Ernest Ratsey, sailmaker extraordinary, is an enthusiastic and outgoing man but, as head of the famous sailmaking firm of Ratsey & Lapthorn, he is being fairly cautious these days about visitors to the company sheds on City Island, New York. "We've got the new America's Cup cloth out here," he said recently, "and we don't want any of it turning up in England where the Sceptre people can get a look. If a British chemist were given a piece of this stuff, he'd have a pretty good lead on what we're doing."
No one who knows the importance of sails in a race like the America's Cup will think this cloak-and-dagger attitude exaggerated. Nor is the drama in any way diminished by the fact that the sails for Sceptre are being made by Ernest's brother and cousins at Ratsey & Lapthorn, Ltd., of England. Ernest himself knows that among yachts as evenly matched in hull design and crews as the 12-meters competing off Newport this September, sails could be the deciding factor. And right now, as the American contenders head into the Preliminary Trials at Newport this weekend, the battle of the sailmakers is in full swing.
Ratsey & Lapthorn have made the sails for the American defender in the last four cup races, and they don't intend to miss having their sails in this one. But a young Marblehead sailmaker named Ted Hood is going to turn the trials into a duel as far as sailmaking is concerned. Of the four American contenders, Columbia has practically all Ratsey sail, Easterner has all Hood, while Vim and Weatherly have split their orders. (The only other sailmakers with a stake in the matches are Ken Watts of Torrance, Calif., who has three sails on Columbia, and Louis Larsen of New York City and Wally Ross of Islip, L.I., who have a couple of sails apiece on Vim.) Depending on who wins with whose sails, either Ratsey or Hood is going to be covered with glory.
Hood wasn't even in business when the last America's Cup race was run in 1937, but the firm of Ratsey & Lapthorn is a venerable institution. They are descended from the British Ratsey & Lapthorn, which in turn goes back to George Rogers Ratsey, who set up shop on the Isle of Wight in 1790 and made a name for himself by making better sails than anyone else.
Back in 1815, for instance, the Ratsey-outfitted yacht Waterwitch made a monkey out of Pantaloon, a naval vessel of the same size. Admiral Sir Putney Malcolm thereupon ordered Ratsey brought in for an audience. "Ratsey," said Sir Putney, "I want you to tell me what there is in your sails that makes them superior to all the fleet." As great-great-grandson Ernest now tells the story, old George Rogers smiled, cleared his throat and said nothing.
"Hell," says Ernest in chuckling over his ancestor today, "they didn't think he was going to give away his patterns, did they?"
When the firm branched out to the States in 1902, it started right in at the top. The first order was a batch of sails for J.P. Morgan's Corsair (the fourth generation of Morgans is still on the company books). Things have been going that way ever since.
"Canvas," said Ernest, speaking of the new cup sails recently, "is out. As it is for all sailboats nowadays. Synthetics are in."
The synthetics used at Ratsey & Lapthorn come from Sol Lamport, head of the Sail Fabric Division of Alexander Lamport and Brother, New York. Lamport directs the finishing processes (heat, pressure, chemicals) that make the woven synthetic into sailcloth. About a year and a half ago, Ratsey and Lamport started out together on a development program that culminated in the new fabric whose chemical makeup the Ratseys are guarding so carefully today.
"We tried all kinds of things," said Ernest. "The process starts at DuPont. We get them to change some of the variables in their fiber, and then Sol Lamport works on it and comes up here with a bolt. If we don't like it, we send it back. In five months we made advances that would normally take us three years."