Ernest Ratsey, sailmaker extraordinary, is an enthusiastic and outgoing man but, as head of the famous sailmaking firm of Ratsey & Lapthorn, he is being fairly cautious these days about visitors to the company sheds on City Island, New York. "We've got the new America's Cup cloth out here," he said recently, "and we don't want any of it turning up in England where the Sceptre people can get a look. If a British chemist were given a piece of this stuff, he'd have a pretty good lead on what we're doing."
No one who knows the importance of sails in a race like the America's Cup will think this cloak-and-dagger attitude exaggerated. Nor is the drama in any way diminished by the fact that the sails for Sceptre are being made by Ernest's brother and cousins at Ratsey & Lapthorn, Ltd., of England. Ernest himself knows that among yachts as evenly matched in hull design and crews as the 12-meters competing off Newport this September, sails could be the deciding factor. And right now, as the American contenders head into the Preliminary Trials at Newport this weekend, the battle of the sailmakers is in full swing.
Ratsey & Lapthorn have made the sails for the American defender in the last four cup races, and they don't intend to miss having their sails in this one. But a young Marblehead sailmaker named Ted Hood is going to turn the trials into a duel as far as sailmaking is concerned. Of the four American contenders, Columbia has practically all Ratsey sail, Easterner has all Hood, while Vim and Weatherly have split their orders. (The only other sailmakers with a stake in the matches are Ken Watts of Torrance, Calif., who has three sails on Columbia, and Louis Larsen of New York City and Wally Ross of Islip, L.I., who have a couple of sails apiece on Vim.) Depending on who wins with whose sails, either Ratsey or Hood is going to be covered with glory.
Hood wasn't even in business when the last America's Cup race was run in 1937, but the firm of Ratsey & Lapthorn is a venerable institution. They are descended from the British Ratsey & Lapthorn, which in turn goes back to George Rogers Ratsey, who set up shop on the Isle of Wight in 1790 and made a name for himself by making better sails than anyone else.
July 13, 1958
Back in 1815, for instance, the Ratsey-outfitted yacht Waterwitch made a monkey out of Pantaloon, a naval vessel of the same size. Admiral Sir Putney Malcolm thereupon ordered Ratsey brought in for an audience. "Ratsey," said Sir Putney, "I want you to tell me what there is in your sails that makes them superior to all the fleet." As great-great-grandson Ernest now tells the story, old George Rogers smiled, cleared his throat and said nothing.
"Hell," says Ernest in chuckling over his ancestor today, "they didn't think he was going to give away his patterns, did they?"
When the firm branched out to the States in 1902, it started right in at the top. The first order was a batch of sails for J.P. Morgan's Corsair (the fourth generation of Morgans is still on the company books). Things have been going that way ever since.
"Canvas," said Ernest, speaking of the new cup sails recently, "is out. As it is for all sailboats nowadays. Synthetics are in."
The synthetics used at Ratsey & Lapthorn come from Sol Lamport, head of the Sail Fabric Division of Alexander Lamport and Brother, New York. Lamport directs the finishing processes (heat, pressure, chemicals) that make the woven synthetic into sailcloth. About a year and a half ago, Ratsey and Lamport started out together on a development program that culminated in the new fabric whose chemical makeup the Ratseys are guarding so carefully today.
"We tried all kinds of things," said Ernest. "The process starts at DuPont. We get them to change some of the variables in their fiber, and then Sol Lamport works on it and comes up here with a bolt. If we don't like it, we send it back. In five months we made advances that would normally take us three years."
Thirty years ago, before synthetic cloth was even a possibility, Manfred Curry, a pioneer theorist in sail design, wrote in his famous The Aerodynamics of Sails, "I am convinced that if a sail could be given a coat of varnish...it would prove much superior with regard to surface friction..." In short, the slicker the sail the more power it would give. What Lamport and Ratsey were looking for was something even slicker than current synthetics.
AN AIRFOIL IN THE SAIL
Not only did this new cloth need to be slippery, but it had to hold shape. A sailboat which needed only to run with the wind could use sails as flat as a board and still be carried along rather nicely but, to sail a boat into the wind, a curved sail with a proper belly is needed. "What you do," said Ernest Ratsey, "is build an airfoil shape into the sail and hope that it will stay. If it goes out of shape the sail loses its drive. But the stuff we've developed now is a vastly superior synthetic. We're calling the cloth Defender."
Sol Lamport, a natural-born worrier, did as much testing as he could on the new fabric, but he cautions, "You don't know until you sail them." Since Lamport doesn't sail himself, he entrusted the first test sail to his 15-year-old son Ken who went out in a frostbite regatta off Centerport, L.I. and took four firsts and a second with it last February. "Fantastic! Excellent!" said Sol. With regard to the heavier material he has made for the cup boats, however, he would like to reserve judgment. "Those cup boats will give them three years of wear in two months by sailing six or eight hours a day, and so we'll see what happens," he said.
Whatever happens, a lot of money will be going into sail. Ernest Ratsey, whose firm, among other things, put up a $4,000 mast to try out new sails on dry land, recently was willing to estimate that by the end of the trials, each boat will have cost her owners from $25,000 to $40,000 in sails. "But remember," said Ernest, "this is only about 10% of the total costs on each boat, so it is not unreasonable at all.
"The best thing about all this is that the small boats will get the benefit, starting next year. The cloth is frightfully expensive now, of course, but it will come down."
While Ernest Ratsey has been publicly predicting great sails to come, Ted Hood has scarcely been quoted in newsprint. This is because Hood is about as unlike the ebullient Ernest—or any other sailmaker, for that matter—as he can be.
Marblehead's sailmaker is a quiet, self-assured young fellow of 31 who took the men's North American national sailing championships two years ago. As sailmakers go, he has little history and no tradition. He started in by making his own racing sails for fun, then decided he could make a living at it and went into business in 1950. He now has 20 men working for him, each one trained by himself. They work with Hood cloth, for Hood not only sews but he also weaves, and this makes him unique in the trade.
When Ted Hood made the decision to do his own cloth, a sailing writer pointed out that it would make just as much sense for a man in the news profession to start building his own typewriter, but Hood brushed off this kind of logic. He got two old looms from a cotton mill and a former employee of the mill to help him run them. Neither man knew anything about the weaving of synthetic fiber, so a couple of years went by before they had much success. Finally, by hard labor and all the reading they could get their hands on concerning the subject, they began to turn out fabric Hood liked.
Since then, Hood's sails have been a success story. Some of the best racing men swear by him. Double Bermuda Winner Carleton Mitchell is one—Finisterre's famous red top spinnaker is a Hood sail.
As the time for the America's Cup approached, most people figured that Hood might get the Easterner order, being right there in Marblehead. But not so many realize that Hood today is also making a full set for Vim and Weatherly, too.
"Everyone," says Ted with a mild grin, "seems to think that Ratsey is doing all the work. Everyone but me."
Hood wove his own, he says, because he felt that the cloth he could get in 1952 was unreliable. Commercial cloth has come a long way since but, privately, Ted thinks that he still has an edge. He has a champion in Leonard Fowle of the Boston Globe. Fowle growled in a recent sailing column that, concerning the rumor of "a new synthetic fabric which outmodes any existing sailcloth...our scouts report that in a recent trial Ted Hood's 'home-woven'...tests better than this so-called superfabric...."
This sort of back-and-forth will go on until this weekend when the boats go down to the line for the first time and the facts start to take over.
Until then, the sailmakers are going to spend a lot of time on the boats (Ted Hood is a regular member of the Vim crew anyway) making sure there is nothing that can be done to make the sails work harder.
"It's going to be a question of living with the sails," said Ernest Ratsey. "Ease a little here and take in a little there. It's perfectionist's work. Nothing is too good."