The History of UK Sailmakers

Announcement card from Sept. 1, 1946.

         Established in 1946 in New York City as Charles Ulmer, Inc., UK Sailmakers is one of the oldest groups of sail lofts in the world.  Charles “Buster” Ulmer opened the first Ulmer Sails loft and 70 years later UK Sailmakers group has 50 lofts and service centers around the world. Ulmer’s son, Charles “Butch” Ulmer, took over the business in 1968 and he still comes to the office everyday at UK Sailmakers New York.

Butch and Murphy both work long days at UK Sailmakers New York.

         In the company’s first three decades, Ulmer Sails played a major role in one-design, ocean racing and various 12-meter America’s Cup campaigns as the company developed innovative design technology and manufacturing techniques.

         Over the subsequent decades, Ulmer Sails transitioned to Ulmer Kolius Sailmakers when Texas loft owner John Kolius became a partner for a handful of years. When Kolius left sailmaking, the company kept the logo and shorted its name to UK Sailmakers. UK Sailmakers made its mark on the sailing community by developing the Tape-Drive® sail construction method, the first load-bearing sail technique that provided both performance and durability. Subsequently, the group has been one of the pioneers of high-performance continuous yarn string sails with its line of Titanium® sails.

         UK Sailmakers has been on the leading edge of sail development ever since the late ’40s when Ulmer Sails dominated the Star class and other one-designs like 5.5 Meters, Snipes, Lightnings, and Comets.  The group’s involvement with the America’s Cup goes back to 1964 and continued through the last two China Team efforts. In the early ’70s, UK became known as the only place to buy spinnakers, because UK Sailmakers was the first loft to perfect the radial-head construction technique.  Not being able to produce spinnakers fast enough, UK branched out with independently-owned licensed lofts.  The computer programs UK Sailmakers developed for sail design and construction ensured that sailors across the country could buy the same fast sails from any UK loft. 

         While remaining on the cutting-edge of sail developments, UK Sailmakers has continued to stress the importance of customer service—helping sailors select the right sail for their needs and then servicing them throughout their lifespan.

         The knowledge base of such a large group helps UK Sailmakers’ customers. Members of the UK Sailmakers group share sail designs, construction details, racing experiences, boat information and more. Whenever a customer has a question, each loft can access the knowledge and experience of a vast number of well-informed sailmakers. We truly do offer “Global Experience and Local Knowledge.” Since each loft in the group is locally owned by sailors and sailmakers, they have a strong interest in helping local sailors.

         Butch recognized the economy of scale that could be created working with a group of sailmakers instead of as a single loft. At first he needed a group to help divide up the costs of advertising in national magazines to build a brand. As the group grew they were able to invest in computerized cutters and design software. In the early 1990s Ulmer hired America’s Cup sail designer Jack Kleene to write the group’s AccuCut design program, all the while that he was running his loft in New York. In the last two decades the group has grown faster in Europe than in North America with strong lofts in Sweden and Germany.

         Along with building the UK Sailmakers group, Butch is well known as a competitor on the race course and race organizer. His sailing career spans 60 years in which he has competed in everything from 12-foot dinghies to 84-foot ocean racers. He has won the national championships in several one-design classes and has competed in 17 Newport-Bermuda Races (18 after this year), he has raced transAtlantic, the Fastnet, Buenos Aires to Rio, Miami to Nassau and seven Marblehead to Halifax races. His first Bermuda Race was in 1958 on a US Naval Academy yawl that was engine-less.

         About his America’s Cup experience, he wrote in his self-deprecating humor, “I sailed with John Kolius aboard Courageous (as Tactician) for about a month when she was the trial horse for Defender. I wasn't up to the job and was replaced by John Bertrand. Courageous out-sailed her newer stable-mate Defender and came close to beating Dennis Conner for the right to defend. Dennis went on to lose the America's Cup that year for the first time in history. Glad I got out when I did!”
          He is equally well known for playing by the rules and being fair both on the water and in business.  Competitors, suppliers and customers all have gotten a fair shake from Butch and he sets that tone for the whole group.

         In 2013, Butch sold UK Sailmakers International (UKI), the company that owns the UK Sailmakers name, trademarks, and proprietary sailmaking software, to a large group of UK Sailmakers’ loft owners. With the individual lofts becoming owners of the brand, the global group of over 50 lofts will grow stronger and attract more lofts to the group in major sailing centers around the world. This is a unique business model in sailmaking that is tying together the individually owned lofts more closely. With the lofts becoming partners in the company, there is more personal capital invested in making the group stronger as profits from the company are reinvested to strengthen the brand.