A maritime legend retires

Posted 8/28/19

Through the tall windows of the Point Hudson sail loft where Carol Hasse has built an international name for herself, sunlight blasts off walls and soaks into rolls of sail cloth in all colors. It fades photos of finished sails tacked up there 40 years ago when she was getting started, alongside new patterns, designs and details of the works in progress she makes by hand from start to finish.

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A maritime legend retires

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Through the tall windows of the Point Hudson sail loft where Carol Hasse has built an international name for herself, sunlight blasts off walls and soaks into rolls of sail cloth in all colors. It fades photos of finished sails tacked up there 40 years ago when she was getting started, alongside new patterns, designs and details of the works in progress she makes by hand from start to finish.

“If I were 30, I would sign up for another 40 years,” she said on an August afternoon as Port Townsend was gearing up for its 43rd Wooden Boat Festival, which she helped start and where she’s a star.

But Hasse is retiring and selling the business that has taken her to all points of the compass to sculpt the wind just so for sailors who want more than the mass-produced wings made by name-brand manufacturers. She’s been the subject of documentaries and how-to videos and is in demand among off-shore cruisers.

“With the physical beauty of this space, the light, the view of Point Hudson, the Cascades in the distance and the water, there’s not a time when I can’t look up and be grateful about the beauty of it,” said Hasse, perched in the spot that’s become a kind of mecca for sailors.

In 1975, Hasse sailed into the Point Hudson Marina and never left. Now, 68, she is planning to retire from owning Hasse & Co. Port Townsend Sails in 2021 and is looking to pass her sailmaker’s palm and needle to the perfect person.

SAILING INTO PT

Hasse’s life in sailmaking began with a year of cruising by sail.

“It was just this marvelous experience,” she said. “I knew all I wanted was to own my own boat.”

It was her dream to own a sailboat and spend her life sailing around the world. But she never expected she would start a business that grew the way hers did.

Learning about different rigs and sails while cruising, Hasse began to take an interest in sailmaking and studied the art with Franz Schattauer in Seattle, while at the same time building a communal boat with a group of free-thinkers in Bellingham.

“I had a lucky break of learning the quality of handwork,” she said. “It can be fixed by hand at sea. It’s more durable, maintainable and it’s more beautiful.”

Maybe it was luck, fate, or perhaps just the wind that blew Hasse’s boat into Port Townsend, where the airy sail loft building was open and waiting for a new business to get off the ground.

“When Hasse and that group of maritime trade workers settled here in the late 70s, Port Townsend was a sleepy, backwater town,” said Robert D’Arcy, who has captained the Schooner Martha in Port Townsend since 2000. “It took a great deal of vision to understand what could be built here.”

Rent was cheap in Point Hudson at the time and Hasse, though maybe reluctant to start a business at first, knew that there was an opportunity there.

“I was trepidatious of making the commitment to business ownership,” she said. “But it was an opportunity to create my own culture. I realized that if you could create a product and serve a need, you can create a business.”

Hasse convinced her friend Nora Petrich to move to Port Townsend from Bellingham to be her business partner. For the first six months of owning the sail loft, Hasse and Petrich lived in the loft, sleeping under the sewing tables. Six months later, Petrich had an apartment in Port Townsend, but Hasse continued to live in the sail loft for two and a half years. Although she could have rented her own apartment, she spent her first few business earnings on buying and fixing up a boat.

For Hasse, the business has always been much more than just a way of making money. It was a way for her to do what she loved. It also allowed her to be a part of a community that she loves, do a lot of sailing in her 1959 25-foot Nordic folkboat, “Lorraine,” and get involved in sail training and teaching.

Hasse and Petrich started meeting customers and fellow boat builders and sail makers, making connections that have lasted for over 40 years.

In 1995, Hasse bought out Petrich. She soon became one of the founding members of the Wooden Boat Foundation, an organization that has brought Port Townsend’s marine trades to life again.

“When I started at the Foundation in 2002, I was going through some of the original meeting minutes,” said Kaci Cronkhite, former director of the Wooden Boat Foundation. “Those meeting minutes are written in Hasse’s handwriting. She’s had a hand in it from the beginning.”

Those original meetings showed an idealistic mission, to educate people in boat building, sailmaking, marine trades, as well as to educate in the environment, the ocean and sea life, Cronkhite said. In the end, this mission spawned the organizations that make Port Townsend what it is today: the Northwest School of Boat Building, the Port Townsend Marine Trades Association, the Northwest Maritime Center, and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, among others.

“Hasse embodies the community, generosity, and ‘Let’s do this together’ attitude,” Cronkhite said. “It’s the spirit of the crew. Hasse has been a voice of that time and time again.”

With her own crew, Hasse cultivated the tradition of apprenticeship, taking women and girls and teaching them the importance of authentic craft.

For many women sailors, Hasse has been an important role model and teacher. Not only did she sail all over the Pacific with a sextant, logging over 45,000 offshore miles in northern and southern latitudes, but she also created a work environment for women sailors to feel comfortable and learn skills that they may have been previously blocked from learning.

“In 1978 I’d be sailing around in my wooden boat and people at docks would come up and they’d always ask the guy I was with about the boat,” she said. “And even after he told them he didn’t know anything about it and that it was mine, the questions would continue to go through him. When I started the business, I thought, ‘Let’s be only women. Then they’ll have to talk to us.’”

Even though she started out as an all-female business, Hasse has since hired and trained many men and boys in the art of sailmaking.

AUTHENTICITY IN SAILMAKING

One of the most important skills Hasse hopes to pass on to whoever steps up to buy her sail loft is the value of making sails by hand.

“I absolutely love the beauty of sailmaking,” she said. “The process is an art and a science.”

But sailmaking has become corporatized and outsourced. There are only a few sail lofts in the U.S. that build from start to finish. Hasse has been able to hold onto the full stack of skills from the start.

Cronkhite, who sailed around the world with Hasse-made sails, said there isn’t any other she would want to use.

“The layers, the brilliance of the chafe and wearing protection, triple stitching and hand sewn leather, and the genius of building with storms in mind, with use in mind, makes Hasse’s sails so unique,” she said. “They take time to build and they last. The smartness of the shapes and the genius of them makes them exceeding over anything you can get. You don’t mass produce these things.”

For two decades, the Seven Seas Cruising Association’s membership surveys have acknowledged Port Townsend Sails for building the best offshore cruising sails available.

“She created a really neat niche in making sails for bluewater offshore cruising,” said Sean Rankins, a sailmaker and owner of NW Sails & Canvas, who worked at Hasse’s loft for five years before starting his own. “She focused on that one vein and really nailed it.”

When someone buys a Carol Hasse sail for their boat, it also comes with an invaluable extra bonus: Hasse’s knowledge.

“She’s so good at reaching out and communicating with customers,” said Robert D’Arcy. “That is an artform in itself.”

And for Hasse, meeting customers has been one of the best parts of owning her business. When she retires, she has friends all over the world who she can visit and go sailing with.

“The greatest joy for me as an owner was meeting the people we build sails for and being on their boats,” she said. “We have 41 years of files that have info about boats we’ve measured, made sails for.”

PASSING THE TORCH

Hasse is not only looking to sell her sail loft. She is also hoping to pass along her 41 years worth of files on all the boats she and her crew have ever built sails for and her love to authentic, artistic sailmaking by hand.

“I would want the business to go to someone who shares the essential values of our marine trades community,” Hasse said. “That it might be someone that would start this takeover process working side by side with me and my crew.”

Her plans for retirement include a lot of sailing on her boat, Lorraine. She also is hoping to travel with her partner, Nicki Hopkins, around the world to visit sailors she has made sails for over the years. What she is most excited for in retirement is the opportunity and time to write her own book about sail making.

On top of that, she is hoping to get a chance to do the little things that a busy life of business-owning and sailmaking has kept her from: gardening, taking leisurely sails in the Port Townsend Bay with her friends, and finally learning how to cook.

“It’ll be fun for me not to have to schedule coffee with her two weeks in advance,” joked Cronkhite. “For Port Townsend, we will never lose Hasse. She is in our community culture. But as a friend, you want your friends to be able to retire.”

For fellow business owners in the marine trades, Hasse’s retirement is a sign: We are all getting older. It may be time to retire.

“We’re witnessing the passage of a complete era,” said D’Arcy. “Many of us who have relearned or maintained the craft of marine trades here in Port Townsend are beginning to move on.”

As a fellow business owner in Point Hudson, D’Arcy worries for the future of the marine trades in that marina.

“Hasse has been very inspiring to many young people to live an authentic lifestyle and to find your bliss,” he said. “But one of the things conspiring against the passing of the torch is the pressures of today. The younger generation isn’t necessarily ready to take on those responsibilities.”

Hasse is ready for retirement, but she said she is most nervous about what it might be like if there wasn’t a sail loft here in Point Hudson.

“It’s always been a part of the commitment to seeing Point Hudson’s historic campus remain and expand,” she said. “To make sure that this is what this place is about. Every day I leave the loft I look at that beautiful space and say, ‘Wow, it’s so cool. We live in a community that really supports the integrity in quality of craft.’”

While Hasse will retire, she won’t ever stop teaching others the craft that she dedicated her working life to.

“There’s such a blessing in finding work that you love,” she said. “It’s one of life’s incomparable gifts.”

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