Demand for awnings helps business to sail on
When Steven Hollis first started Ocean Sails he crafted sails, he was a competitor and the yachting season started in October.
A lot has changed in the 48 years since then.
Ocean Sails is now the only business of its kind in Bermuda, and Mr Hollis doesn’t really make sails any more.
“The exciting thing about this job is that it changes, and we have adapted through the changes,” Mr Hollis said.
Ocean Sails’ main focus now is making solid or mesh awnings for buildings and boats.
“It was apparent we couldn’t be competitive and make sails here with our labour costs and import duty,” he said.
“People could buy elsewhere. But that enabled us to concentrate on other aspects of the business: canvas, upholstery, rigging. Last year we completed for the third time a complete suit of awnings for a 300ft classic motor yacht. It is that kind of work that is really exciting.
“We get to travel and do some pretty incredible projects that we have to come up with solutions for. We have a 200ft schooner that is a customer. They were based in Spain, but they are on their way to the Pacific now. She has been a client of ours for many years. I would go to Saint-Tropez to measure her. I got to sail in some of the regattas with their 15m classic 100-year-old boat.”
When The Royal Gazette spoke to Mr Hollis, he was working on a bimini shade top for a customer whose previous shade top was stolen from their boat.
“I have just quickly designed another one,” he said. “After getting the measurements, I will go ahead and bend the frame and give them a new top, hopefully for this weekend.”
The business started out on Trott Road, in Hamilton, then moved to St George’s in 1980, at a time when new technology and materials were coming into the sailing industry, much of it inspired by the America’s Cup. In 2001, they bought the building they are currently located in at 60 Water Street.
The historic building has previously been a cattle pen, a spar loft, a lodge, an upholstery shop, and most recently, a dry cleaners. Tourists often wander by and peer inside out of curiosity. Mr Hollis invites them in and shows them around.
The Hollis family renovated the place considerably, putting in a series of special sewing machines to deal with different aspects of stitching sails and awnings. Each sewing machine, has a specially built pit next to it, so that the stitcher can sit below the floor while they work.
“That makes the entire floor our table,” Mr Hollis explained.
While he works, his blue macaw parrot Terry sits on his shoulder, inspecting his work. Terry, as it turns out, is the real master of 60 Water Street.
Things haven’t always been easy for Ocean Sails; the recession of 2008 hit hard.
“We certainly felt the pinch when we had that mass exodus of people leaving Bermuda,” Mr Hollis’s wife, Suzanne, said. “We still haven’t recovered locally. We used to bend two frames a week (for bimini tops on boats), and now we haven’t even brought in stainless steel for ten years.”
Their staff numbers have reduced from six to three.
Now the Hollis family are wondering what’s coming next. Brexit in Great Britain, and the US presidential election are looming on the horizon.
“Brexit will effect the European boats going to the West Indies, I’m sure,” Mr Hollis said. “There will be uncertainty over which British boats will go and which ones will get laid up. The US goes through an election next year. That has an effect. I bear that in mind when we stock goods for the servicing of these boats.”
He fell in love with sailing as a young kid and started working for Jay Hooper Sails at 13 years old.
“I started off untangling rope and cleaning up and learning where everything was,” he said.
Today, he has a 16-year-old boy learning the trade with him.
Mr Hollis is 63 but has no thoughts of retirement.
“What would I retire from?” he shrugged. “I love what I do.”
For more information call 297-1008 or see oceansails.com
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