April 19, 2016   Joe Cline


The Sailmaker Sessions is a new recurring series for 48° North. Each month, we feature a different local sailmaker in two formats. Every new issue of 48° North will feature an informational article written by the featured sailmaker. As a complement to each monthly article in print, the featured sailmaker will participate in an interview that will be published here at The purpose of these interviews is to share the sailmaker’s story, their background, and their current interests, goals, and passions in the world of sailing. This month, we feature Alex Simanis and Joe Grieser, owners of Ballard Sails in Seattle, WA.

48° North (48N): How did you get into sailing?

Joe Grieser (JG): My buddy’s dad used to own a J/30 called Celebration that raced out here at Shilshole. We would skip school early on Wednesday afternoons and take three buses to get down here from Mukilteo in time to go racing. I started sailing with them as rail meat back in 1992, and eventually worked my way through the boat.


48N: So you did that until the end of high school and then what?

JG: While I was in high school, Paul Lamarche had just bought Obsession and he was two slips down at the end of T dock. I overheard him talking about volunteer crew and thought, ‘Well that sounds like fun.’ So, I went down and talked to him and gave him my phone number. He called three weeks into summer break after my junior year of high school and asked if I wanted a job. I said OK. He gave me the boat combo and told me to start scrubbing the boat. I worked for Paul for five years.


48N: Eventually working up to being a Captain at his Elliott Bay operation?

JG: Yeah.

Alex Simanis (AS): And Paul raced the boat a lot.

JG: He’d take it up to Southern Straits. He took the boat down to Mexico and did a Marina del Rey to Puerto Vallarta race in 1997, and then sailed it back.


48N: Were you were doing all that racing as a volunteer crew?

JG: No, I was never volunteer. I was always paid. Along the way, I got my USCG Captain’s license, and then I was a captain for him for two summers. Then went off on other boats and projects.


48N: How about you Alex – how did you get into it?

AS: I grew up sailing. My dad was a boat broker, and he used to race boats back in the day. I didn’t do much racing with my family; some sailing. My dad used to race on Paddy Wagon (the Ross 40) and a Cal 39. But, I always knew sailing. I did the bulk of my sailing when I was young at the Center for Wooden Boats. My dad was selling boats at the south end of Lake Union. So in the summertime, when I had nothing to do, I would go to work with my dad and go to Center for Wooden Boats and hang out there and work on boats. I think Skylar Palmer, a buddy of mine, and I were the youngest livery managers ever at Center for Wooden Boats. I think I was 12 or 13 years old. I was down there renting boats out because they didn’t have anybody else that knew what was going on at the time.

Then in 2000, I started volunteering for Paul down at the waterfront. I worked a summer for free and did some shadowing as a deckhand. I worked at the waterfront for over ten years and, like Joe, I got to race on the boats, too. I didn’t sail on Obsession, I sailed on Neptune’s Car, the Santa Cruz 70. I definitely started racing with Paul, but before you know it, you’re racing other boats here at Shilshole on Wednesday nights and the momentum builds. Pretty soon, I was sailing Olson 30s. Then I started working for John Buchan, doing the Glory program. I went to the Med and did the MedCup on the TP52. That leads to other sailing gigs. But it is all rooted here, in the boating industry.


48N: The path from livery manager at CWB to volunteer crew to sailing TP52s in the Med turns out not to be that long, huh? Obviously you began working in sailing at a young age, so tell me about how your perception of yourself as someone who wanted make a career out of sailing has developed over time?

AS: Honestly, I never thought I was going to do anything else other than work on boats. I worked in a ski shop a little bit. Other than that, it was all about working on boats. That’s all I wanted to do. It’s funny, I never even thought about other things.

JG: I didn’t either. Especially inhigh school, my focus was not on school. It was on sailing. I’ve always told myself, if I ever find a reason to do something else and go to college, I’d do it. But I haven’t found that reason. I left high school halfway through my senior year to go sailing. I went back and got my diploma. But at that point, I was 18 and I didn’t have to get parents’ permission. The school said, “if you miss any more school, you’ll have to retake your senior year.” And I called their bluff. I think we had a Southern Straits race, and I was going to have to miss a couple of days of school for that. I thought, ‘Eh, I’d rather go sailboat racing.’


48N: Speaking of, Alex, you just sailed Southern Straits and won. Congrats! It was a light one?

AS: There was some fairly good breeze in the evening. It was 27 hours to go 140 miles, so it was fairly light. The first day was light, but as the sun went down, we had good breeze for the rest of it. It was actually a really pleasant sail, and it was fun.


48N: Sounds a bit like two years ago, when it was moderate breeze, and it was reachy and warm. That’s about as pleasant as a Southern Straits is probably going to get.

JG: I remember one Straits race that was pretty much a reach the whole time. I think we flew a spinnaker for about five miles. It was a bowman’s dream of a Straits race.


48N: In that case, you hope it’s not cold, because then you’re just sitting around and freezing. Ok, so Alex was talking about sailing in the Med, and Joe I know you’ve gone to Hawaii a number of times. With the benefit of hindsight, what do you guys see as your proudest sailing career accomplishments or highlights?

JG: Three-sail reaching up the coast of Bimini on a TP52. (laughing)

AS: The 2005 TP52 Worlds in Miami. That was just a wild ride. It was 180 miles in 14 hours that included a six-hour beat. We were sailing the old Glory (formerly Yassou). We got second to last, I think. We only beat Braveheart, maybe we beat Pegasus. But it was one of those harrowing moments of insane speeds in a big race.


48N: So you’re talking about the same race on the same day? That’s pretty cool that your career highlight is the same experience.

JG: Yeah, that day at the worlds, I think it was blowing 30 knots. We’re doing 18-20 knots of boats speed with a blast reacher up, not even a spinnaker. There was 12-18 feet of water. It’s pitch black in the middle of the night, you can’t see anything. Another crewmember was calling off the depth as it was fluctuating. Somebody asked what’s going to happen when we run aground. The response was basically, “those of us that are still alive will walk to shore.”

AS: That was a wild race. It’s just something that will always stick out in my brain. I’ve done three races to Hawaii. Joe has done five. We’ve had a lot of rides. But that was a hell of a ride. It was crazy, and wet… very wet.

One of my other favorite things was my first race to Hawaii on Terremoto, the Riptide 35. The four people that went had never been across the ocean before. And we’re in a little boat – it’s a sport boat, essentially. We had a great sail. We almost broke the record. If it wasn’t light in the last day and a half, we would have at least tied the Santa Cruz 70 record. That was a fast ride. We had a 298 mile day. That was really amazing, but it also had its challenge with Susan’s (Burbank) broken ribs, not to mention Scott (Burbank) being seasick the whole time.


48N: The follow-up question is: What’s your worst day on the water? Biggest challenge? Scariest moment?

JG: I don’t know if I’d call it my worst day on the water, but on my first offshore delivery, we took a Tayana 37 down the coast with a family from Alaska. It was basically husband, wife, and nine-year-old kid. The dad was a pretty experienced longline fisherman from Alaska. I think I turned 19 on the trip and it was my first offshore experience. We left Newport, OR, on a nice day, and the weather quickly deteriorated. I had a concussion from getting flung across the aft deck by the mainsheet. I was adjusting the self-steering and the owner was watching me and not where he was driving and we jibed. The weather proceeded to get worse. We ended up on our sea anchor for three days. And we had a collision with a Coast Guard cutter.


48N: Whoa. They were out there to rescue you?

JG: Yeah. The owner, being used to the protocol for Alaskan fisherman, decided to call the Coast Guard to let them know we were out there. They thought it best to send a cutter out. At that point, I hadn’t been able to keep anything down, not even water, for like two days. They wanted me to put on my survival suit and jump in the water and swim over to them in 25-30’ seas and 60 knot winds. I was like, “No, as much as I’d like off this ride right now, I think I’ll stay.”

AS: When you’re on something that’s floating, it’s hard to get off of it.


48N: So what happened?

JG: The cutter stayed with us all night. And in the morning, they said the weather is going to get worse and stay that way for a few days. We were 70 miles west of Euraka, CA, which is where they’d come from. They wanted to go back there in a 25’ northerly swell. That wouldn’t have been good, so we talked them into taking us to Bodega Bay. They offered to tow us there. We had a big sea anchor with a trip-buoy. We wanted them to go hook the trip buoy and tow us with that – it was rigged with 300’ of double braid line hooked to a 75lb CQR with another 50’ of chain. Perfect tow gear, we thought. But they wouldn’t do that. We had to cut that free, and then we were barepoled going down these waves. The wife, Linda, is driving by the emergency tiller, because we’d broken the rudder cables. The cutter paralleled our course down a wave and hooked a big turn right in front of us and did a full stop right in front of us. We barreled right into them. We saw it coming and tried to wave them off. Linda was able to turn the boat a little, but we still lost the bow pulpit and cracked the hull from the stem to the keel and bent the headstay tang at a 45° angle.

That was kind of the end of it. They threw three heaving lines completely over the boat. To this day, I don’t know what I was going to tie that 4” hawser to. We took off for Bodega Bay, even though they said they weren’t sure they could let us do that. By the time we were getting into Bodega Bay, they had scrambled every boat they had stationed in Bodega Bay to escort us in, tie up our lines, and offer us pizza. Afterwards, the boat’s insurance company paid to fix the boat, but they fought the Coast Guard for three years to get reimbursed. As I understand it, once that boat got back to Eureka, all the officers on that boat were reassigned.

AS: That is a big story. I’ve heard Joe tell that story a few times, and everytime I hear it, it gives me chills.

JG: I have a vivid memory of laying on the cabin sole floor with no energy, puking my brains out. We took this wave while we were on our sea anchor, and it literally ripped the dorade boxes off the cabin house, and we had these big holes in the house where water is just pouring in and I’m laying there going, “Oh, that’s funny. What could go wrong next?” But, two months later I was back out in the ocean.


48N: Unreal. Alex, have you got a story that can hang with that one?

AS: I’ve got a decent one… I was doing a delivery to San Francisco on the old Voodoo Child, a Santa Cruz 52. We had a great trip going. We waited in Port Angeles for a weather window. It was right around Halloween – I remember that we had a Jack-o-Lantern strapped to the stern pulpit. We called it Wilson.

We were sailing off of Coos Bay, OR in a northerly – great breeze – and we had the 5A kite up with the full main during the day. It was one of those afternoons where it just gets windier and windier, so we took the kite down. We had thought it was a thermal, but when night came, it didn’t quit. We couldn’t get the weather fax to work very well, so we didn’t know that there was a big low down in Mexico sucking this big northerly toward it. On the Oregon and Northern California coast, the pressure gradients get so strong. So, we’re ripping. All night long it was blowing 35-50 knots. I remember that I was in my bunk off watch, and the Santa Cruz 52 is so quiet inside, and I was thinking, ‘man, I can hear water going by the hull, it must be kind of windy out there.’ I go up on deck and there are just massive waves in the stern light. I was like, “how’s it going out here?” And they said, “well, it’s blowing 50 and we’ve got the full main up plastered against the rig and we’re doing 18 knots full speed ahead.”

We actually sailed like that for two watches, with just the main. We couldn’t do anything about it. The main had a bolt rope, not slides, so pulling the main down was going to be a horror show with the main pinned on the rig. We just decided to run with it.

Over the course of the night, we’re getting lifted and lifted away from where we’re supposed to go. We decide that we’re going to chicken jibe the boat and tack around under main only, which is kind of a project. There were four of us on the boat, and we get everybody on deck. I was centering the traveler, and we caught a big frickin’ wave and it set the boat sideways and we jibed. It broke the preventer and the main came across. I was down on the cockpit floor with my head toward the traveler facing aft. The mainsheet on a Santa Cruz 52 angles from the back of the boat going forward as it goes up to the boom. When we jibed, the thing skinned the back of my head. We jibe into the runner, and I’m sitting there thinking I’m dead. It missed me, but I think I even said, “I’m hurt, I’m hurt… no, I’m ok!”

So we get up and see that we’re jibed into the runner, which is a bad thing, but we didn’t break the boom. But the boom had gone between the runner and the check stay, so the next move was gonna be horrible. So we decided to jibe back, and we just flung the boom across. When we did that, the tack of the main exploded and unzipped the luff of the main like 3/4 of the way up the mast. So now we’re going downwind in 50 knots of breeze with the tack of the main flogging out to leeward.

We tried to get the main down, but when we did the halyard got stuck in the rig around one of the spreader bars. So we’re pinned on our side. It was a great example of how one bad thing can make a lot of other bad things happen. It makes us sound like idiots, but we had four really competent people who had done lots of ocean miles. You can still get stuck in some bad situations. The only thing that broke was the tack of the main. It was just a harrowing four hours that seemed like three days. Laying there with the boat on its side, the main was flogging attached only by the clew and the headboard. How are you supposed to deal with that. You can’t grab it, and if you do, the tack would kill you. Eventually we let the halyard down, and it went out into the water like a spinnaker. I remember pulling the heavy 10oz dacron main into the boat, so wet and so tired. And we finally stuff this main into the cockpit, and we rolled out a corner of the jib and went from there. I felt embarrassed about because it was a delivery and we broke some gear. But also, nobody got hurt. I’d say it’s one of my worst moments. It’s the bad ones that stand out. There are lots of good ones with good memories, but it’s the bad ones that come to mind first.


48N: Tell me about the first boat you ever bought. 

JG: The first boat I ever bought was an old, cold molded, round-chined I-14. Bought it from a buddy for $700, and for an even grand, he threw in the ‘86 Mazda pick-up truck to tow it with. At that point, I didn’t have a driver’s license, so he parked it in the Shilshole parking lot, and I drove it around the lot teaching myself how to drive stick shift.

AS: The first boat I owned was a Thunderbird. I bought it with my friend, Skylar. I wasn’t even 16, because I couldn’t drive down to Hood River to get it. So yeah, Thunderbird.


48N: I’d be interested in any boat stories you guys want to share, but I know that you each are new owners (as of this year) in classic, older one-designs: Alex with your Thistle and Joe with your Moore 24.

AS: I bought a Thistle because I was looking for something for my girlfriend and I to sail one-design that was relatively inexpensive and easy to travel with. So a Thistle seemed like a good call. It’s the kind of boat I could sell quickly if necessary, or have a good time bombing around Lake Union on it. The wood rails were a little rotten on the boat I bought, so I had to fix and relaminate those, and I put some new outboard rub rails on it. Other than that, it just needed some varnish work and a little rigging. It’s an old fiberglass boat, but the hull is in great shape. It had been sitting in a yard without a cover on it. So everything was just ready to be revamped a little bit.


48N: And what’s the story with your Moore, Joe? 

JG: I sailed with a friend here on his Moore for a couple years, and then he sold the boat. I currently own an old 3/4 Tonner that I don’t sail all that much, and moorage keeps going up and I don’t sail enough, and I’ve got a kid. So, I was looking for something that was not going to cost me as much to keep. And the Moore 24 fleet is a lot of fun. There are seven or eight boat boats sitting in dry storage at Shilshole and there are great regattas between here and Santa Cruz. You can easily tow the boat to those events and have a fun weekend with the family. So I found this boat in Texas. It had been sitting in a guy’s driveway for ten or twelve years. I got it up here and I’m slowly just pulling all the deck gear, and have a few soft spots to re-core. Then I’ll re-rig it and go sailing! I’m hoping to have it put together in time to do Double Damned.


The kind of fun you can have on a Moore 24 like Joe just purchased. This one is owned by Ben and Jennifer Braden, and features Alex Simanis trimming.

48N: How did you guys wind up deciding to open an independent sail loft?

AS: We both had worked for Halsey-Lidgard here in Seattle. Gray Hawken owned it, and Doug Christie, who had been on scene for a long time, was managing it and doing all their sail designs. I worked there off and on through high school. I actually decided I didn’t really like it. Sitting and repairing sails got a little old and I wasn’t getting paid much. I was more interested in the production.

When I got back from the Med Cup, I was tired of traveling all the time. It sounds ridiculous, but I get really sick of being gone all the time to go sailing, especially on really big boats.

Around that time, the Lidgard loft went by the wayside, so Joe and I started talking. Doug was on his own then, too, and we decided to start a loft, even if we’re just building sails for our buddies. We got a little space and a couple sewing machines, and we started in the back of the building. It was the kind of thing we talked about over beers for a couple of years. Then all of a sudden, we were really busy. And people were bringing orders to us before we were really able to accommodate them. Don Wills, who owned Shoot the Moon, ordered a #1 from us before we had a sewing machine big enough to build a sail like that. So, we put a floor in at our current location while the fabric was being shipped to us. We bought a new sewing machine halfway through that project!


48N: As someone who found the mechanics of sail repair kind of boring at first, how has that changed for you over time? 

AS: It’s much different owning your own business, and I’m more interested in the design side of things than the production side now. There’s a lot of things you don’t deal with as an employee, and I think it’s fun owning a business. I also really like the people interaction, and when I was just doing repairs, I never interacted with customers. I wasn’t getting to talk boats, which I love.

JG: When I was working for Paul, he invited me to come in afterhours to work on his sails. I’d spend all my time hanging out at the loft, anyway. After a while, they started putting me to work, because I was around. I didn’t see it as a career move back then.


48N: What’s the best part of sailing with clients? 

AS: Just the knowledge transfer, I guess. I like sailing with people. I enjoy trying to make sure that they always have a takeaway of at least one little trick or one little principle. You go out with them, and you help them set their boat up, and you say all this stuff. It’s hard for them to remember all of that, but they’ll remember some little trick that’s going to make them faster. Like winging the spinnaker halyard around the headstay when you’re coming into the top mark so it doesn’t get hung up in the spreader. On the flipside, I learn from the people on the boat too. I am always struck by how great it is when I’m sailing with people who do it for fun. We do it for work. We do it for fun too, but when you do it for work you can forget that people are out there just enjoying their weekends. So I love that.


48N: What’s a very common sail trim mistake or misunderstanding that you see from your clients. 

JG: Oh…. Where to begin? Genoa lead position, oversheeting the piss out of stuff and not letting it breathe… oversheeting is a much more common problem than undersheeting. If you undersheet you can see it backwinding. I sail by people out there, and they’ve got everything cranked on way too hard, and their bow is up but they’re not going anywhere.

AS: People forget you have to get the foils working. The sails are the sails, but it’s the foils that are driving the boat upwind. So, if you think in terms of that, instead of having the sails sheeted in super tight, I think that helps some people. The sails have to work with the foils.


Joe’s boat, “Hagar,” is what his family cruises on each summer. Here, they’re doing Race to the Strait.

48N: I know you’re very active in the racing scene. Do you get a chance to do any cruising?

JG: We try to get away for about a week on our boat at the end of the summer. I like the South Sound. The Tacoma Narrows is like this wall that nobody goes by. They stack up in Gig Harbor or Quartermaster. You get by those places, and there’s not a lot of people down there and you can go pretty much anywhere and drop the hook.

AS: I haven’t really been cruising in a few years, other than just an overnighter in Poulsbo or something. We borrowed the Santa Cruz 33, Muffin, a few years back. Over two weeks, we went up to Princess Louisa, and also did the Gulf Islands. I enjoy cruising a lot, but it’s tough to find the time. If you have only three or four days, you can spend all your time getting there and back. Cruising plans are in the works for me at some point. I’d love to spend a couple of months cruising. It’s a whole different discipline of sailing.


48N: Would you do that on the Evelyn 32, or would you be looking for something else to do that trip on? 

AS: I like the idea of camping out on the little Evelyn 32. With no inboard, the charging thing would suck, but it’s totally doable. I cruised the half-tonner when I had that, and it was great. It sailed well in light breeze and you can get into small places. It would be sweet to have something more cruising-oriented down the road. So for now, I prefer something fast and responsive.


48N: If money is no object and you could have any single boat, what would it be? 

JG: Santa Cruz 52?

AS: Yeah, that’s a great option. The boat I really like for dual purpose was that Farr 1220, Kotuku. It sails really well, and you can definitely race it without a huge crew of people. And if you wanted to take off and go cruising for months, you could totally be self-sustaining on that boat. I find myself comparing a lot of other boats to that one.

JG: If money’s really no object, maybe a big Swan or something?

AS: Something under 50′ though. I don’t really want to have the whole professional crew thing. It would be nice to have one professionally paid person to make sure the boat looks good and is working. I did like that big Baltic that was here for a while last year. For sailing around here and taking a bunch of your buddies out sailing, you can’t do much better than a TP52.


48N: If you could be transported to any non-PNW location and go out sailing right now, where would it be? 

AS: I really liked Mexico.

JG: Whitsunday Islands.

AS: Ooh, that would be cool! I’ve never been there.

JG: I did Hamilton Island Race Week a number of years ago on a boat called Hollywood Boulevard, I think it was a Farr 52. I was in New Zealand at Franklin’s boat yard. We were building a new Reichel/Pugh 50 for a guy from San Diego. I was down there for a couple of months to oversee the construction. You can only be in the country for 30 or 60 days, so I had to fly out. On just about my last day, one of the guys I had just done a Vic Maui or Pac Cup with called me up right then and invited me to come out to Hammo.

AS: I also liked Sardinia. I’ve sailed there a couple of times, and I loved it. It’s a very high end location, but once you get out there, the water is warm, and it’s scenic. I liked Palma and Portugal, too. The Med is just a beautiful place to sail.


48N: Who was your most influential sailing mentor? 

Doug-ChristieAS: Probably Doug Christie. That’s the guy I think of when I think about how to make a boat go fast.

JG: Yep. Me too. I did three Hawaii races with Doug, either on Icon or Caruba. I sailed with him on lots of other boats as well.

AS: It’s a bummer not to have him with us anymore. But, every time I go sailing, I think about what he would say. And, it’s usually not very kind. He was a Kiwi. I can have that same mentality, though I think I might be a little more smoothed over than he was.

JG: (laughing) “Why the fuck are you doing it that way, mate?”


48N: What has you most excited about sailing in 2016?

JG: I always look forward to Race Week. I think I’ll be sailing with Charlie on Absolutely.

AS: I’m excited to take my own boat to Swiftsure this year. I’ve never done that before. We’ll do the Flattery Race. I’d go to the Bank, but there’s no other boats in my size range doing that, so you just wind up floating around out there by yourself all night. It’s such a Northwest tradition, and to have your own boat there in the Inner Harbor, it will be fun!

Alex Simanis and Joe Grieser are owners of Ballard Sails in Seattle, WA. Joe Cline is the Editor of 48° North.