SALEM — The sails ripple and flow across the vast floor like silent surf.
Yards and yards of white polyester taffeta, often webbed with miles of high-tech fibers, is cut and sewn into sails for small boats and for almost unbelievably large ones. A young man in a harness attached by rope to a sail walks slowly backward, gently pulling the material through one of the huge sewing machines whose operators sit in holes in the floor. The gleaming floor, made of particle board, is covered with many coats of finish so the sails slide freely.
This is the Doyle Sailmakers Inc. sail loft, in an industrial-park building just off Route 107 in a landlocked corner of Salem. And taking up one whole side of the big room on a recent afternoon was a section — just a section — of what its makers say is the largest sail ever.
“We have literally built all the biggest sails in the world for the last 10 years,” company founder Robbie Doyle, 65, of Marblehead, said later, and his team is working on a design for “a much bigger boat right now, that will have even bigger sails.”
This one is big enough. It’s one of eight that Doyle is making for a $100 million luxury superyacht, Perseus^3, built by Perini Navi Group in Viareggio, Italy. The giant sloop — the owner, a resident of Switzerland, is not disclosed — is 197 feet long with a single mast just under 250 feet high, roughly the same as your neighborhood wind turbine. The yacht has engines, a crew of 12, and luxurious staterooms for 12 guests. But it’s made for racing against other yachts, and can make 15.5 knots under sail.
Doyle general manager Andrew Schneider said the sail — an asymmetrical spinnaker, for sailing downwind — will be 260 feet along the luff, or leading edge, 230 along the leech, and 140 across the foot. When the sections are assembled, it will cover 28,000 square feet — 4,000 more than the previous biggest, built by Doyle for another superyacht (boats longer than 80 feet). It will have 16,857 feet of seams and weigh about half a ton. A custom blend of fabrics and fibers gives it tremendous strength.
“These things, you can’t have them breaking,” said Tyler Doyle, 37, who heads up the high-tech design side of the company his father founded.
‘We’ve kind of found a niche with these very, very complex engineering projects. The engineering detail work is so complex it can’t be outsourced.’ — Andrew Schneider, Doyle Sailmakers Inc. general manager
“We developed a special fabric . . . that’s a blend of polyester and Dyneema,” a strong, high-performance trademarked material, Schneider said. “Blending the two makes a sail that is light and fluffy but strong.”
The sail is the largest of the eight being made for the boat they call the P3, as many as three of which might be raised at a time. The cost? Schneider doesn’t want to say exactly, but several million dollars for the whole package. Sailing will begin in September. Doyle Sailmakers has been working on the job for more than two years, getting involved early on as the P3 was being designed.
“We’ve kind of found a niche with these very, very complex engineering projects,”Schneider said. “The engineering detail work is so complex it can’t be outsourced.”
Robbie Doyle had already raced on some famous boats — including Courageous in the 1977 America’s Cup — when he opened the first Doyle loft on Front Street in his native Marblehead in 1982. The business eventually outgrew the space, though, and in 2007 Doyle Sailmakers moved into the 31,000-square-foot facility in Salem.
Despite the sail loft’s location, the mood fits what you might call a traditional image, with pictures of famous racing boats on the walls and people walking around in shorts and flip-flops. Tyler Doyle and Schneider, 28, also live in Marblehead, and all three men have boats of their own.
As casual as they seem, though, they’re not sketching these designs on the back of a dock-bar napkin. The industry was already making sails from Kevlar when Robbie Doyle founded the company, and today it uses a vast amount of computing power to design sails that are strong, light, and deliver the maximum possible propulsion. Upwind sails in particular are webbed with fibers that follow carefully designed “load paths,” and meet in bunches at stress points like corners and tack rings.
Designing them involves a field called computational fluid dynamics, which Tyler Doyle studied as a graduate student at Stanford, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. “We model the way the water goes across the hull and the wind goes across the sail,” he said.
They design the simulations, then have them run in Russia, where computer time is relatively cheap. Traditional simulations involve using models in wind tunnels and tow tanks. The computer approach may or may not be less expensive, depending on the specific task, but it renders a vast amount of information, literally trillions of data points, Tyler said. And swapping out, say, one keel shape for another to run the simulation again can be a matter of a few keystrokes.
When he pulls up an example on the dual monitors at his work space, a blank sailboat moves through a shimmering sea of colored points that grows more complex as he magnifies the image.
Out on the floor, the job is less virtual and more real.
“It’s a big sail,” production worker David Hopkins said with a wry laugh. “The size of the building is directly proportional to the ease of moving the sail around. But this building is a little older, it has the posts, and we have to negotiate those.”
The sails aren’t heavy if they’re handled the right way, especially in sections, said Hopkins, 55, a 25-year Doyle employee.
The toughest part of the job? “You can be working on anything, even a tiny sail, and you’re on your knees,” he said. “A lot of the young guys, they don’t think about it, they bounce around like rubber. And then, after a while, you don’t bounce. And you have to find some nice knee pads.”
The company has 48 employees in Salem, including five full-time engineers. There are 60 more in its loft in New Zealand, and dozens more around the world, with a total of 80 locations when including retail sites, Schneider said.
Tyler is president of Doyle’s computational fluid dynamics subsidiary, which has also been hired to design blimps and wind turbines using the same types of computer simulations, he said.
For all the technology involved, the big jobs can also be gambles. Doyle staff might work for months — even a couple of years, in the case of superyachts like the P3, the Maltese Falcon, and the Mirabella V — preparing a detailed bid before the company wins a job. “And you don’t win them all,” Robbie Doyle noted.
He was on the phone from Nantucket, where he’d been competing in a charity regatta while Tyler Doyle and Schneider showed a reporter around the loft.
“You definitely saw the real brains of the operation,” the elder Doyle said. “It’s exciting, because the way we started the company was being sort of high-tech sailmakers, and it’s fortunate for me to have my son come in and add literally a new generation of that.
“It wasn’t planned this way, but I’m more on the water now, proving the product, and those guys are back in the loft creating it.”
Given their ages, he added with a chuckle, “you’d think it would be the other way around.”