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75 Years of UK Sailmakers

Published on October 11th, 2021

Founded in 1946 in City Island, New York by Charles “Buster” Ulmer as Charles Ulmer, Inc., UK Sailmakers is one of the world’s oldest groups of sail lofts. WindCheck magazine sits down with Charles “Butch” Ulmer to discuss his father’s founding of the company that bears his name, and its evolution.

Was your Dad a sailmaker from the get go?
Well, as long as I can remember, yes. Dad was one of the head guys at Ratsey & Lapthorn in City Island. He was exactly the same age as Ernest Ratsey who was Colin’s father, and they were very, very close friends. He had a little disagreement with George Ratsey, the father, so he left to go work for Fuller Sails. Fuller was a pretty good sized New York sailmaker, who built the building at City Island where the Ulmer loft was. They did a lot of war work during the second World War. They built a lot of things like gun covers, trap work, things like that for the Navy ships.

Dad ended up as a partner with Gunner Valentine, an old Norwegian who ran another City Island loft called Valentine Sails. Gunner Valentine had been a sailmaker on square riggers, and the Valentine family had a loft for a number of years on City Island. But in 1945, the loft caught on fire. My grandfather was a fireman, and he took me through the loft afterwards. I remember walking through the burned out building. In fact, if you go into the building now and look in some of the places, there’s still charred wood in there.

But it was built as a loft, so my father got some investors and my mother had been Henry Nevins’ private secretary at Nevins Yacht Yard [the builder of America’s Cup defender Columbia and yacht Brilliant). And so in 1946 they started in business. My father was a Star sailor, and he had been head cutter over at Ratsey’s, which was basically the person who shaped the sails in those days, all by eyeball. They started by making one-design sails. There was a Star fleet in City Island, and Snipes, Lightnings and Comets too. They were all very popular one-design classes, so he was pretty successful right from the start. – Full report

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