- March 31st, 2010
- in Yachting
The Mechanics of Quantum – In a quest to find out what makes the loft tick, YG sat down with Quantum's BVI chief, Kevin Wrigley, who gave us a look at the philosophy and practices of sailmaking, Quantum-style.
The technology of sailmaking is a never-ending, evolving process. We have a research partner at the University of Maryland, in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. It's one of the few facilities where they have a wind tunnel for testing, computer modeling and so forth. We have patents on our own product lines. Now there are a lot of customers, but it's not as big as, say, the auto industry, so you're constantly fighting to make money because it's not one of the most profitable businesses to be in. It's more of a lifestyle career than a get-rich-quick career. But competition is pretty tough, which is why a lot of us sort of banded together.
Quantum sails originally grew out of Sobstad Sails. There are a lot of smaller sailmakers out there that stay locally active, too, as well as the internet guys in Hong Kong or wherever. But they're not using the high-end fabrics—they don't have the research and development teams that we do. If it's a bad cut, you're stuck with it. The service side of it, if the sail comes and it doesn't fit—too long, too short—the design shape is all wrong, you're kind of at a loose end as to where to get it waranteed or fixed.
Whereas with the bigger lofts, like ourselves, everything we sell, of course, we guarantee and warrantee. And because we're larger and have facilities around the world, you can always get it fixed. If your sails are poorly cut, too much draft say, then you're just heeling and making lots of leeway. Every half a knot is half a knot, and it can be another day you're at sea or it's more difficult to run away from a storm or get back to the harbour before dusk, it all plays a part. Plus the cheaper fabrics will stretch and won't last as long as the higher-end fabrics.
We don't manufacture here, but we do service here. Pretty much all our construction is in South Africa, where there are advantages in terms of labour cost. Plus, it's a really good location to distribute from. KLM, which is the airline we use, flies from Cape Town to Holland, which is our distribution point for Europe. Also, we've got a big superyacht loft in Holland where we do sails for the big boats. And there are direct flights to the US which we use as well. We've shipped sails from South Africa to Fiji and other locations which are all easily reached from there.
A lot of our performance cruising products and our racing products are made in South Africa or Malaysia. Those are one-piece membrane load-cut type sails. Charter boats and people who are cruising, of course, mostly prefer Dacron because it lasts forever, and it's easy to repair no matter where you are in the world; you don't need any special materials to do it. Some of the membrane-type sails need special machinery to fix them. We have a fabric which we've made totally in-house with double side adhesive under high pressure—these fabrics are working out really well. We're having really good success on the cruising side, the megayacht side and, of course, the racing side. As to durability, we haven't had any sails come back to us, which is good. We guarantee against de-lamination. With the new adhesives that are available to us now, and using tremendous pressure, we're finding that the sails are staying together and lasting. Great for roller-furling systems for Genoas and for in-mast or in-boom furling systems on mainsails. We're not having any problems with them standing up. One of the drawbacks of any laminate sail is mildew from when they get put away wet. Spores start to grow, and they get some mildew in the sail and it's very difficult to get out. It's cosmetic—it doesn't damage the sail at all. But if you take care of your sails and put them away dry at the end of your sailing season or your cruise you shouldn't have a problem. The laminating process has evolved along with the research we are doing in the US and Malaysia and SA. The stuff's working together really well.
In terms of trends, all the big sailmakers are trying to go in-house with their product to try to save money. A lot of the polyester and woven fabrics are becoming much better than they were 5-10 years ago which is great—it's not stretching and losing its shape as quick as it used to. It's not as expensive as it was either, so it's more affordable for the offshore cruiser, and you’re getting some good performance out of the fabric.
We guarantee our Fusion products against de-lamination. We guarantee our Dacron for four years. Every year we like to see the sail and service it. On a busy charter boat, like the Moorings' boats, they're getting say five or six years out of a sail. Each year being the equivalent of five years of your average cruiser. We build all the sails for all of the catamarans that are built in South Africa that come over to the Moorings. That's great for the company—it gets our name out and that really helps. It's a good market to test in as well because your average charterer doesn't have a lot of experience on big boats so the sails take quite a beating—flogging, chafing up against the rig and so on.
While Quantum Group tends towards the racing sailboat side, our cruising side is becoming more and more strong. Here in the BVI, our niche is mainly in the charter boats and the cruising boats. Through February, March and April, we see a lot of racing boats passing through—with Antigua, the Heineken and BVI Spring Regattas, so we do get quite a few repairs, and we sell a few sails for the race boats and the local BVI-based boats as well. But our big seller is Dacron and woven products in to the charter industry and the cruising fleet.
The BVI draws a group of people that haven't been hurt so much by the recession in the economy. It's an expensive destination to get to. People need to get their sails fixed, they need to get their canvas redone. The sun is such an element to the boats that canvas is always a big seller as well. Lots of awnings, lots of winch covers, hatch covers.
We haven't had to lay anybody off over the past year, and this season since November it's been very, very busy. Sometimes it's better to have that extra person rather than too few because then you can pick up bigger projects, and that really helps. Plus, because we take out the middleman, the manufacturer of the fabric, and do it all in-house, it's cheaper to the customer.
It's an ever-changing industry. From week to week, day to day, year to year, everything changes—new materials, new technology—everything's getting lighter and stronger.
Over the last year, we saw a lot more people repair their sails and their canvas than there were replacing them—trying to get through another year. It's all work and service at the end of the day—and service is a big part of making money. On the new sails side there's not as much profit. But once you have a new customer for your sails, you typically have that customer for as long as they're in the region for their sails, their repairs, their canvas. Once you're in the door, it's a good thing.