HAPPY 80TH BIRTHDAY BUTCH ULMER



The top-10 things you need to know about Charles “Butch” Ulmer.

Butch Ulmer turned 80 today. Along with that major birthday comes the realization that his legacy of sailing experience, lore, and laughter continues. It all started when he was a kid. His father, Charles “Buster” Ulmer, opened the Ulmer Sails loft in City Island in 1946 when Butch was seven years old. Growing-up the son of a renowned sailmaker drew Butch to the water from the very beginning. Upon leaving the U.S. Navy in 1968, he took over the family business and led the creation of what today is known as UK Sailmakers, a world-wide network of over 50 sail lofts.


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To really know Butch Ulmer is to love him. Those of us that have worked with, sailed with, and had the occasional adult beverage with Butch know he’s a man of many, many layers—some deeply serious, some extremely insightful and gracious, and some absolutely gut-splittingly funny yet he is always truthful and honest. No one has every lost a penny doing business with Butch. For those less familiar with Butch, here are ten things you need to know to help him celebrate his becoming 80:

  1. Butch went to the U.S. Naval Academy (Class of 1961) and joined the “Tin Can Navy” as a junior officer on the destroyer USS Waller, which was part of the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. While at Annapolis, Butch distinguished himself as an intercollegiate sailor in the days before the College All-American Sailor designation was created. That said, in 1970, Butch was inducted into the College Sailing Hall of Fame in its Competitive Achievement division. While at the Academy, Butch sailed his first Bermuda Race in an engine-less wooden Navy yawl that had running lights that burned kerosene.

  2. As a young adult (post-Navy), Butch campaigned a Tempest to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games. He came close…

  3. Focusing on his sailmaking company, Butch was instrumental in the development of new sail cloths and construction techniques. He has raced with cotton sails that needed special shaping to set right when the wind came up, the first synthetic sails to early Kevlar and now to carbon fiber. Butch’s business sense helped him shepherd the company though developments like early computer design (machines with punch cards), to one of the first computerized cloth cutting machines in sailmaking, which ran on an Apple II computer, to America’s Cup development with Courageous and Defender. Perhaps his biggest contribution in this area was buying Horizon Sailmakers just after they created Tape-Drive, the first loadpath reinforced sails, which allowed sails to be strong and very light. Tape-Drive was the first iteration of loadpath sails, and the technology transitioned to Titanium and X-Drive sails. He never afraid to spend money on sail development or the machinery for making sails better.

  4. While remaining on the cutting-edge of sail developments, Butch led UK Sailmakers’ continued focus on customer service—helping sailors select the right sail for their needs and then servicing them throughout their lifespan.

  5. The list of winning boats on which Butch sailed over the past decades is endless, but here are a few of note: Bolero, Royono, Acadia, Running Tide, Hoot Mon (his father was a part owner), Wild Goose, Severn Star, Courageous, Slick, Recluta, Wandalaar, Thuderhead, three Puffs (all of which he was a part owner) three Morning Stars, six Congeres, Mabuhay, SirenSong and all 11 Christopher Dragons.

  6. There is nothing on a boat Butch can’t do well. To say he’s a really fast helmsman is an understatement. He can create the optimum trim for a sail. If the sail isn’t perfect, he can determine how to fix it. He is a solid tactician and always gracious to help less experienced sailors (that would be virtually everyone) do their jobs better.

  7. Butch has truly paid-back and paid-forward to the sport of sailing. He is a Past Commodore of the Storm Trysail Club, the current Membership Chairman of the STC, has been PRO for countless National Championships, Block Island Race Weeks and even the Etchells 22 Worlds. He ran the Storm Trysail Foundation’s Hands-on Safety-at-Sea Seminar for many years during which thousands of sailors learned what it takes to sail safely offshore. He also was the PRO for the Larchmont Yacht Club / Storm Trysail Club’s Intercollegiate Offshore Regatta forever and served as the event chair for the last two years. Each year, hundreds of collegiate sailors learn the wisdom of sailing well and sailing fairly in an Ulmer-run regatta.

  8. As he inherited his love of sailing from his father, Butch has passed it on to his children and grandkids. His daughter Merrill Ulmer sailed at Dartmouth and was named All-American in 1988 and his oldest son Charlie was named All-American in 1990 sailing for Tufts. The family’s love and skill trickled down even further as Butch’s granddaughters who both sailed at Yale University. Casey Klingler made All-American three times: 2016, 2017, 2018 and her younger sister Chrissie, who is currently a senior at Yale made All-American in 2019.

  9. In his dotage, Butch continues to be part of UK Sailmakers assisting customers find the right sails and then help them sail them optimally.

  10. If you ever need a funny joke, give Butch a call…he’s literally got a million of them. Oh, yea, don’t expect all of them to be of the variety that can be told in mixed company. Add to his library of jokes his “Butchisms” like, “That’s so old, it happened when Jesus wore short pants,” or “It’s so calm, you have to kick the farts off the foc’sle,” and the one that always cracks me up in a serious business meeting, “He better watch out or he’ll end up in the ‘do-right’ hotel making small ones out of big ones.” (Translated: that person could end up in jail doing hard labor.)


The 39-foot Ketch HOOT MON owned by Woody Pirie, Butch’s father and Worth Brown. She was radically light for 1955 and looked like an overgrown Star Boat with hard chines and very flat bottom sections. Click here for a March 28, 1955 “Sports Illustrated article about her.

Perhaps, the most telling aspect of the scope of his legacy is the fact that he has sailed with virtually everyone in the sport. Go to any regatta and say you’re with UK Sailmakers and sailors come out of the woodwork saying they sailed with Butch at some point. Butch is more than likely to remember the sailors, the boat on which they raced, and some detail of that experience.

When Charles “Butch” Ulmer was born, they broke the mold. There has never been, nor will there ever be, another sailor as skilled, sharing, inspiring, and just plain fun to sail with as Butch. Happy Birthday, Butch, from all sailors around the world.


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