Ocean Sails navigates a voyage of success
Working on what is probably the world’s largest canvas sail job for a private yacht, Steve Hollis still found time to talk about the business that has been his life’s work since 1980.
He and his wife Suzanne run Ocean Sails in St George. It provides cruising and racing sails, sail repairs, rigging and specialised custom canvas and upholstery.
The aforementioned major sail job under way incorporates 18,000 sq ft of canvas and awnings. A project of that magnitude comes with a lot of responsibility and it reflects the high regard that Mr Hollis and Ocean Sails command.
As he approaches 40 years running his own business, Mr Hollis’s time-honoured skills and handiwork place him apart from much of the competition. But with technology and other changes in the market he also wonders if small sail lofts, such as Ocean Sails, might vanish from the scene.
To date, diversification and changing tack when needed have served the business well, and it has undergone another change by reverting to its original name, having previously been known as Doyle Sailmakers Bermuda for the past 30 years.
The name change was the result of Doyle Sailmakers Inc being purchased by Doyle New Zealand and the group being rebranded as Doyle Sails International. An agreement could not be reached between Ocean Sails and DSI on the rebranding and expectations of the new company as it relates to the products and services Ocean Sails provides.
However, Mr and Mrs Hollis see the decision as a positive, enabling them to offer a wider variety of quality sail products from various manufacturers, and focus on high end custom canvas projects, such as “several large international marine canvas projects requiring impeccable detail to old-world craftsmanship”.
Mr Hollis said: “It has been a pleasure working with Doyle for the last 32 years. We have developed many professional friendships over these past three decades and we are looking to continue developing many more with the diverse manufacturers out there. We are excited for 2018 and look forward to providing more products that are tailored to our customer’s unique needs.”
Beyond building sails for local customers and some foreign boats, the business on Water Street East does all manner of canvas work for the sailing community, including dodgers, awnings and sail repairs, and canvases for use on land, such as shades for patios and barbecue areas. In addition, upholstery work is undertaken for interior use on boats and elsewhere.
“Anything that requires fabric,” said Mrs Hollis.
Walking into the reception area and workshop at Ocean Sails is like stepping into another world. Dotted around are all manner of odds and ends, tools, ropes, machinery and random pieces of sailing paraphernalia. That is part of the charm of Ocean Sails — it is likely to have just the thing a sailor needs to achieve a repair or replace a lost piece of equipment.
Bermuda’s position 700 miles from the nearest alternative landfall makes it an important stopping point option for seafarers seeking provisions or repairs. Ocean Sails’ longevity and reputation has helped it become known to many in the sailing world, it even features in glowing terms on Imary-Iolaire nautical charts as a key sailing resource for mariners in the Atlantic.
Mrs Hollis said the level of workmanship for which her husband is known plays an important part in the success of the business. That reputation is spread through the sailing community largely by word-of-mouth recommendations.
“They like what Steve had done and he gets the job,” she said as she related a story about Mr Hollis travelling to Germany to take measurements for sails and awnings of a boat, making the items in Bermuda, and then returning to Germany to be put on the boat.
“Everything went up for the first time and fitted perfectly.”
It is a trade that requires a high level of precision and attention to detail. When asked what skills are most needed to be a sailmaker, Mr Hollis said: “Maths is important. It is hands-on. You learn to use some maths, and technical drawing is a good part of it, as is working with your hands and thinking outside the box.”
He said having a good handle on the properties of different fabrics and what works in the ocean environment was important, and added: “Also, trying to figure a way how to do something more efficiently. There is not a lot of repetitive work. Every day is a learning day, and I think that should be the case for all jobs.”
He has been involved in sailing since he was a child, and as a youngster helped out at Jay Hooper’s Elvstrom sail loft in Bermuda. It was there that he picked up many of the skills he needed to succeed in the business. He later moved to a competing business to widen his experience, learning how to make and repair boat covers, biminis and do upholstery.
That eventually led to him becoming the owner of Ocean Sails. But as technology advanced it became apparent that the days of handmade sails were coming to an end. Sail lofts were growing in size and merging. Ocean Sails struck up its partnership with Doyle Sailmakers
“That allowed us to diversify and do canvas and big boat awnings, and to travel to France and Germany.”
Today, the business caters to a broad section of the sailing community. Sail repairs for the local fleet and transient visitors — many heading either to or from the Caribbean — are a large part of the workload.
“We do a lot of work on the tall ships that come in; we do work for them on rigging and sail repairs and we encourage some of the students who are crew to come and learn for a few days, and that is great,” said Mr Hollis.
Ocean Sails also directs visiting mariners to other resources on the island if they are required, such as for mechanical repairs. It works closely with other businesses, such as Outerbridge Machine Shop, to fulfil needs.
“In Bermuda, we are very fortunate to have great talent and machine shops,” said Mr Hollis.
Mrs Hollis takes care of the administration side of the business and deals with customers. She would like to do more on the creative side, and she does play a role with interior work on some boats.
She said: “You meet so many different people from all around the world. The sailing community is like a real family.”
Mr Hollis agreed, he said: “I get to go all over the place and have friendships all around the world. The sailing fraternity is a great group of people. Everybody is the same — it’s magic that way.”
The last ten years provided some challenges for the business, particularly when the recession hit and many guest workers departed. As an example of the impact, requests for biminis — open-front canvas tops for boats — have all but vanished since that time.
However, Ocean Sails survived. Mrs Hollis said: “We are lucky that we were able to diversify and had other options.”
The lead-up to last year’s America’s Cup was a busy time as boat owners had work done ahead of the event. A spin-off was the America’s Cup Endeavour Programme, which is based at the Bermuda Sea Cadets headquarters and encourages and supports young Bermudians who want to learn more about sailing. Ocean Sails is adjacent to the Sea Cadets building and has a close bond with the organisation.
Mrs Hollis said: “We have kids all the time; the Sea Cadets come up and learn how to tie knots and talk about travelling the world.”
Mr Hollis is thrilled by the Endeavour programme, and looking ahead he said it was important to have opportunities for Bermudians to progress to become captains of cruise ships, freight vessels and large yachts.
With that in mind, he noted that many transient sailors pass through Bermuda on their way to the Caribbean to collect or return their boat from its wintertime mooring. He sees an opportunity for Bermuda to market itself as an alternative winter mooring location for those boats.
“We need to embrace the transient visitor. A lot of people leave their boats down in places like Tortola. I think that Bermuda would be a good place to leave boats in the water,” he said.
“That piggybacks on the future for a lot of Bermuda where you could have new opportunities for graduates from the Spirit of Bermuda. You have Sea Cadets that are looking for careers. If Bermuda can handle it we could steer in the right direction.”
More information about Ocean Sail products and services can be found at https://www.oceansails.com/ or on Facebook at oceansails.
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