Nathaniel Wilson, Sailmaker
April 16, 2018
Tell me how you got here.
I was born in Boston. My family had been coming here to this area in Boothbay since the 1890’s for summers. Five generations, including my kids, and my granddaughters are the sixth generation. My father was an engineer. I went in the service in 1969 and enlisted in the Coast Guard for a four year tour, and ended up in a position where I was stationed at New London at the Coast Guard Sail Loft. I made sails for the Coast Guard fleet of boats, and that’s how I got started. I went over to Mystic when I got out of the Coast Guard and worked at the Seaport for a year and a half, and basically worked myself out of a job, and came up here and started a business. I started this business myself in February 1975. It was a good base, a good place to start when I was 26 or 27 years old.
How did you decide to pursue sailmaking? And what do you like about it?
I graduated as an arts major, in painting, graphics, photography. I like the artistic side of it, the aesthetic side of the work. What I was seeing at Mystic and the Coast Guard were the older type of sails. I liked the way they were built, with a lot of hand work, and I wanted to know how to do it. Mystic gave me the chance to look at sails and study them and practice how to do that, and I based my business on that same principle since I started. The type of sail I did when I started. . . the people that were left doing it were closing their shops and retiring. Every port in New England, every seaport, places like East Boothbay, all had a sailmaker. The business model was changing for sailmaking. They were not viable anymore. That was the only place I could compete, here in Maine; there were a few lofts like that and they were all shutting down and nobody was taking over. So now I am at the point in life where they were when I started. I’m still doing the same business model; it’s always given us work, interesting work, varying projects. It’s enjoyable – it’s the creative side of it for me, the design aspect, understanding how it was done 200 years ago.
The exchange of knowledge through social interactions and experiential education seems extremely important in waterfront communities. How does that apply to your work?
That’s absolutely right. Fifty years ago, there was a boatbuilder in every community, or a lobsterman building a boat over the winter who had help from a guy who had more experience than him. That type of boat construction is done less now. . . it’s gone by the wayside. What we’re doing here, with the sails laid out. . . they’ll interpret the shape on the floor, they lay the panels and cut it. They look at the shapes, they stand back – yes, no, a little more curve here, a little more shape here, go with it. That’s how the industry was done for hundreds of years. It was all done to standards. That’s the part that people don’t realize today. They think you can’t duplicate it, but that’s not the case. It was all highly technical, it goes all the way down. Sailcloth is highly technical; you can only work with the best materials. If you start with poor cloth, you’ll end up with a poor sail.
What elements are important to you within your work?
For many years, I was the principal person up here, doing the design work, the sail-making, and the business. And, as I’ve gotten older, for the last ten years or so, I haven’t done as much of the sailmaking part, which I miss because I’m creative. I like to build things with my hands, but I also like teaching the skills. In all trades, we need to teach skill, we need to teach the right skills in the right way, in the same way I was taught to do it. To pass that down to people who go off and use the skills in all kinds of business. . . . If you learn that practice and how to think spatially and think creatively, you can pretty much do anything.
Tell me about the nature of your work.
We’re in a custom niche market – we deal with people who are restoring historic boats, nonprofits that have historic vessels, museums, state and federal government that have historic vessels. We’re somewhat doing replication, or historic representation of sails, so that’s totally different. We do a lot of work for schools, The Apprenticeshop, Iris. . . They want sails that represent the historical aspects of their project and it helps carry on the training process of the skills, so they can train people to do this going forward. For me, that’s far more interesting because the nature of the work can vary considerably over the course of the year. There are more people getting into that. Local small guys who are competing with big corporate lofts are starting to see the value of what we’re doing. There are young people moving into this market that I’ve been sort of dominating for years.
Tell me about your relationship with the waterfront. And tell me about your children’s relationship with the water. How did they choose to pursue a life on the water?
As far as the waterfront is concerned, I fought hard, along with other people here in East Boothbay, to maintain this maritime district. The working waterfront. It was working harder before it was called working waterfront. It was the waterfront – that’s where commercial activity always was. These yards that are here in this village might not have been here if we hadn’t done that because the pressure to develop them in other ways was pretty strong and I think that’s what needs to be done – we need to protect maritime districts, that’s what I call them. So I moved here in this shop in 1979, and Eben and Nattie and Nick as well. Two of them out of three followed…they like being on the water more than they like being in the shop. Eben lobsters and works here part-time and Nattie is a yacht captain and has traveled a great deal. They’re just naturally connected to it, and they’re very good at their jobs. At some point, with the physical qualities of being a lobsterman, Eben may want to be a sailmaker and have a shore-based job, but I think he’ll always be connected with the sea in some way.
How has the local culture changed?
When my boys were little, dogs ran free, dogs ran to the school bus, kids came home. . . if you saw someone else’s dog in the front yard, you know Morgan came home with the boys or someone else came home with the boys because they were always with their dogs. The culture was much different and I think it could come back. Things have changed so much. These shipyards were completely open. Kids would go down there and play in the yards. They weren’t closed and secured. They could go down and climb on the staging and help with planking or something. My kids would come up here (to the loft) and ride their bicycles and tricycles, kicking around here. . . . Any place near the water today has been gentrified. When I bought this place in the late 70’s in East Boothbay, pretty much everybody that lived in the village proper worked in one of the shipyards, but that was the beginning of the change. Nobody was buying property in the village, because you could buy shorefront with your dock and float somewhere else. As those become more expensive and scarce, people started to buy in the village here. There are very few people who live in the village proper and work here, unless they already lived here before 1980, because of the cost of homes. And that’s too bad. We need to balance property values with the economy where you live, instead of something that’s gonna look good on a glossy magazine. You have to maintain the character by maintaining the property and the youth. If you can do that, you’ll always keep people coming there. I call it creative action, to get people in there, once you start to break that down and divide it up with other kinds of shorefront development that’s not related to the maritime industry, there’s competition for the community to have to deal with noise and pollution. . . . If I hadn’t bought this when I bought it in 1979, and made this shop here, I wouldn’t be here. I couldn’t afford this square footage. I’d be up on Route One or North Edgecomb somewhere. If I had to rent this space, I couldn’t make it. It’s restricted, being in the maritime district. I can only sell it for marine related industry, if I sold it. Plus my house is here, so I’d be losing my house too. Anybody on the shorefront in the marine industry needs some sort of a relief on property values if they’re going to continue in the marine related industries. It can’t just be the highest and best use.
Could you imagine your life without the water?
I thought about that, but I really like being in tune with the environment outside. I can look out and tell you where the wind’s coming from and what the tide’s doing. You’re connected in a different way. You have a bigger horizon than if you’re not able to see out in front of yourself. As long as I can afford to live here, I’ll stay right here.