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Annapolis Sailmaking Industry A Dying Art

Sailmaking used to be a thriving industry, but now many companies have moved manufacturing to countries like China and Sri Lanka.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Inside a 6,500-square-foot loft on Severn Avenue in Eastport, employees of Scott Allan Sailmakers practice a tradition dating back to Colonial times: They stitch and assemble hundreds of cruising and racing sails in the port of Annapolis.

Sailmaking used to be a thriving industry here. Now, Scott Allan Sailmakers is one of the few sailmakers left in Annapolis.

Many of the big sailmaker labels still have sales and service offices in the city, but their manufacturing has moved to countries like China and Sri Lanka. That has created a sense of loss for those who remain committed to the craft locally, as well as those who have left it behind.

"What makes this place unique is its maritime heritage," said Jeff Holland, director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum. "It is the fact that there's people, craftsmen, working today on the very same skills, the very same craft, as they were back two or three hundred years ago. If that disappears then, yes, we will be losing a major element of our heritage and our character. We might as well be in Indianapolis, Indiana, than Annapolis, Maryland."

The diminishing presence of sailmaking in Annapolis provides a window into the overall contraction of the city's maritime industry. Sailmakers who continue to practice here said they create a far better product, albeit at a higher cost.

"The difference in getting a sail here and overseas is quality," said Scott Allan, whose sails typically cost from $1,500 to $15,000, while an offshore-made sail costs about 20 percent less.

Allan said his company produces 98 percent of its sails in Annapolis. His Eastport loft, which is part of the UK-Halsey Sailmakers network of sailing lofts, designs hundreds of sails using computer equipment that speeds up production and minimizes subtle inaccuracies.

Allan said customers can monitor the sails as they are made and walk right up to his loft with sail in hand for repairs.

Glenn Housley, owner of Housley Sailmakers in Bert Jabin's Yacht Yard on Back Creek, said a $900 sail made overseas might cost $2,700 at his shop.

But Housley said his sails are some of the fastest in Annapolis.

Annapolis' sailmaking industry was expanding in the 1970s. The city was filled with franchises of worldwide firms. Apprentices at larger facilities went into business for themselves.

"Everybody who had a banner hanging out built sails," said Will Keyworth, who recalled building America's Cup sails in Annapolis during the 1980s.

But as technology made operations faster and manufacturing moved offshore, Keyworth and others took on the role of sales managers here.

Keyworth is now the manager of the Annapolis office of North Sails, which makes $3 million each year, he said. North Sails has manufacturing plants from Stevensville to Sri Lanka, he said.

"Yeah, I hate to see the heritage of it going away," he said. "I don't know that that particular style of doing things would survive."

Tad Hutchins worked for Sobstad Chesapeake when the company's Annapolis sailmaking loft was one of the biggest in the country.

He said Larry Leonard ran Sobstad Chesapeake and helped form the Quantum Sail Design Group, which ballooned into a worldwide organization. A decade ago, it moved its 17,000-square-foot production facility and headquarters from Annapolis to Traverse City, Mich., although a design office is in Annapolis.

The sails are now built in areas like South Africa, Malaysia and Spain, said Hutchins, who serves as a consultant for Quantum in Annapolis.

"You couldn't compete," he said. "You couldn't survive as a viable business."

Like Quantum, Neil Pryde Sails manufactures its sails overseas, said Bruce Empey, who works out of his home as a sales agent for the company's Annapolis office. But Empey said there always will be clients who insist on locally made sails.

Despite business that comes intermittently, Housley said he feels no pressure to move operations offshore.

"I believe it would be hard for me to spec out a sail that they could build that would match what we build here," he said.

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