduced me to a local sailmaker named Peter Sutter. Peter was making radial spinnakers that were radial from the head all the way down to the foot, so you had the fill of the fabric across the foot and everything else was warp. I thought, “Gee, that’s a good looking sail.”
So fast forward a few years and I am now running my Dad’s loft in City Island and I meet Owen Torrey. I had met Owen Star sailing but I got to know him when we spent a week together teaching at the Colgate’s Offshore Sailing School. Steve Colgate used to have race weeks with guest experts, and Owen and I were the experts one week at Grand Bahama Island, West End. We got along well and became fast friends. It was a very windy week and we spent most of it giving “chalk talks” outside while dodging falling coconuts. He talked about the theory and I talked about the practice and things went pretty nicely.
I ran into him later that year at Larchmont Race Week, and he was sailing, as he always did, with Bill Ziegler. I asked how he was doing and he said not that well. I subsequently found out that his business was failing. Owen was a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Law School and was an Admiralty Attorney. He was renowned for making very good spinnakers, which I was not renowned for. I said, “Come over to City Island, set up your spinnaker making thing in my loft, and then you can go back to practicing law.” That was the deal. We got along like peas in a pod. At the point where he was going to go back to the law he came into my office and said, “You know what? I don’t want to be a lawyer. I want to be a sailmaker.” We worked together as a team together for the rest of his life.
One of our chief competitors was Hard Sails from Long Island. Hard was making radial head spinnakers and I said to Owen, “We ought to try that.”
We used to have a little flagpole on the roof of the loft. You had to go up on the roof to put the flag up. Owen made a radial head for a spinnaker, just the head, and we put it up on the flagpole. I said, “Jesus, that’s terrific. Where the hell did you get that from?” He said, “Well, you know Bowditch, the Bible of navigating? In Bowditch there’s a table of the width between meridians at various latitudes.” Owen explained that the top of the spinnaker is the North Pole. Then you would come down to the Equator, and how much longitude you want to use determines how full or flat the spinnaker is. Or you could cut it off at 60 degrees and call that the Equator and get a much flatter sail. That’s what Owen came up with, so we started making them. And they were gorgeous sails.
I did a Block Island Race on a boat with one of our first radial head chutes. On Monday morning I got a call from Wally Ross, the owner of Hard sails. He said, “You know, I have a patent on radial head spinnakers.” I said, “You have to be kidding me.” No, indeed he had a patent.
Fortunately I had a good friend who was a patent lawyer. I told him, “I know darn well Wally didn’t invent that.” My friend said, “Can we get some visual proof?” Well, Peter Sutter was still in business, and he put me in touch with a marine photographer named Diane Beeston. She said she had a photo of one of Peter’s radial head spinnakers which was dated and certified. My lawyer friend said, “Send that to me” so I got the photo from Diane. He sent it to Wally and that was the end of that. We never worried about it again.
At any rate, we were now in the spinnaker business. That year we made Radial Head chutes for Courageous, Running Tide, Yankee Girl and many other top racing boats. I think we made some unbelievable number – something like 400 spinnakers – just within our walls. We did so much spinnaker business that I started ordering spinnaker cloth in 750 rolls instead of the usual 100 rolls. It was not unusual for us to have 15-20 thousand yards of spinnaker cloth in inventory
WC: So all of a sudden you have a model. You’re not guessing anymore.
BU: Oh, absolutely. That’s right. Those were the days before calculators, but Owen had a 3-foot slide rule that he did everything with. So yeah, the chutes put us on the map. ■
As Butch’s many friends will attest, the man is seldom at a loss for words. Look for Part 3 of this interview in our January/February 2021 edition.