Based in Marblehead, Massachusetts – Great Circle Sails could just be the greatest sailmaker you’ve never heard of…
Technology has had a big impact on the sailmaking industry with huge gains in materials, optimisation and efficiency. Those efficiency gains extend to the buying process where Brian Hancock, the founder of Great Circle Sails, believes that yacht owners the world over can benefit.
‘Sailmaking has changed a lot over the last two decades, not only in the technology that has brought hi-tech moulded sails made from space-age fibres, but in the way sailmakers are doing business,’ says Hancock. ‘Much of the manufacturing has been centralised with large “factories” producing the product and traditional sail lofts becoming more about sales and repair than sailmaking.’
Hancock served his apprenticeship and learned the craft as a hands-onroll- the-fabric-out-and-draw-thecurves- on-with-a-pencil sailmaker at one of South Africa’s foremost lofts. He is now one of the best-known sailmakers in the world.
After three Whitbread races as onboard sailmaker, long stints at Elvstrøm and Hood, and then finally working at Doyle, Hancock wrote the definitive book: Maximum Sail Power – The Complete Guide to Sails, Sail Technology and Performance. The book was given the seal of approval by sailing greats such as Dame Ellen MacArthur, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Skip Novak, who wrote: ‘this is a storehouse of information that demystifies the “art” of sails, sailmaking and repair.’
Hancock spent decades out on the racetrack and cruising grounds of the world studying flying shapes knowing that it was the key to understanding the optimisation of efficiency and speed. Along with a trusty sewing machine he worked his way around the world making, mending and improving sails.
Throughout it all he learned the craft of building beautiful, durable sails. Now with this new centralisation of sail manufacturing, Hancock has been able to start his own sailmaking business without actually owning a sail loft.
‘When I first started Great Circle Sails it was clear that there were very significant efficiencies that could be introduced to achieve big savings for the boat owner – at no loss of quality – by a massive reduction in overhead. It was also very clear to me that the skill of a sailmaker continues to be a very important quality component to the process. The right solution had to be a blend of the two approaches.’
There are a number of really great sail lofts that will manufacture for smaller vendors like Great Circle Sails making it possible for Hancock to acquire all types of excellent sails for boats as small as dinghies to as large as superyachts.
With the lofts located in different parts of the world he can buy from the facility that offers the best price given the seasonal nature of global sailing. Most of these lofts do not sell direct to individual customers in order to allow sailmakers like Great Circle Sails to take advantage of their centralised manufacturing and to sell at a profit.
Under Hancock’s watchful eye, Great Circle Sails has quickly grown its loyal customer base while being careful to introduce no unnecessary overheads.
‘Basically all I need is my laptop and an internet connection and I am in business and the best part is that because I don’t have any overhead, I can sell sails that are of equal quality to the big brand sailmakers at a much lower price and still make a decent profit.’
Customers find their way to the Great Circle Sails website and simply request a quote. The proposals are emailed and if there is an order, the process is all done through an online portal. Design and manufacturing happens under the supervision of experts no matter the kind of sail that’s needed, from high-tech moulded membrane sails to family cruising cross-cut Dacron sails.
‘The one regret I have about this new business model is that I don’t get to meet many of my customers, but I always give a shout out if I’m traveling to a regatta or popular cruising grounds. I’m always keen to buy customers a beer and share stories and feedback’ says Hancock, so if you happen to visit Marblehead, be sure to look him up.