Sailmaker Mike Bartles is working on opening his own sail making business in the Boothbay Harbor region.

EAST BOOTHBAY — For Mike Bartles, who has been practicing the ancient craft of sail making for ten years, starting a business in a community with a nautical-rich history like Boothbay. 

“The people who set up and built that (maritime) tradition here were world class, and it’s nice to stay on with that,” Bartles said. “That sort of lineage is pretty attractive to stay and be a part of in this long running line. There are a lot of techniques that can be forgotten, but as long as there are enough people willing to carry it on, it’ll survive another generation.” 

It wasn’t until he drove past a rental sign in Boothbay this past fall that Bartles decided to take his interest in sailmaking to the next level by starting his own business. With sailmaking on his mind and a love for the Boothbay peninsula, Bartles decided to take the leap. 

Although Bartles has always had an appreciation of history, it wasn’t until his time at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut that he began to develop a professional interest in marine trades. His experiences at the living history museum allowed him to learn about trade work, including blacksmithing, coopering and sail making. Due to the lack of a sailmaker on staff at that time and because of his experience at the Bosun School, a seamanship training program in Nova Scotia, Bartles began making sails for historic vessels at the museum.  

After five years there, a new opportunity presented itself in East Boothbay. The Charles W. Morgan, a historic 106-foot whaleship built in 1841 carrying over 7,000 square feet of sail, needed new sails, and renowned East Boothbay sailmaker Nat Wilson was the man for the job. But a project of this magnitude required extra hands, and a position soon opened at Wilson’s sail loft.  

Bartles jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the craft and spent five years making sails for historic vessels with Wilson, considered by many to be the authoritative source for historic ship sails. Bartles learned about classic yacht restoration and the replication of sails for historic vessels from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, most of which are owned and operated by museums, schools and nonprofit organizations and state and federal governments. 

“It’s an ever-changing field—what you work on in any given day. It keeps it interesting. Even starting out, all the people I’ve been talking to, none of their sails are exactly alike,” Bartles said.  

Although he hopes to continue with historic restoration, Bartles is open to exploring different avenues within sailmaking. He is more than willing to do repair work and make modern cruising sails and is currently talking to the owner of a charter boat business in Boston about outfitting a 45-foot vessel. 

Bartles is also eager to provide a service to local recreational sailors and hopes to keep business in Boothbay, if there’s a demand.  

“It’s nice to be able to do work for your neighbors,” he said. “The people of Boothbay are glad to have people staying here and working here.”  

Sailmaking is a form of art with function that has withstood the test of time. Sailmakers combine aesthetic elements with concepts of geometry, physics and functionality to manipulate cloth to perform like an airplane wing.  

The sailmaker must figure out how the sail will be used and, much like an engineer, incorporate factors that affect the shape and strength of the sail while increasing durability and ease of use.  

Sustainability is another factor; sailcloth is made from polyester, which is, essentially, a large sheet of plastic. Bartles believes that sailmakers have an environmental responsibility to build sails as durable as possible to avoid frequent replacement every few years. 

“There’s an artisanal element to it, which keeps me on my toes. At the end of the day, the sail has to work. It doesn’t matter how much varnish you put on it. If it’s not a functional sail, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is. There’s an elegance to the strength of a sail,” he said. 

Bartles enjoys every step of the creative process but finds the most satisfaction in signs of individual craftsmanship. As a sailmaker, he enjoys the unique opportunities that present themselves in finished work, whether it’s a hand-sewn ring or leather work details. 

Every sailmaker has a signature style, which can be characterized by differences in patterns and techniques in detail work and varies with left-handed and right-handed sailmakers. 

“There’s a certain amount of personal character that gets imbued on the sail when you make it. It’s like your signature,” Bartles said. Different sailmakers in various towns earn reputations based on their personal styles, which, over the course of time, become part of the identity of maritime communities.   

Bartles values the maritime history of Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor and looks forward to perpetuating the growth of marine trades within the local culture. As a sailmaker, he recognizes the historical significance of Boothbay as a mecca for boat-building during a time when you could get anything (boat-related) in the world made in Boothbay, from engines to wooden boats to fiberglass to steel.  

Bartles realizes the importance of the renewed interest in artisanal craftsmanship and creating sustainable local economies. He looks forward to carrying the maritime traditions into the future in his own way and encourages other young entrepreneurs to do the same. 

Kelli Park is a Coastal Journal contributor. She can be reached at [email protected] 

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