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Haystacks and Beanbags: Where do all the sails go?

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Barry Houghton, owner of Salperton IV, likes to sail with friends, many of them from Majorca where he lives for part of the time, spending weeks and even months living on his yacht.

He made money on his yachts too, in the good old days before the recession when buyers were willing to pay a premium for a nearly-new yacht, maybe a year old, instead of waiting four years for a slot in one of the hard-pressed yards.

Was it really like that? Yes it was.

People talk a lot about the expense of running these yachts, but canny buyers like Houghton were able to capitalise on their purchases, keeping a yacht for a year with another one on order and in production. I sailed with him a few years ago on Salperton III. UK-born, he’s a self-made entrepreneur from St Helens in Lancashire. Houghton – or, I should say, Houghton’s crew – kept his yacht in pristine condition.

Big performance yachts like Salperton, a Dubois design, go through their sails relatively quickly if they’re racing, and Houghton’s yachts do plenty of racing around the maxi yacht circuit.

One of the crew told me that if you totted up the cost of sail miles against the cost of miles covered under engine-power, then bunker fuel came out cheaper. That’s because race sails lose their performance after a time. A €500,000 set of race sails lasts about three years. They still work OK if you extend their life, but if the owner wants to get that knot or two better boat speed on the other guy it could mean a new set. Some yacht managers will pay people to take the old sails away.

A lot of the old Salperton sail cloth ended its life covering haystacks in Majorca. Yes, Majorca must have some of the coolest high-tech haystack covers on the planet. Hay has never felt so coddled.

Grateful as Majorcan farmers are, there are only so many haystacks that need covering. Isn’t there anything else that could be done with old sails? Well, yes there is and that’s why the other day I went over to look at a preview of next season’s range of products from Quba & Co, a company that specializes in making clothing and kit-bags from used yacht sails.

Jim Hartley, co-founder, of the company has spent years scouring sail lofts, buying up and recycling sails. The Quba gear has made a mark in places where trendy yachties gather every summer. His first shop opened, where else, but in Salcombe, Devon, often nicknamed “Chelsea on Sea.” New stores have opened recently in France, Denmark and Sweden. The Nordics go for this stuff.

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Quba does a fashion range that overlaps with brands such White Stuff, FatFace, Joules and Crew Clothing. It also competes with the fashion ranges put out by the likes of Musto, Henri Lloyd and Gill, but, unlike these brands, it does not provided a specialist range of performance clothing.

It’s biggest appeal for superyacht owners – people who like exclusive stuff, one-offs and customised everything – is that it can deliver exactly that. It often does deals with yacht-owners who want something made from their old sails. A while back Quba made a set of beanbags for Bernie Ecclestone’s yacht.

Best of all is its heritage gear, by necessity confined to short run because of the scarcity and sometimes historical value of the sail cloth. The company made a few jackets from the sails of Sir Robin Knox Jonston’s ketch, Suhaili. In 1969 on Suhaili, Knox Johnston was the first sailor to round-the-world non-stop single-handedly.

It has also made a short run of jackets incorporating the sails of Kingfisher, the round-the-world record-breaking yacht of Dame Ellen MacArthur. A portion of the profits from the sale of these jackets went to the personal charities of MacArthur and Knox Johnston.

Hartley loves products that have a sense of heritage. A few years back the company produced a range of polar-inspired products to mark the centenary of Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.

“Sailors love to hang on to their old stuff that reminds them of past voyages,” says Hartley. “A lot of our custom-made jackets are stained or bleached by salt. That’s all part of their appeal. 

A few years ago I went to a party in Antigua at a house owned by one of the Nicholson family who started the yacht charter market in the Caribbean. It was some party. I bumped in to my old friend Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times Journalist. Our paths had cross in the 1990s when we were both doing financial investigations. I was working for the Financial Times.

Marie was wearing nothing but a bikini and sarong made from a few strips of blush-pink spinnaker, blown out during that days racing. One of her well-ripped crew-mates, was wearing even less - a tiny pink thong. I think they must have been running out of spinnaker by the time they got around to him.

Marie-was a tough-as-nails reporter who wore an eye-patch after losing an eye in an RPG attack in Sri-Lanka. She was killed in the fighting in Syria two years ago, but I’ll never forget the party or the outfit she was wearing.

You can’t create moments like that. They create themselves; but you can preserve memories in the stuff that’s left over. Imagine wearing a part of a sail from the Battle of Trafalgar. Cloth going so far back, even if preserved, could not be used again although Quba does use cloth from decommissioned naval flags in some of its jacket badges.

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“I’d love to get some old sails made from Egyptian cotton but those are very hard to come by. I’m always on the look out,” says Hartley. He mentions the J-class yachts, Endeavour, Velsheda  and Shamrock V. They’ll all have old sails lying about somewhere, surely.

In the rarified end of any market, the trick is knowing that one person’s throwaways could be another person’s collectables. Companies like Quba are catalysts in this market, seeing possibilities in making something once utilitarian in to something now desirable and practical again. Everybody wants to look good, but there’re not many jackets you can also approach for a sniff. Sniffing a bit of Suhaili is sniffing history, and that’s something not to be sniffed at.

Richard Donkin 140x210Richard Donkin is a writer, journalist and photographer.  He writes on yachting and the superyacht industry for the Financial Times and is the author of two books, The History of Work and The Future of Work.

In addition to his sailing blog 'Cardinal Points', Richard writes on fishing, travel, employment and life, all of which can be found on his website at

*Image credits: Images 1 & 3: Richard Donkin; image 2 courtesy of Loro Piano Regatta press office.

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