Homegrown marine technology

Any sailor with a voyaging boat knows one simple fact: Things break. And if you talk to voyagers about this first fact you quickly surmise a second fact: voyagers are a clever and inventive lot. Take Ken Henderson, a retired eye doctor from Bellingham, Wash., who likes to voyage aboard his 39-foot Gecco Marine sloop, Panta Rei. Henderson developed a new business based on a single gear failure offshore. He invented, patented and now sells a product called Sail Clamps, a plastic attachment that turns a roller furling jib into a hank-on sail.

The event that spurred one sailor’s development of a new marine technology product occurred on July 22 of 2003 on a return voyage from Hawaii to Washington. Henderson’s sloop, built in Carlscrona, Sweden, in 1982, was eight days out of Lahaina on Hawaii’s island of Maui. Panta Rei had caught a low-pressure trough and was heading northwest in a 15-knot wind, making 7 knots on a reefed main and a partially rolled-up jib. At 2330 skipper and crew were surprised by a loud bang. Henderson investigated and saw that they had broken the forestay at the head of the mast. Henderson’s account describes their situation:

“The roller furling and jib were hanging by the halyard used to raise the sail. We were able to roll the jib up and [further] reef the main. The running backstays we were able to change with some difficulty to running forestays to help stabilize the mast – all this in the dark with a 15-knot wind. We drifted north at about 2 knots for the rest of the night until we could better assess in daylight.”

After sunrise Henderson and crew lowered the roller furling and sail to the deck. What they found was a classic equipment failure. The 5/16 steel cable forestay had snapped at the swaged fitting. Henderson is convinced the 12-year-old wire did not snap due to corrosion, but because “the weight of the roller furling and sail over the years would flex the cable at the fitting, which led to its weakening.”

Henderson’s most important task after that was to jury rig a new headstay to protect the boat’s rig and to provide an attachment for a jib. The doctor was winched aloft, holding onto the mast “like a spider monkey to avoid getting swung around.”

“I stuck a shackle in the fitting that would normally go on the bottom of the forestay and fed the cable backward through the mounting hole on the masthead and retrieved the broken end. We then took cable clamps … and fastened an eye on the broken end. We had enough hardware to lengthen the cable to fit, and we were back in business with a forestay that was nearly as strong as the original.”

The problem Henderson found with his new setup was that his working jib was built for roller furling and could not be bent onto the new forestay. “The sail we have is a small jib made as a storm sail. It had snap-on clips to connect directly to the wire like all the jibs before roller furling was put on.” So while he had successfully rigged a new forestay and set a jib on it, the jib was far too small for conditions and Panta Rei was jogging along when the boat could have been charging. “We were sailing very slowly,” Henderson said. “And I thought, somebody must make something like this.”

Henderson continued to think about this problem after returning to Bellingham. He checked with sailboat gear providers and sail makers but couldn’t find a solution to the problem of converting a roller furling sail to a hank-on sail. So he decided to build and sell his own conversion product. He commissioned engineering drawings and had a prototype made. Then he met with his friend Robert Dyer, who owns Pacific Injection Molding, a custom plastic injection molding business. Dyer, who is an advisor to Western Washington University’s engineering and technology program, helped Henderson with the complexities of making a real world product.

Henderson’s Sail Clamps are two molded plastic pieces that fit together over the bead in the luff of roller furling sails. The plastic halves, which have interlocking male and female parts for proper alignment, are fastened together using bolts and nylon lock nuts. Forward of the clamp is an eye. Passing a shackle or a good old-fashioned hank through this eye allows you to secure a jib to the wire of a forestay. The clamps are made of durable plastic called Nylon 6. “The beauty of Nylon is that it gets tough around water,” Dyer said.

Henderson had 5,000 of the Sail Clamps manufactured, but was then faced with the challenge of selling them. Henderson admits, “I’m a sailor, not a marketer.” He is selling them primarily through a sail clamp Web site (www.sailclamp.com).

Since Sail Clamps went on sale in June 2005, Henderson said he has sold about 30 packages – each one containing five clamps, plus fasteners and an Allen wrench for assembling them. One surprise has been the way the customers have used the Sail Clamps gear. “I saw this as an emergency product,” said Henderson, “but only about half the sales have been for that.” Some people are buying the clamps for use in temporarily bending a sail on so it can be tested before it is installed in a roller furling system. Another use is by sailors who want to convert their sails to strictly hank-on use.

“It seemed like such a common sense thing to have,” Henderson said. “But I couldn’t find anything like this.” So he used a little homegrown marine technology know-how and made his own.

By Ocean Navigator