Riding with the wind

by Rosie Wolf Williams

vtsailing0414 Bill Fastiggi is a sailor who has made his favorite pastime his life work. In 2003, he left behind his Shore Sails franchise to open Vermont Sailing Partners, on his own. His Winooski company designs and builds championship racing sails and high-quality cruising sails.

Viewed from the outside, the green metal building at 150 West Canal St. in Winooski seems grounded in industrialism. But the building is simply a vessel for Vermont Sailing Partners — coupling technology with tradition, and pairing science with art. Bill Fastiggi is the skipper at the helm — a man who truly knows his craft.

The oldest of five siblings, Fastiggi grew up in South Burlington, learning to sail on Lake Champlain by crewing for his father and sailing in a junior sailing program at Malletts Bay Boat Club. His father worked for General Electric, and he was transferred to Pennsylvania in Fastiggi’s junior year of high school. After graduation, Fastiggi went to the Merchant Marine Academy.

“The Merchant Marine Academy is shipping and commercial ships, but we also had a very competitive college racing team. It was like going to the Notre Dame of college sailing. We ended up winning two national dinghy championships [1983 and1984].”

After graduating in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in nautical science, Fastiggi spent a few years teaching and coaching sailing in Connecticut and in Australia. He returned to Vermont in 1986.

Knowing he wanted to stay in the sailing industry, he turned to sailmaking. He bought Shore Sails, a sailmaking franchise on Pine Street in Winooski, which had moved its operation after a fire destroyed its facility on Marble Avenue. The location was temporary, but the company stayed there for 17 years. “It was where they used to make Maypo,” says Fastiggi. “When we first moved there we could still smell the maple syrup.”

He bought the present building on Canal Street in 2003, and a year later he decided to become an independent sailmaker. He had formed a strong relationship with Win Fowler of Maine, who had also franchised with Shore Sails and then become an independent company. Fowler took on the name Maine Sailing Partners.

Fastiggi picked the name Vermont Sailing Partners for his own business to establish a symbiotic relationship. They sometimes share designs and consult with each other on larger projects. “But I am the sole owner of Vermont Sailing Partners,” Fastiggi says. “We like to say that our partner in the name is ‘You.’”

The 4,000-square-foot facility is called a sail loft: an old term that came from the time when sailmakers were located in loft areas at the waterfront. The heavy sails were hoisted from the docks using a block and tackle mounted on a beam. Today, sails are much lighter and more maneuverable, but the name has remained as a matter of tradition. 

Fastiggi creates and customizes sail patterns and determines fabric amounts with the help of a computer software program. He then sends the pattern and related information to Maine Sailing partners, which handles the cutting of the sail panels.

Fastiggi pulls out a roll of sail panels from a box that recently arrived. “There is a sloop called the Friendship that takes out charters on the lake. We are building two sails for them this winter. The panels are numbered; everything is glued together first with a double-sided seam tape.”

He demonstrates the assembly of the corner patch, and it is quickly evident that it requires knowledge far beyond a simple jigsaw puzzle–style construction. “There is a lot of science and engineering to it, but there is also a lot of skill required. There is an art to it. The panels are only as accurate as the design and your skill at assembling the panel. It is not like getting a dresser from IKEA and then putting it together and they are all the same. There is a lot of skill to the assembly of a sail.”

The sail panels are glued and checked for accuracy, then seamed together using one of the four machines located at the sides of the massive raised table, a platform on which the sails are assembled. There are seven sails on the floor in various stages of finish. Fastiggi points out sails made of Dacron and laminates such as high-tech carbon fiber.

“Everything we do is custom. We work closely with the customers to make sure the sail they are getting matches their needs in terms of the performance they are looking for, the durability, and their budget. It is a combination of trying to work out those three things: How much do you want to spend? How long do you want it to last? What are you going to use it for?”

Fastiggi stops to help Rob Henkel “flake” (fold) a sail in process. Henkel and Caroline Patten are Fastiggi’s only two permanent employees, although he hires extra temporary help during the high seasons of spring and summer. The loft was “managed” by Al, a black Labrador retriever, until his recent passing. Fastiggi is training two Dachshund mixes, Velma and Daphne, to take over Al’s duties.

Fastiggi has a deep commitment to his employees and customers, but also his suppliers and colleagues in the sailing industry.

“I have dealt with Bill for 26 years, as long as I have been with this company,” says John Gluek, president of Dimension-Polyant Inc., a sailcloth manufacturer in Connecticut. “What is fun about Bill is that his mind is going a million miles an hour. He’s trying to up the game all the time for an operation that he runs. In our sport, so-called “normal” people can take a boat in a regatta and go against the best. We shoulder up against the stars in our sport. Bill is building a product to try to beat the best, all the time.”

Mary Griswold, owner of Shelburne Shipyards, agrees with Gluek. She has called on Fastiggi to help her customers make decisions based on their individual needs, and he doesn’t disappoint. “He is constantly trying to improve his customers’ sailing pleasure,” she says. “Whether it is racing or family cruising, Bill has been very dependable and reliable.”

Once the sails are finished and inspected, they are rolled and stored in custom-made “sail bags.” Shelves along the walls of the loft are loaded with the bags. Some hold new, completed sails that are ready to be picked up by customers. Others contain older sails waiting for repair or that are already repaired. Fastiggi says they “turn over” the shelves two to three times over the winter, as repairs are typically done during the off-season.

Fastiggi is conversational and engaging, but at the same time he is keenly aware of the activity in the loft. He is quick to help his employees, and he exudes an attitude of both mentor and comrade. Fastiggi knows how a sail should perform, and invites a challenge.

He won a gold medal in the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with Andy Horton and Heather Rowe (Lightning class). He placed second in both the 2001 and 2005 Lightning North American Championships and was Chairman in 2009, when the World Championship came to Malletts Bay. In 2013, he placed 11th with Lauren Barth and Suzy Coburn.

Coburn is Fastiggi’s partner of 17 years; they met in 1996 in a Burlington restaurant and began dating a year later. They live together in South Hero.

“Not many of us can make a living all these years on a product that you put out the door, and have self control over it all from start to finish,” says Gluek. “Bill Fastiggi really knows the position. We see it so much in sailboat racing. I always said the better skippers have their eyes all over the boats and they can delegate responsibility. They are multitasking along with driving the boat and looking out over the water and picking tacks and what have you.”

Sales have been steady. “We’ve had some ups and downs over the years, but it has been fairly steady since the ’80s,” Fastiggi says. “Years ago, someone would buy a boat, and we would build sails for the boat dealer who sold the boat. They might get five or six new sails at a time for this one new boat.

“The boat dealers haven’t been selling as many boats in the last 15 years, so now, new sails for new boats is a very small percentage of our business. Now it is replacement sales for people, more retail and less dealer-based. We also do a lot more service work than we used to do — more replacements of boat parts and accessories. That has been a help with the business. It all ties together.”

Fastiggi estimates sales fluctuate 20 percent up or down every year, but he doesn’t focus on the number. He knows that a single large order can make a difference in his total volume. And he makes the work itself his priority, focusing on each sail on the table and allowing the wind of change to choose the direction of his business. Sail prices can range from $300 to upwards of $15,000, depending on the materials and boat size. He insists on using the best possible materials and skilled people to create a sail that performs within the needs of the client. The largest sail he ever built was a spinnaker for a 50-footer.

Gluek considers Fastiggi a true leader in his trade. “The fun part for Bill and all of us in this industry is that some of it hasn’t changed. Yet if you look at the America’s Cup today, it has changed dramatically. We are going through a nice fun time where the sport takes leaps and bounds in new directions. I think you could get yourself isolated in your own manufacturing. Bill is pretty innovative. He keeps his eyes on what is going on around the world, and brings that back to Vermont.” •