Two top names in American sailing products have shut down in recent months, highlighting ongoing challenges in an industry still recovering from the Great Recession.
Hall Inc., maker of high-end masts, spinnaker poles and other equipment under the brand Hall Spars & Rigging, went into receivership in January. The closure of the company’s U.S. office in Rhode Island is not believed to affect the company’s European and New Zealand operations.
Meanwhile, the assets of rigging and rod rigging supplier Navtec of Guilford, Conn., were sold at auction in April. Rigging hardware maker Hayn Enterprises of Rocky Hill, Conn., bought the Navtec trade name and trademarks as well as rod rigging, carbon rigging and fiber rigging intellectual property during the sale.
Hayn Enterprises has supplied the hardware equivalent to Navtec standards for years, and the company plans to use the newly acquired trade information to expand this product line. It was not clear as of early May if the Navtec brand name would remain. Hayn does most of its manufacturing in Connecticut.
“Our plan is to fill in the holes in our product offering to make it more complete with the vessels that are out in the field right now,” Brett Hasbrouck, Hayn’s general manager, said in a recent interview.
“We will also be expanding to areas that Hayn did not offer,” he continued. “At some point in the future we will be offering a carbon rigging product. We are not prepared to offer that today, but at some point in the future we will be entertaining that.”
Fewer boats built in U.S.
It’s no secret that the sailing industry has faced headwinds over the last decade, particularly since the Great Recession that began in late 2007. Boatbuilders have laid off workers and in many cases shut down altogether. Suppliers felt similar pain as fewer boats got built in the U.S. and existing boat owners delayed upgrades or repairs.
Brian Harris, general manager of Maine Yacht Center in Portland, Maine, was surprised to learn the two companies shut down. He said Navtec was known for well-made, precision rigging products. Maine Yacht Center outfitted American Rich Wilson’s vessel Great American III with Navtec PBO standing rigging before his 2008 Vendee Globe run.
“We used exotic stuff — it was super high-end, super custom and super expensive. That was a good product, and it was the rod fitting industry standard for decades,” Harris said.
“Those companies have been the backbone of sailboat manufacturing in the U.S. for decades,” he added. “A sailboat with a Hall spar outfitted with Navtec standing rigging — that was the gold standard.”
Navtec, which had manufacturing and design facilities in Guilford, Conn., was formed in 1970 by Ken King. The company changed hands several times over the years, most recently about four years ago. Despite its well-earned reputation, Navtec also was known for thin parts inventories and long delays filling seemingly routine orders. The company’s difficulties seemed to accelerate in recent years as the sailing market stumbled.
“There were plenty of signs Navtec was having trouble over the last few years,” said Jay Maloney, owner of Maloney Marine Rigging of Southport, Maine, and the Navtec agent for Maine. “As much as four years ago I started to develop other sources of material compatible for Navtec stuff.
“One thing I realized over the last two months was having Navtec no longer in picture has made it somewhat easier for me,” he said. “Rather than trying to get stuff from Navtec … and waiting six weeks to resolve it, now I say I can’t get that anymore and here is what I can get.”
Hall Spars & Rigging, based in Bristol, R.I., was founded in 1980 by Eric Hall and Phil Garland. The company’s product lines included high-end components and masts for large yachts and sailboats, including America’s Cup vessels.
Hall Spars President and CEO Thomas Rossi told the Providence Journal in early January the company had attempted to find a buyer or new investor, only to see the deal fall through in late 2016. Rossi suggested the company’s difficulties stemmed from the down economy.
“Hall U.S. is in a different predicament (than its foreign offices),” Rossi told the paper. “We are victims of the 2008 recession and the associated loss or drop in discretionary spending, which results in very little boatbuilding being done in the U.S.”
Details about the closure of the Rhode Island-based Hall Spars & Rigging could not be confirmed. The company’s Netherlands office, which operates under separate management, did not respond to emails seeking comment on the U.S. situation. Attempts to reach Rossi for comment were not successful, and a phone message left at the company’s closed Rhode Island facility was not returned.
An industry indicator?
Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, or NMMA, cautioned against drawing any industry-wide conclusions from what happened to these two companies. For instance, he cited Hall Spars’ “healthy” European division.
Hall Spars was affected by changes to America’s Cup vessels’ use of fixed wings, according to Dammrich. Another potential factor was the strong U.S. dollar, which creates challenges for selling U.S. products internationally — where much of the high-end business comes from.
“If you look at these two particular companies, you can’t really extrapolate that to the whole industry because these were two companies that tended to serve the high-end, custom part of the market,” he said in an interview.
NMMA data shows sailing charters have increased for the last six years, and sales of imported sailboats increased by 35 percent in 2016. Yet U.S.-made sailboats fell 4 percent to about 5,000 units in 2016. Dammrich believes the industry appears healthier now than in recent years, and looks to be headed in the right direction. But he also acknowledges “everyone would like to see it doing better.”
Charlie Nobles, executive director with the American Sailing Association, also believes the sailing industry has stabilized after some tough years. He considers his organization the “front door” of the broader U.S. sailing market because it works with people who are learning to sail in addition to people seeking higher-level instruction.
Although there was a noticeable drop in registrations during the recession — Nobles estimates a 15 to 20 percent drop at ASA — its numbers have slowly come back. In fact, the organization is now seeing “some of the highest numbers we’ve seen in a long, long time.”
“We are not seeing a decline in the level of people learning to sail,” he said. “What happens in terms of people deciding to buy boats or do charters, I am not privy to that, but I can tell you from the training side, things are OK.”
Hasbrouck, with Hayn Enterprises, acknowledged challenges facing the sailing market in the U.S. and much of the world. But there are still sailing vendors and suppliers companies out there who are thriving.
“New boat construction in the U.S. is a challenge,” he said, noting that repair business is improving. “But I do believe in the foreseeable future the market will be strong for Hayn.”
Casey Conley is the editor of Navigator Publishing’s American Tugboat Review edition.