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Pacific Northwest | August 1, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 1, home
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In dedication to quality, a quality life is made

Sails must fit a boat like a suit fits a body. Hasse uses a tape to take one of many measurements needed to design a sail. Customers are often amazed when she hoists a finished sail only to take it back down to adjust yet again, striving for that perfect fit.

Money & meaning
A series of stories taking stock of how and why we work
WHEN WRITING about "The Honor of Labor," novelist Joseph Conrad said that while skill and competence are admirable, "There is something beyond — a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill; almost an inspiration which gives to all work that finish which is almost art — which is Art."

Conrad's quotation is on the picture-pocked office wall of Port Townsend sailmaker Carol Hasse, given to her by a grateful customer. The quotation is almost lost against the cheerful illustrated clutter of heeling boats and island beaches, just one sentiment in a collage of wistful sailor sentiment.

But my, what an epitaph it will make.

Art. Grace. Integrity. Self-possession. We instinctively celebrate each crucial home run, transcendent stage performance, searing poem or moment of moral courage because at some fundamental, mysterious level there is a rightness to them, a harmony with the Universe.
Greeting visitors to Hasse's loft, this plaque sums up the artistic ethic of her business.
And doing a job well, perhaps better than anyone in the world, is an art that consumes a lifetime. It is also rare in this disposable society, where machines are cheaper to replace than repair, celebrity has a half-life measured in months, we switch careers and houses like diet fads, and quantity trumps quality.

Hasse — no one calls her Carol — is an exception to capitalism's crassness. Casual cruisers don't buy her sails because the 30 percent or so extra they cost is hard to justify if one merely wants to get to the San Juan Islands. Her work is too heavy for racing boats.

For that minority of sailors who take small boats on the open ocean, however, who prepare for hurricanes, and whose life might depend on the strength of Dacron, Port Townsend Sails is world famous. Hasse's product, hand-built by American labor, is designed not to tear and to be easily repairable if it does. It can last two to three times as long as conventional sails.

In an age when almost all "American" sails are made in China, Mexico, Sri Lanka or South Africa, her niche is quality. In an age when American labor supposedly can't compete with the Third World, her employees do.

Hasse is about more than work, however. She has found balance as craftswoman, businesswoman, mother, sailing teacher, adventuress, community leader and quiet lesbian. If it is true that after enough years we get the faces we deserve, then Hasse's face is luminous, and her smile infectious.

She is a fossil from a lost time of hope.

Photo With leg, arm and eye, Megan Davis assembles a colorful spinnaker sail larger than the room she is working in. In Hasse's shop, the latest techniques and materials are combined with the age-old traditions of craftsmanship.

GATHER 'ROUND, children, and let me tell you about a faraway time called The Sixties. No, don't roll your eyes! Before the drugs, the excess, the self-indulgence and the silliness, there was genuine desire to live simply, sustainably, and to break the cycle of war and revenge. Boomers were idealistic. Really.

"It was a time when changing the world seemed a possibility," Hasse recalls.

Yes, most dropped out, sold out, freaked out at the frightening prospect of choice and freedom, or grew up. The Age of Aquarius stalled into a culture war that goes on today, producing conflicting visions of America that have split the electorate and resulted in politics that are spiteful, narrow and mean.

But before the anger, the watchword was love.

At 53, Hasse is a classic boomer. A veteran of two communes, she gave up a full scholarship at the University of Puget Sound to go sailing and eventually made the life that others of her generation merely dreamed of. Instead of hippie slovenliness, she absorbed the sailor's creed of skill, neatness and self-reliance.
Sebastian Preston uses a leather sailmakers palm, strong hands and good light to do the hand-stitching that makes Port Townsend Sails special. Sailors who've circumnavigated the globe say the sails are the best in the world.
"It is a very spiritual experience being out there on the ocean and looking at the stars," she says, "realizing that you're on this small ball floating in space and that you're infinitesimal. It's humbling and empowering simultaneously, because you are taking care of yourself. Your news is the weather. There are problems and dangers, but they can be solved. It's something simple and, increasingly important, it's something manageable."

There's only so much you can do about Iraq, the stock market or a losing sports franchise. But wind is a gift. The breeze that can take you around the world requires only a hoisting of sails. Everything Hasse believes in — "living simply, being close to nature, being self-sufficient, having home and transportation in manageable size" — is summed up in a good sailboat.

The world's poor scud across the water propelled by sails as crude as garbage bags, plastic tarps, bed linens and stitched rags. American cruisers prefer something more durable, however, and Hasse & Company makes sails as durable as they can be.

Her sail loft at Port Hudson Marina is a long, spotless gallery with a floor of gleaming gray enamel paint, lit like a Dutch painting by windows that give a view of the Olympic Mountains one way, Admiralty Inlet and the Cascades the other. There, 17 full- and part-time employees design, draw, cut, sew and stitch. Several have been with her 15 to 20 years. A newcomer, high-schooler Avery Africa, is granddaughter of famed sailor Spike Africa, the so-called "President of the Pacific Ocean." Avery is just the latest in a string of young apprentices Hasse has taught.
Custom sailmaking requires the skills of a salesman, counselor and friend. Hasse helps Jonathan and Marcy Edwards make a decision on sails for their boat.
Corners are reinforced with leather. The usual grommets that cut the fabric with triangular teeth are replaced with metal rings laboriously hand sewn. Batten pockets are double reinforced. Chafe points are strengthened. A quarter-century of feedback from world cruisers goes into each sail, and file drawers are crammed with folders listing measurements and experiences from countless makes of boats.

"There's always something to learn," says employee Megan Davis as she stitches a purple and blue spinnaker. "We're keeping skills alive."

Such craftsmanship does not come cheap. A mainsail for a 37-foot Tartan is estimated to cost $5,500. A full suit of five or six cruising sails for a 42-footer will run about $22,000, or about as much as buying and installing an auxiliary diesel motor.

"This is the motor," says Sebastian Preston, a longtime boatwright whose powerful hands allow him to push heavy needles through heavy fabric, hour after hour. While some gas-hog power boaters get as little as 1 mile to the gallon, sailors skim for free.

Nancy Erley of Seattle, who used Hasse's sails on two five-year trips around the globe, says they're the world's best. "They are works of art." In one cruising association's membership poll on gear, Hasse sails always come out on top.

What's more, says Erly, Hasse "is like an angel who has come to live on our planet for a while. Things she is passionate about, like the environment, she lives and does not just give them lip service."

"Nothing pulls my heart the way this does," Hasse says. "It's endlessly fascinating: the science to sailmaking, the art of sailmaking, the magic of sailmaking. There's something just environmentally right about making do with the wind and a smaller footprint, if a boat is all you have."

CAROL HASSE grew up in Camas on the Columbia River, with three siblings. Her father was the paymaster at the local pulp mill and served on the city council, while her mother taught the developmentally disabled. Graduating in tumultuous 1969 with plans to be a medical missionary, Hasse arrived at college when ideas were erupting. Within a semester she was out of her sorority and onto an alternative UPS campus at an old Weyerhaeuser estate. Within a year she left school to travel Europe and hitchhike the Middle East.

The following summer she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from the Columbia to Snoqualmie Pass, then signed on to help crew the homebuilt boat of neighbors Amel and Dory Brooking and sail from Camas to San Francisco. They were no sooner out on the ocean than they were assailed by 60-knot winds and 20- to 30-foot waves.

"She was born to sail," recalls Andy Brooking, who went on the trip with his parents. Hasse seemed to have no fear of the sea, taking out her guitar and, inspired by the combination of green-pea soup and crew seasickness on the rollicking passage, composed a ballad called "Green Sea Poop." Andy was not the first guy to have a mild crush on her, but she was coming to terms with her own sexual identity as a lesbian.

Simply put, both men and women liked her, and so did the older generation. "She's positive, joyful and a hard worker," says Dory Brooking. "Her standards are so very high."

Hasse went on to the South Pacific by crewing on other boats. She came back to join a commune in Bellingham on weekends and learn sailmaking in Seattle from German-born master Franz Schattauer at his Shilshole loft, which his sons still operate. While she was at it, she made sails for a 47-foot boat the commune was building.

"She was absolutely sparkling," says former commune member Mike Stoner, who now is environmental director for the Port of Bellingham. And impatient. She left the boat project to sail again on other boats. Returning to the Northwest, she plunged into boat work in Port Townsend — recently chosen by Sail magazine as one of the top 10 "sailing towns" in the nation. Fiberglass fumes and carpentry noise convinced her she preferred the cleaner, quieter, quicker work of sailmaking.

At age 28 she swallowed hard, borrowed $5,000, and opened her own loft with a partner, Nora Petrich, who would eventually leave after 17 years. Hasse lived in the shop when starting out, supplementing her income with lectures and making do without hot water.

That Spartan existence is long in the past. Her firm now makes about 150 sails a year, modifies many others and, while tiny by the standards of the big-brand sail companies, thrives.

"She's developed from this Tinkerbell free spirit to a person who has brought remarkable skill and discipline to her craft," Stoner says.

She was always smart and serious, counters his wife, Joyce, who was also in the commune.

Hasse's reputation as a boss is that she's tough, inspiring and generous, an occasional softy who agreed to store the meager possessions and eclectic film collection of a homeless hanger-on she eventually put to labor. "It's like a family for her," says good friend and famed sailor Lin Pardey.

Lisa Vizzini, who with her husband owns Port Townsend Rigging, worked for Hasse when the sail loft started, had her son apprentice there at age 13, and is another close friend. "She's a perfectionist who is no less demanding of herself," Vizzini says. Again and again, Vizzini has seen customers already satisfied with a sail watch in bewilderment as Hasse takes it back down to adjust yet again, striving for that perfect fit. "She is an incredible professional who works very hard to make her product exemplary."

She's become an establishment fixture in Port Townsend, helping found the Wooden Boat Festival (the only founding member still in town) and now helping launch a $10.5 million campaign to build a maritime center. "I have a lot of respect for what Hasse has done for the community," Vizzini says. "She's never afraid to stand up for what's important and never stops contributing to what she believes in."

"Carol became one of the centers of Port Townsend, and has watched its boating community build around her," Pardey says. "She takes tremendous pride in that."

Hasse has never sailed around the world and has no desire to. She mixes adventure, when she teaches or crews on ocean-going boats every other year, with the nesting instincts of a homebody. This balance between commerce and art, exploration and home, and a modest yet comfortable life is how she embodies some of the vague yearnings of her boomer generation.

At a time when pleasure boats are increasingly big, she is happy with a 1959, 25-foot lapstrake Danish folkboat too low to stand in and with only a bucket for a head. It is an exquisitely varnished, self-contained little jewel she's owned for more than a quarter-century, and its compartments have boot-camp neatness to them.

Her 1,400-square-foot home, which she shares with partner and office manager Nicki Hopkins, has similar compact beauty. Set on five acres in the trees above Discovery Bay, it has the same gleaming woodwork and utility as her boat. There is a porthole in the front door, chart racks in the office, ash battens used for wainscoting, and a lee cloth — used at sea to keep sailors from rolling out of their bunks — that turned a bed into a crib for her son. Solar and wood heat means the house consumes as little energy as possible.

The corners are stuffed with toys for Hasse's child, now 8, the son of a previous female partner, and Nicki's 7-year-old son from a previous marriage. In live-and-let-live Port Townsend, theirs is just another household.

THERE IS INHERENT beauty when an object seems perfectly designed for its purpose. We sense it in a fighter plane, a golf club, a bentwood chair or a perfectly proportioned window. Accordingly, even the queasiest landlubber can appreciate the loveliness of sailboats.

"There's something beautiful about the sheer line of a boat, and how it moves through the water," Hasse says.

Like any visual artist, her life is about beauty. It is not just the look of her sails pulling under a brisk wind, water dancing, foam boiling from the stern, the boat's shoulder down as it cuts toward a desired shore. It is the instinctual beauty of using what nature offers by harnessing the atmosphere's power, demonstrating that freedom is still possible and that simplicity is simply a matter of choice.

What Hasse teaches is not so much sailing as empowerment. Self-reliance. Fixing things yourself.

Pardey has been particularly impressed by Hasse's weekend sail-repair seminars. "Tools are not a mystery," she says. "Hasse gives people back their own hands."

Her favorite students are classes of women, because women have the common-sense fear that men sometimes lack, paying better attention. Because facing the challenges of sailing becomes a process of facing the challenges of life.

What she sells is not so much Dacron as the realization of dreams.

On a recent day in the loft, two thirty-something newlyweds were choosing sails as a wedding present. Ross Emerson and his new bride, Laura, have "temporarily retired," purchased a Valiant 40, and are preparing to sail around the world. Or, at least to get as far beyond Neah Bay as they can.

A boat considerably smaller than a honeymoon suite is now their home, and the white stuff hanging from their mast is their only real assurance they can get back.

They wanted the best sails they could get, so they came, from Alaska, to Hasse.

Death and illnesses in their family prompted the couple to set sail instead of waiting for some ill-defined future, Ross explained. "The signs said pay attention NOW."

And paying attention — to craftsmanship, to beauty, to balance — is what their sailmaker is all about.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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