The Artful Andy Bike

Watching Andy Bike at work is a study in art and science.  We’ve all seen diagrams illustrating how a sail moves a boat across the water; but I don’t think most people, sailors included, realize that there’s much more to making a sail than sheer science. A sail isn’t just a big, flat triangle that could be cut from an old bed sheet: it’s more like a open, three-sided pocket that catches wind.  Creating that shapely pocket is where the art comes in, and Andy makes it look easy.

When I got the sail plan for the Tern, it consisted of a deceptively simple drawing of two roughly triangular shapes with lengths noted on each edge.

“That’s all there is?” I wondered aloud.  Bike assured me that this was all he needed, and despite owning sails in the past, I assumed that making my own set would be easy: cut out those nice triangle shapes, put on some grommets and haul them up the mast.   I was soon to find out just how wrong I was.

While bicycling, Andy is as casual as can be.  He seldom wears biker gear, preferring a cotton T in lieu of a tight spandex shirt  We ride along like tourists, stopping to see a unique house, have a snack, or investigate a snake basking on a trail.  But behind the sewing machine Bike is driven like a train on a track.  He’ll only stop for baked goods (and he’s the only person I know who can eat more of them than me) or when he feels we’ve reached our goal for the day.

Andy set the tone of the project when he directed me in prepping our work area (which I should note was my modest-sized living room.)  The first order of business was to transform the room into a sail loft.  As Bike took command, it was clear he had a vision of the kind of space he needed; I bumbled along beside him, trying to appear useful and in the know.  Out went the coffee table, the lamp, the couch.  In  came the hundred-pound industrial sewing machine, hot knife, bobbins, and a pair of ancient-looking, mighty steel shears. (I was disappointed to discover that they lacked a suitable moniker, something like The Incisor, Gus, or Snippy.  Andy inherited them when his sailmaking mentor retired, and apparently they were the smallest pair.) This pattern of dismantling my living room, and later my dining room, continued for months, since we only worked on the sails sporadically.

Until we started making them, I hadn’t realized how many dang pieces it takes to fashion a sail.  As Andy’s apprentice, it became my job to cut many of them out (unless the Master, who could cut twice as fast as me, was idle at the sewing machine). And I’d sailed and been around boats for a few years – why had I never noticed that each corner of a sail is reinforced with multiple layers of cloth?  Now, when we cut and sewed lines of curved fabric, I was amazed, even though I’d observed the beautiful sweep of a jib hovering over the deck for hours on end.

Little by little we worked our way through the multitude of pieces needed to create the main and mizzen sails.  All the while Bike forged ahead, seldom looking at our scanty plans or any reference at all, seeming to rely exclusively on some deep, internal sense of geometry or style.  Despite all of the science explaining how sailboats move in the wind, only art could explain the authority and ease with which Andy transformed a bolt of cloth into a wing that would fly above the surface of the water.

I learned to work with neon when I was in college, heating glass tubes over jets of flaming gas to create signs and art.  In the studio I came to realize that neon professionals are a secretive lot, steeped in privacy and projecting an air of exclusivity.  I never felt that vibe when working with Andy, yet sailmaking struck me as requiring a lot more mojo.  While artful, neon generally follows a pattern and a defined, precise series of steps that every neon bender has to complete. Sewing sails seems to allow the maker to add curves, stitches and other personal touches more freely.

Throughout the process, Andy let the his sailmaking knowledge bubble to the surface like a simmering stew.  I never got a lesson, nor was anything held back, but as many times as I tried to grasp the whole process and figure out when we’d be done, I never got there.  At times  I felt like a kid in the backseat, wanting to know if we were there yet.  I also felt like the copilot and was joyful to watch the road ahead unfold.  It took me a long time to realize that I should just enjoy the mystery and the process: we would done when the sails were ready.

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