Stew Sill Jr. as I remember it… part VI by Bill VanGee

Stew was always about speed and because he grew up on the water, he naturally migrated toward fast boats. During the late 50s and early 60s, he became quite involved with the building and racing of small outboard hydroplane boats. A hydroplane (or hydro, or thunderboat) is a fast motorboat, where the hull shape is such that at speed, the weight of the boat is supported by planing forces, rather than simple buoyancy. A key aspect of hydroplanes is that they use the water they are on for lift rather than buoyancy, as well as for propulsion and steering: when travelling at high speed water is forced downwards by the bottom of the boat’s hull. The water therefore exerts an equal and opposite force upwards, lifting the vast majority of the hull out of the water. This process, happening at the surface of the water, is known as ‘planing'(1) They come in different size classes and the ones Stew operated where under 20 feet in length and usually had motors way too large for their size. Each class had specific rules but allowed some leeway and tinkering and this was right up Stew’s alley.

Each weekend, Stew and a couple of his local friends would load his boat Stew Sill Sail Makersand trailer and head out for the nearest sponsored race in the region. These were quite popular local events and usually offered cash prizes along with national race points. One weekend they might be in Lake Placid and the next Jamestown on Chautauqua Lake. And because they were young adults, they always traveled on a wing and a prayer and nearly broke and needed Stew to do well in order to have gas money for the trip home. During the week between races each night was spent rebuilding the motor and preparing for the next weekend race. As with most everything Stew got into, he became quite successful at this form of racing and in a couple of years was able to obtain enough race points to become national champion in his class of race boat.

Stew eventually moved away from the motor boat race circuit as the demands of family and business grew. He was now selling and servicing small runabout boats and motors along with running his fledgling marina. While the majority of his business was in small outboards, he began to deal with more sail related items. Son Bill was growing up and becoming a very good sailor in his own right, particularly in the Rhodes Bantam class. The RB is a small 14′ center board sail boat that was quite popular on the small lakes of the region. And about this time Stew obtained his 39′ R Class sloop, Kathea II, and was rebuilding her for racing on Lake Ontario. Bill and Stew both raced ice boats in the winter. Like any type of racing, success often comes down to the motor, and in the case of this growing fleet of sail boats, the motor was their sails. As one can imagine, needing to keep a fleet this size in maximum racing trim can become quite expensive so Stew decide that he should be able to make his own sails. He purchased a used commercial sewing machine, a bolt of Dacron sailcloth and moved the furniture out of the way in his living room at home. This was the beginning of Sill Sail Makers. While he didn’t have any specific sail making or sewing experience, he had sailed enough that he felt he knew what a proper sail should look like and spent many a night in trial and error coming up with new sails. After completing a new sail, he would take it to the marina and try it on the boat. If it didn’t meet his expectations, he’d take it back home and tweak it some more until he had what he felt was a successful product. Dawn tells me that this went on for some time. He often worked late into the night cussing and swearing as he reworked his latest product. Sleep for the family was at a premium. After all, if this was easy to do, everyone would be doing it. When he finally had a sail that he felt was right, he drew the pattern on the living room floor so that he could reproduce the intricate curves of the sail panels on future sails. Dawn tells me that to this day, if one were to roll back the carpet, those patterns are still there.

As he and Bill became more successful in their respective sailing classes, other sailors began to inquire about having sails built for their boats and Stew decide to move the operation to the marina where he built a small loft over what was then the Ship’s Store. Back then when a new sailboat was purchased, it usually came without sails and the owner was expected to acquire sails from whomever he wanted. Before long Sill Sail Makers was building sails for more and more new boat owners and as Stew and Bill became more successful (Bill was a several time National RB Champion) with their Sill Sails on their boats, the demand grew even more. Sail requests were coming in from bigger and bigger boats and Stew soon needed to stretch sails from the repair shop into the ship’s store just to work on them. Sometime around 1969, Stew decided he needed more room and decked over his old shop to create what is the current sail loft. He added new machines in sewing pits in the floor so as to accommodate the material handling and at its peak, employed up to five persons. This growth lasted through the 80s as word about the success of Sill Sails went through the sailing community. It’s actually quite surprising to see how many of those old Sill Sails still come through the loft for updates and repairs. While Sill Sail Makers is still in operation at Katlynn Marine, its scope has lessened to more of a repair facility as more and more boat manufacturers have begun to sell their boats fully equipped with a sail inventory usually from some off shore sail making source.