The Sail Maker

Jim Stubbs brings the art of and science of sailing together.

Jim Stubbs photographs taken on the Schooner Welcome. Courtesy new owners Jeremy & Marissa McArdlee.It’s hard to imagine a more exotic trade than the sail maker. He designs and builds a defining archetype, the very thing that gives the sailboat its name. The sailing vessel itself extends back in time through the millennia, carrying fishermen, cargo, explorers and settlers throughout the known and unknown parts of the world. And the vast majority of these ships depended upon their sails and the wind to get them to where they were going.

Whether it was a simple fishing boat sailing the ancient Nile, captain James Cook’s square riggers slowly wending their way through the islands of Polynesia, or a sleek, new America’s Cup yacht plying a race course, every sailing ship requires a designer to develop an effective sail plan and a craftsman to build an efficient sail. In the last century, the craft of sail-making has evolved into a thoroughly modern art and science. Nowadays sail makers tend to be few and far between, but it’s worth noting that Hilton Head Island has one to call its very own.


As the son of a naval officer, Jim Stubbs was born with salt in his veins. “If your hometown has a U.S. Naval seaport,” he said, “then we probably lived in it.” His parents, George and Jeanne Stubbs, have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1999 and are now retired.

Stubbs grew up in the shadow of the U.S. Naval fleet in deep-water harbor cities such as San Diego, CA, Norfolk, VA, and New London, CT. He took up the game of tennis during his formative years, but it wasn’t until his family moved to Norfolk, near the sailing Mecca of the Elizabeth River, that he discovered his passion. He was nine years old when he hoisted his first sail at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club where he sailed in national events in junior fleets.

Stubbs further refined his sailing skills when his father was transferred a few years later to New London. Here, on the fabled waters of the Mystic River and Long Island Sound, he crewed on a variety of cruising and racing yachts, and participated in more junior programs. “It’s a tremendously fertile area for sailing,” Stubbs said. “The season only lasts a few months, but there’s nothing like it.”

Wherever his family moved, Stubbs took with him a love for the sea and sailing. Upon graduation from high school, he matriculated to the University of Colorado. While there, his parents were off to Pearl Harbor where his father was appointed commander of the naval base. “It’s a huge honor to get that assignment,” Stubbs said. “I mean, it’s Pearl Harbor. And it was great for me, because I was in college in Colorado. I’d ski in the winter, and then get to go see my parents for the holidays in Hawaii.”

In landlocked Boulder, Stubbs immersed himself in the game of tennis. After graduating in 1986 with a degree in recreational business, he eventually found his way to Hilton Head Island where he found work as a licensed instructor. In 1996 he started Awesome Adventures, a unique “concept” camp for the children of visiting families that allowed parents to enjoy some offspring-free time by themselves. One of the activities the camp offered was sailing – a program based at the Harbour Town Marina. Here the kids learned to sail on a J-24, a small, one-design racing sloop.

It wasn’t until 1999 that Stubbs got back into racing. When he finally did, it was aboard a beautiful J-105 owned and skippered by island attorney Rick Weiters. “Rick’s a really great guy with a heart of gold,” Stubbs said. “He can be tough on the water, but he knows how to bring together a tight crew and take care of them.”

Stubbs crewed aboard Wieter’s yacht the next four years in races along the Southeastern seaboard. During this time, he met a sailor by the name of Tom McCartney at a racing seminar at the South Carolina Yacht Club. McCartney owned and operated the local sail loft, and joined Wieter’s J-105 crew as a tactician. McCartney’s tenure, however, would be short-lived. Shortly after making Stubbs’ acquaintance, McCartney unexpectedly announced that he was going to be leaving town and putting his loft up for sale.

McCartney’s loft was part of the Quantum Sail Design Group, which was and is recognized as one of the best makers of racing and cruising sails in the world, and Stubbs knew that he wanted to buy it. After apprenticing with McCartney for several months, he finally took ownership in the late fall of 2002. A main supplement to most sail loft businesses is custom marine canvas work, and Stubbs’ loft would be no different. Today he designs and makes fine custom canvas for sailboats.

The art of the sail

To the layperson, fashioning a sail might seem to be a simple matter of cutting a large piece of cloth into a very large triangle. If only it were that easy. “One thing people don’t realize is that sails are three-dimensional,” Stubbs explains. “They are not flat. What you want is for the sail to have some ‘belly’ to it, which sailors call camber or draft. It’s the camber that gives the sail its lifting characteristics.”

The phenomenon of lift is what propels the sailboat. So when you think about it, the sail’s shape is the key to its effectiveness. Sailing upwind, for instance, the sails need to behave like an airplane wing by essentially becoming “flat.” When sailing downwind, the sail needs to become more like a windbag. So, when wind conditions change, or when the boat’s course changes relative to the wind, the skipper needs to be able to “reshape” the sail. Making a high quality air foil that can do both is a painstaking process. It can also be very expensive. “On a average yacht of 35 to 45 feet, a full compliment of cruising sails can cost $10,000,” Stubbs said. “On an America’s Cup racing yacht, the sail inventory can easily total $120,000. Of course these syndicates are running on budgets of $20 million to $50 million.”

Most cruising sailors only want to buy one of each kind of sail, and they want each to be effective in a variety of conditions. As sailing technology has advanced, especially over the past few years, these all-purpose sails have become remarkably efficient. They’ve also become increasingly durable, with a good set of well-kept sails often lasting 15 to 20 years. And, this is largely due to better materials that have been developed in recent years.

Today, most sails are made of woven polyester, which was patented years ago as Dacron. Racing sails, on the other hand, are often made of Kevlar, which has been around since the 1970s. Racing sails are very light, very expensive, and live very short lives. “It isn’t unusual for a racing boat to get new sails every year – or every couple of years – to stay competitive in their class,” Stubbs said.

Sails and canvas

The Quantum loft is tucked away in a warehouse on Otter Hole Road in Hilton Head Island, which also accommodates the custom canvas side of his business. While larger sails are made in Quantum’s production lofts in Annapolis and Cape Town, South Africa, Stubbs makes sails for boats up to 24 feet in length on-site. On any given day, he pads around in socked feet on the loft’s wood floor, which is a maze of Dacron, canvas and sewing machines. In recent years, the craft sail-making has met the computer age. Powerful computer aided design (CAD) software and laser technology (used in cutting individual panels for the sails) has helped eliminate errors and added a new level of precision to the process. Quantum also has a relationship with University of Maryland, which gives them access to a state-of-the-art wind-tunnel to test the effectiveness of various designs. But there is a side to the process that remains very much an art. Ultimately it requires a seasoned eye to fit a sail not only to a boat, but to its captain.

Racing remains Stubbs’ passion. He’s a member of the South Carolina Yacht Club and actively sails and races his own J-24. “Hilton Head Island has to be one of the best day-sailing venues around,” he said. “You’ve got Calibogue Sound, Port Royal Sound, and easy access to the open Atlantic. In the racing community, you have good committees and knowledgeable people.”

It’s been 20 years since Stubbs first crossed the bridge to the island, and a lot of water has passed under it in that time. He now has a wife, Vaiden, and three  children – Charlotte, Caroline, and Catherine ages seven, six and three, respectively. In the past two decades Stubbs has also developed that rare thing: a unique and viable business that doubles as his passion. “I still love what I do,” he said. “And our life here on the island allows me do it.”