Harford County family cruises in the sailmaking business


Skelley Sails started as an innocent family diversion.

Ralph and Sally Skelley would pack a picnic and take their three young children sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. It was good fun, especially for Mr. Skelley, who grew up in Western Maryland dreaming of sailing the high seas.

Sailing gradually got into the Skelley blood, and eventually the family bought a boat and was sailing nearly every weekend.

Family members plunged into the competitive world of sailboat racing. Then, 18 years ago, they decided sailing wasn't enough -- they wanted to design, produce and sell sails throughout the country.

Skelley Sails was born.

"When you first step on a boat, you realize that sailing isn't easy," Mr. Skelley said. "Then it becomes a challenge to get good at it. It takes a few years, and by that time, it becomes a way of life. It's very serene, being out there."

The Skelleys of Havre de Grace are now to sailing what the Ripkens are to baseball.

Their son, Max, 29, is on the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team. He has competed all over the world and is trying to qualify for the 1996 Olympic sailing competition in Savannah, Ga.

Their daughter, Leslie, 26, is production manager at Skelley Sails, the family's sailmaking shop, and has won several local sailing races.

Another daughter, Libby, 27, accepted a job transfer to Charleston, S.C., only after she learned that the city is near the water and would afford ample sailing opportunities.

Ralph and Sally Skelley still sail often, but these days they're more likely to be found on land, running their sailmaking shop in Havre de Grace, a business that has expanded to include a repair shop at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Skelley Sails is a representative of the Sobstad Group, an international network of sailmakers that uses the latest manufacturing technology.

On most days, the small workshop at Skelley Sails is busy: The staff of seven produces and repairs hundreds of sails each year.

Most customers are from Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Many ask the Skelleys to clean and repair sails. Repairing grommets and resewing sails to strengthen seams, which are loosened by the sun's ultraviolet rays, are two common repairs.

But it's the designing and building of custom sails that makes up the bulk of the Skelleys' business.

Each Skelley sail is designed on a computer, with customer input, detail by detail, bucking the mass production trend in manufacturing sails. They used to be designed on paper, hand plotted and cut, which would take up to 12 hours per sail.

Now, the same process takes as little as 15 minutes, thanks to a $60,000 automatic plotter/cutter. It's a 48-foot long table with a computerized cutting wheel that slides on tracks along the length of the table.

"We used to be on our hands and knees with a notebook, calculating each panel of a sail before we cut it," said Mr. Skelley, 54. "Then we did it on calculator, and that cut off some time, and then we got the computerized cutter, which took a lot more time off."

The time saved in production is spent designing sails, which have become specialized and sophisticated, he said. Mr. Skelley uses computer-aided design and works with high-tech materials like Kevlar, Mylar and custom materials.

The days of simple, white, Dacron sails are fading quickly.

Sails are now dayglow pink, fluorescent orange and lime green with appliques, corporate logos and abstract graphic designs.

"People like to get creative and add their own personal touch," said Mrs. Skelley, 50.

New sails range in price from about $900 for a Mylar sail for a 22-foot boat to $10,000 for a racing sail for a 50-foot boat. The newer sail materials are lighter and stiffer with less stretch, allowing boats to travel faster. And in racing and often in cruising, speed is the name of the game.

Sails are designed according to the size of a boat, whether it's used for racing or cruising, and the client's preferences. Each sail is constructed from individual panels, which are sewn together. The layout of the panels varies and is much like a complicated, high-tech jigsaw puzzle.

Now, the Skelleys mostly go sailing with customers, Mr. Skelley said. He and Mrs. Skelley recently sold their boat, a J-24 racing model.

They're not sure they'll buy another because of the time it takes to care for one.

Leslie Skelley, who often sails near Havre de Grace with clients who need sailing advice, said, "Just trying to read the wind and deal with Mother Nature is very peaceful."

She is also keeping the business in the family: She is engaged to Bill Howard, the company's sales manager.

No, they aren't getting married on a boat. The ceremony will be at an estate on a cliff overlooking the Susquehanna River, as boats sail by below.

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