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Maine Windjammer Association celebrates the careers of their sailmakers: Nat Wilson, Brad Hunter, and Grant Gambell.

The MWA’s Lifetime Appreciation Award honors the people who have dedicated their careers to preserving the Maine Windjammer Fleet.

Windjammer captains and crew, and friends and family, gathered on the public landing in Camden during Camden’s annual Windjammer Festival to celebrate the Maine Windjammer Association’s Lifetime Appreciation Award honorees. This year the Association honored the sailmakers of the fleet – Nat Wilson, Grant Gambell, and Brad Hunter.

These three sailmakers, who are transitioning into retirement, have spent their lives mastering the art of traditional sailmaking and are some of the best sailmakers in the world. They’ve been outfitting the windjammers with sails for nearly 50 years.

Captains Noah Barnes and Justin Schaefer presented the awards. Barnes reminisced that “Ordering a new sail from one of them always presented a delightful opportunity to visit them in their sail lofts and learn more about their process. They are experts in the mathematics and science behind sail design, the behavior of the material, the importance of the shape and every factor in sail performance using traditional materials.”

J. Tobin Captain Noah Barnes of Schooner Stephen Taber toasts Nat Wilson, Brad Hunter and Grant Gambell outside of the Harbormaster’s office in Camden.

Hunter and Gambell

Take a look at Camden Harbor when the Windjammers are docked and you’ll see no less than 9 schooners (and a ketch) who are dressed with sails by Gambell and Hunter. If you take a day-sail on Olad or Owl or Surprise or Lazy Jack, or if you’ve been on a windjammer cruise on Grace Bailey, or Mary Day, or Angelique or Mercantile or J. & E. Riggin, you’ve sailed on a boat with Gambell and Hunter sails.These sails were made in their sail lofts using traditional sail-making hand tools and sewing machines.

Brad Hunter started his career working with another Camden sail maker Henry Bohndell in 1973, (he thinks!)  During college, he had crewed on the Mercantile and the Mattie (now Grace Bailey), which established his interest in windjammers and sailing and he never left! He joined Grant around 1980 and they worked together for 35 years.

Early in his career Grant made sails in Mystic Seaport, where he worked with our other recipient Nat Wilson and eventually landed in Camden where he worked on Mary Day and a few other windjammers. Here he started making sails out of the sail loft of another legendary Camden sailmaker – A.P. Lord. Mr. Lord made sails at the turn of the century and had a sail loft in his garage right in town.

Mr. Lord died at age 89 in 1957, but his shop is still active because Grant Gambell purchased the home and has been making sails in the same sail loft for over 40 years. Grant still uses the 1918 sewing machine, sailmaker’s bench and palms, that Mr. Lord used.

Quinton Donleavy Nat Wilson and his wife Rhonda and Grant Gambell and his wife Eileen. Brad Hunter was unable to attend.

Nat Wilson

Mr. Nathaniel Wilson, master sailmaker, has been making traditional sails for nearly 50 years – and really, not only making sails, but standing at the forefront of the craft. When you meet anyone who has any interest in traditional sailmaking, they will mention Nat Wilson.

In fact, there’s a quote that we found in the newspaper from Grant Gambell, that speaks volumes. Grant said,  “Nat is indeed a big deal and stands out in a category of sailmakers specializing in ‘traditional’ or ‘classic’ style sails. In an industry which has become reliant on technology for design and manufacturing, Nat has always valued, studied and emulated sail making techniques from the past. It’s always been about the handwork. Sailmakers (and sailors) with any interest in the traditional ways can often identify a sail that comes (from) his loft.”

Nat first started making sails when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard and was assigned to the Coast Guard Barque Eagle’s sail loft. There he thrived and his career was born. After leaving the Coast Guard he spent some time at Mystic Seaport and then moved to East Boothbay, Maine, 40 years ago.

Not only did he excel at crafting sails, he also helped revolutionize traditional sail cloth. He worked extensively with North Sails to help create a brand new type of sail cloth, which he named “Oceanus”, which is lighter and stronger than traditional canvas, but has a traditional feel. Oceanus is now found on many many traditional ships – such as USS Constitution, to give one “small” example.

Nat Wilson sails can now be found on the USS Constitution, Schooner Ernestina, Coast Guard Barque Eagle, Mayflower II, Pride of Baltimore and windjammers in our fleet such as Lewis R. French, Grace Bailey and Stephen Taber.

Alas, these gentlemen are on threatening to retire – well deserved R & R after storied careers. Although they are still making sails part time, they are passing on their businesses to the next generation of artisans. We would be remiss to not honor them now.

We were delighted that they could join us at the Windjammer Festival – it seemed like the perfect place to honor them. We’re so appreciative of what they have done for our fleet and for traditional sailing as a whole.

J. Tobin The windjammers shot off a cannon and raised their jibs to honor Maine’s premier traditional sailmakers.

Categories: Behind the Scenes, MishMash: fun facts, trivia and recommendations

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