48° North: How did you get into sailing?
Dale Waagmeester: I became a pseudo sailmaker before I became a sailor. I went to grade school here in Portland, only a few blocks from here. I’d walk up here to the loft to work after school. I sharpened a lot of pencils and swept a lot of floors. But one of the things my dad had me doing was helping him build sails. I have one of his old sails hanging on the wall and it’s fun to see his work from decades and decades ago.
Was he the first sailmaker in the family?
Yes. He was a sailmaker’s mate in the Navy, which didn’t mean he was making sails, necessarily. He was mainly a canvas guy making baffles for the turrets and covers for winches. Another guy he worked with was a sailmaker, though, so he taught my dad how to make sails. They used to make sails for the Admiral’s sailboat – a good use of government help (chuckling).
So anyway, I learned to do that stuff. My dad was kind of like I am now – with bum knees. We were making sails with the stick-and-string method on the floor instead of having sewing tables and computers. Dad would sit there in a chair and direct me. I really enjoyed it, especially the handwork. And my Dad was the same way. We’d take the whole month of August off and go to the beach, and he used to bring two or three suits of sails that needed to be finished off – hand-roped grommets and the like. And he’d sit down in the afternoon and work on the sails. That was relaxing to him.
After the navy, did your dad become a recreational sailor as well?
Yeah, he had a 28’ CROD (Columbia River One Design), which was a pretty common boat at the time. But he was a real worry wart, so when he started having kids, he got worried about them getting knocked overboard. He switched to powerboats.
He stayed a sailmaker even though he wasn’t actively sailing at that point?
You know, sailmaking was something he did. But also, he basically invented the convertible boat top and some of the hardware. It’s too bad he didn’t have the money to patent some of the stuff he came up with. He used to take trips back east for different boat lines, pattern the boats, and ship the product out of Portland. The canvas shop was the thing that was paying the bills. The sails were something he liked doing, but it wasn’t the major moneymaker.
So you got into sailmaking before you got into sailing, but surely you’ve spent a lot of time on the water. Tell me about your sailing experience.
I was about 15, and my dad said to one of our customers, “Hey, why don’t you get my kid out sailing with you?” So, I started crewing with him, and then this guy and that guy. The knowledge – between making sails and then seeing how they’re actually used – it just came gushing.
How did your progression as a sailor influence the way that you thought about making sails?
I was just a sponge: reading and doing everything I could, building sails and going out and experimenting with them on the water to see what they did. I didn’t have the advantage of having somebody that really was taking me to the next level, I had to do that myself. In the old days, Hood was the big sailmaker here. I’d do a 15 minute repair on a Hood sail and spend two hours measuring panels, seeing how much broad-seaming or luff-rounding there was, and try to reverse engineer what they were doing. I learned a lot that way.
Having gotten into sailing crewing on other people’s race boats, how did your own interest in sailing take shape from there? Tell me about the arc of your sailing career.
I would rather trim a sail than drive a sailboat. Sails have been and continue to be a fascination to me. It’s amazing to me what little tweaks can do to change a sail -change the twist, change the camber. I was sailing five to seven days a week. When you’re doing that, you’re learning like crazy. One of the people I was working for got me on boats like The Shadow (that’s probably before your time) in San Francisco. I was crewing with Carl Eichenlaub. He was one of the premier boat builders in San Diego; he built Lightnings and big aluminum boats. He had a boat called Cadenza, which was a Peterson 44 or 46. Then I ended up on boats like Coyote, which was Irv Loube’s boat in San Francisco, and I won the a North American One-Ton Championships with that bunch.
Were these professional gigs?
I wasn’t paid crew, but they paid my expenses. That’s why Irv Loube got out of it. He thought it was getting too professional. He’s a very sweet guy, I think he was a lawyer. He had a duplicate for everything on his boat. If something broke, he always had a replacement. Really a high level program. I finally stopped crewing with Irv when they wanted me to do the Admiral’s Cup with them, but I had a new kid and a business. So, I quit the five, six, seven days a week thing to spend time with my kid – I got involved in his sports, and ran the Oregon Lacrosse Association for a number of years.
Most of my sailing now is to instruct our customers. It doesn’t make sense to me that you’d go out and race with a guy to try to teach them how to use a sail. If somebody screws up the trim, you can’t fix it with education from start to finish, because they’re going, “We leading! We don’t want to lose!” If you go out with a customer on a non-race day, you can totally mess things up and actually learn how to fix it.
What is the most common sail trim error you see from your customers?
I think the most common one is that people don’t know what they’re doing with the backstay. They don’t have an eye for how the sail shape is affected by that. I had a guy with a very nice Cascade 36 – he’d changed the rig, it was built for racing. I built him a bunch of sails. Every time he came in, he was complaining, “I can’t get the draft forward, something’s all screwed up with that #2.” So, I go out with him. We get the boat set up, and he puts up that 130% #2 and it’s probably blowing 6 or 8 knots. Right away, he cranks on the backstay all the way up so the entry is flat and the leech is hooked and it looks terrible. So, I try to explain luff round and I set it up and made the sail look right. He says, “yeah, but you’ve got the backstay off.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s part of the deal.” He thought you wanted no forestay sag. I see people do that all the time.
So you think over-use of backstay is more common than under-use?
I see it both ways, actually. I just think a lot of people don’t know what to do with it and how it all works together. I think people put it on when they’re heeling too much, and they don’t realize they’re completely blading out the main or tightening up the entry too much. Luff round is crucial. I also try to tell people that a spinnaker pole is a luff tensioning device just like the Cunningham on a the main.
Good point. The backstay is a good example of how everything works in harmony, and how adjusting one thing affects the balance of so many other controls.
Also, you see these new fractional rigs with swept-back spreaders, and that’s totally changing the tuning game. You really have to get the forestay sag through tuning. It can be tough to get that forestay and pre-bend correct, and have both sails looking right at the same time.
Though most of your sailing is with clients, do you own a boat?
I just sold it. I had a Choate 27 called Uncle Wiggly’s Tavern. A salesman of mine told me, “You’ve gotta do Whidbey Island Race Week! Get this boat, just clean it up… it’ll take us about a month.” It was real easy for him to say, because he never came to help. Another buddy and I worked on it for six months, night and day. He’d work through the day, I’d work on it after I left the loft. We basically made it a new boat. We knocked off the gelcoat and re-sprayed it. I’d try to fair and sand it and he’d get pissed off at me. But when it was done, it was beautiful. We put the boat together the weekend before Whidbey Island, we went out and sailed it for maybe two hours. Then we decommissioned it and took it up to Whidbey. I was exhausted. I’ve never been the same since working on that boat. I just can’t imagine how people manage to build their own boat. We got first in class and second overall, which isn’t bad for only sailing the boat once! That was about 15 years ago.
After a while, we just didn’t use it much. I’m so big (6’6”, 300lbs) and it has gotten difficult as I get older. I never was a very limber person, and trying to get down below on a boat like that, it’s just too small. I don’t particularly like cruising on boats until you get to about 50’ because I like to be able to stand up.
I can see why they wanted you on those big boat programs, though!
In those days, I was 6’6” and 245 and pretty fit. The bad thing was that unless it was an offshore race, I was doing the grinding. Offshore, I was a pretty good driver. It’s pretty fun to take the helm from a guy like John Kolius! I liked driving in those days – it was so physical. I remember the blisters on my hands!
Tell me about sailing in Portland.
It’s close to home (chuckling)! People say it’s a lot of tacking. You design sails differently for Portland than you do other places because you have to accelerate quickly out of tacks. The tactics here are very basic: get out of the current. You don’t follow the wind shifts as much. I would say that we don’t really have anything like Grand Prix stuff here – not a lot of new, fast boats. There are lots of enthusiastic beginners. We’ve got this new thing here in Portland called “Sail on Sundays.” They get more people out sailing on Sundays than they do during the regular racing. It’s been great. There are also a lot of good sailors who have been around the river for years and years.
Do you find yourself giving one primary piece of advice to those enthusiastic beginners?
I just wrote an article about it for our local paper, it’s about crewing. My advice was to not crew for the same boat all the time. You go out with the same crew and they’ll make the same mistakes, and you get drawn into it. My recommendation is to crew with three or four boats. You’ll see why once you give it a try, and your learning curve will go way up. When I would go down and sail in San Francisco, I’d sail Big Boat Series on a boat with a bunch of rockstars one weekend, and I’d go down to do another event with that boat a couple weeks later and we had a whole new crew. A couple guys I sailed Big Boat Series with would be over on that boat, and another here and there. Everybody’s game was raised.
Do you have one story you wind up telling at the bar most often?
Yeah, I probably do (laughing). This was back in the late 70s – we were doing the Victoria to Maui race. The skipper just loved Ted Turner. Turner had just finished the Courageous campaign. That was America’s Cup at it’s absolute finest. Those boats were pigs, but they were majestic pigs. There’s just something about those boats that will always be magic to me. Anyway, one of the crew got our skipper an engineer’s cap like Turner used wear. So, he wore that thing every day we were out there racing to Hawaii.
We were sailing a Tartan 41, which is probably one of the top three most squirrelly boats ever built. We were getting knocked down all the time. Still to this day, I get a little white-knuckled when it’s really hootin’ because that thing would just give you no warning, and I’ve never forgotten.
We decided the halyard needed to be pulled up a little because we were oscillating. In those days, everything ran off a horseshoe at the top of the mast and it took three of us to try to go crank that thing up. Having that weight out of the back of the boat threw the thing into a broach. The skipper liked to pull the lazy sheet in and tie it off so it wouldn’t go in the water. We always told him not to do that. Well in this case, that sheet didn’t go out and it got underneath him and he got launched! He got sent overboard and was hanging onto the lifelines with his face dragging in the water. It was surreal. A girl who was sailing with us jumped into action, she grabbed the helm and started driving, but also got ahold of him and kept him close to the boat. We got back there and wrestled him into the boat, but my last vision is that little engineer’s cap floating away behind us on top of the waves. He was, understandably, scared out of his mind.
What advice would you give to an aspiring sailmaker?
You don’t get into it to get rich. In the 60s and 70s, it was a culture. There were lofts popping up everywhere. Now, it’s more about sales than sails. Honestly, pick a loft and they’ll hire you. One of the best things would be to learn how to use a sewing machine; and learning to sew really isn’t that difficult. You don’t have to be a sewing master, more important is controlling the bulk. It’s not the easiest work, but it’s another thing all together to be out sailing and see a sail that you built go cruising by. It’s very gratifying.