Wsail, history of custom sailmaker born “by accident” 40 years ago

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WSail history
Roberto Westermann – Ostar Arrival

In Liguria, in front of the Gulf of Tigullio, there is a company that makes custom sails for as many boat owners and as many boats, of all sizes. It is called Di-Tech Sailmakers (now WSail) and has been in business for forty years at its Lavagna location, under the leadership of sailmaker (and great sailor) Roberto Westermann (his third place at the 2009 Ostar aboard Spinning Wheel was legendary). We asked Roberto how the WSail sailmaker, who is turning 40 this year, came about, how he works and why he chose it to get his new sail game.

WSail. How was the sailmaker born?

“Our WSail sailmaker was born by accident, or rather, by necessity. The idea starts with three friends who are sailing enthusiasts, some with seafaring backgrounds and some with physics studies behind them, who get it into their heads that they want to create software for sail design. After a few months of work we managed to develop the software, and to test it we began to make a few sails, but the idea was not to start making sails, but to be able to sell the software to those initially identified as customers who would become tomorrow’s competitors, namely sailmakers.

Roberto Westermann - Aboard the Spinning Wheel
Roberto Westermann – Aboard the Spinning Wheel

With the tested software in hand we begin contacting the major sailmakers in business, but none seem interested in our product, at that time the only one on the market. All the sailmakers prefer to use the old methods for design and are not open to this novelty, so we realize we are way ahead, by five or six years, of all the competition and go out on our own: we decide to make our own sails. Thus Di-Tech Sailmakers was born in 1984, several years ahead of other sailmakers in terms of design.”

WSail. 1984-2024: what has changed in 40 years of operation?

“The first thing to note is that today, say in the last 10-15 years, the very big difference from before is the size of the boats. It used to be that a request would come in to make sails for a 12-footer and it felt like you had to measure yourself against a big boat; today, requests for 60-footers (18 meters) are the order of the day. As the boats are bigger, the sail sizes have also increased tremendously, so we find ourselves working on sizes that we once would have thought were science fiction.

An installation by Wsail
An installation by Wsail

And then there is the talk about the evolution of materials. Many years ago materials were what they were and you had to make do, there wasn’t much choice, so there wasn’t as much room to make different proposals to the owner. Today between materials and types of sails you can really sew the sail like a dress on each boat, and also on each owner. If one wants to do only racing or only cruising we will make choices of one kind, if the boat will do offshore we will make others, if the use is mixed cruising-racing we will make still others, and so on… When I say that you can make better sails today, I mean that you can also make fewer sails: a modern racing boat has far fewer sails than it once did, thanks to membranes. This means not only less weight, but also less space taken up on board, more practicality. Also because in today’s boats, even though they’re bigger, it’s not like there’s a lot of sail space in the lockers.”

What is your advice for people who come to your sailmaking shop asking for a new sail game?

“What I try to get across to the customer is that when you design a sail you really get to decide whether or not you need the individual line, so you get to choose what skin your boat will have to the millimeter. So it is important to have a good understanding of what all the possible uses that the owner of the boat will make of it may be. In 95% of the cases we don’t just have the measurements sent to us, but we come on board to do the surveys, see what the boat looks like, if there is rigging work to be done, we take all the measurements…in short, it’s not standard workmanship, every sail is different.

Roberto Westermann - Spinning Wheel Ostar WSail
Roberto Westermann – Spinning Wheel Ostar

For those looking for a quick job, we are certainly not the best bet, but if you want detail-accurate work and a sailmaker who uses only first-rate fabrics and won’t abandon you once the sail is delivered, we are the place to be. Although in recent times we have been studying a more economical line of sails, dedicated to those who place orders well in advance. We are available to our shipowners for maintenance requests, even in the height of summer where we are mainly operational with our branch office in Cannigione, Sardinia, which is critical for service.”

In short, tell me what sailor you are (or want to be) and I will tell you what sails you must have

“Exactly, I then like to make a comparison, to simplify, with the automobile world. It is clear that if one puts on a set of winter tires and then changes them in the summer, one will have two types of tires that are better suited and perform better in their respective situations, because they are dedicated tires. But if one wants absolute comfort, without having to change tires and without having to think about where to keep them, choose a four-season tire.

Marco Nannini passes North Cape
Marco Nannini passes North Cape. Aboard his Class 40 he would rig the sails of Roberto Westermann’s sailmaker.

Today there are many advantages for the cruiser, because if someone tells me he wants one sail to enjoy sailing on vacation I can make him a jib that is good in virtually all conditions. I for cruising am trying to reevaluate Dacron and polyester sandwich, because they are perfect for certain types of boats up to 40-45 feet (12-13 meters) where it doesn’t make sense to mount sails that stress the rig.

Conversely, if someone comes to me and asks for a sail plan modification because they want to do some regattas, we try to study together a solution that can be adapted to their needs. On boats with carbon masts and stiffer hulls, membranes are definitely more suitable. With a furling mainsail in the boom or mast, it is unthinkable not to use membranes, although on modern boats it is not always possible to install all types of sails. In fact, sometimes they are born for easy sailing and often there is no possibility of bringing a tack line to the bow…But we have a dedicated rigging team that gets to work and tries to come up with solutions.”

So don’t deliver a turnkey sail to your customers

“Not at all, on the contrary. We do a lot of rigging work to be able to install the sails. We study the deck plan and the rigging, we figure out what the owner’s real needs are, whether he’s going to sail solo or crewed, where he’s going to sail, at what times. In short, we give him a kind of interview before we choose which sails to install. It would be easy to give everybody the top of the line, but that would be very wrong. If I install a furling mainsail in your boom or mast and then you’re not able to use it without doing damage, I’m just complicating your life as well as doing you harm. At the cost of clashing with the customer and maybe losing them, I prefer to be honest.”

WSail: What is your specialty?

“Let’s say that I have a great personal passion for offshore and offshore, which started as a sailmaker and then continued as a sailmaker when I’m ashore. Over the years we have sailed several boats that have gone around the world, both solo and crewed, so I would say this is definitely the area where we are strongest.”

In figuring out which client (and which sailor) you are facing, is your experience as a sailor helpful?

“Certainly being a sailmaker helps me in my sailmaking, just as vice versa has helped me, although I have known excellent sailmakers who have never been in a boat and great sailors who had no idea of the work behind a sail. Of course if you sail a lot, when you design a sail you are facilitated.

Then we are “in the trenches” since we work directly inside a port (the Lavagna Tourist Port) and have a direct case history on maintenance as well. Our DNA is very strong, I have guys who have been working with me for more than 20 years, and these are people who are in direct contact with the owner, working every day on an object that then knows where it’s going to go and knows the person who’s going to use it…it’s not just about romance. In short, it’s very different than a commercial agent who sells you the glider on which he can make the highest margin, mails the order to the parent company, which in turn sends the order to an Asian factory and then gets the packaged glider to your home.”

Tell us an anecdote, in closing, about your business

“One of my dogmas is ‘treat everyone the same,’ so I have always tried to have the same attitude with everyone from the guy who wanted a jib for his 8-meter boat to the guy who asked me for a full sail set for a 20-meter. It just so happens that one Mid-August when we already had the shutter half down and were cleaning the sail shop for the summer closure, a guy comes in with a windsurfer and a torn sail. He was desperate, tells me he had to leave with his father, and asks if we can make him a repair.

As a matter of policy we don’t even treat windsurd, it’s not our specialty, but I saw his passion in his eyes and most of all he was so kind that we turned the machinery back on and fixed it for him. “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing, happy vacations!” In September we reopen, and after a few months this boy’s dad shows up. He entrusted us with the new sails of his 60-footer. This is one of the things I remember most fondly because I believe that work and good manners are always rewarded in the end.”

  • Find Roberto Westermann’s Wsail sailmaker at Porto Turistico Box 127 – 16033 Lavagna (GE) or at wsail.it

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