November 27, 2021

St. Pete’s Island Nautical is the go-to place for sails big and small

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d4s_royal100514d_13979152_8colBy Terry Tomalin Fro Tampa Bay Times

The Royal Clipper harkens back to an era when an aristocratic elite traveled the Caribbean in style. With a waterline of 439 feet and an average speed of 10 knots, the Monaco-based Clipper line is for cruisers interested in an Old World experience.

But the Royal Clipper, the first five-mast, fully rigged sailing ship to be built since 1902, has 42 sails that require constant care and maintenance, and when one rips or needs to be replaced, the Clipper line turns to a New World sail loft, St. Petersburg’s Island Nautical.

Located in an industrial park on the fringe of the city’s burgeoning arts district, Island Nautical has a large and dedicated following, including everybody from high school dinghy sailors to blue water racers.

“We definitely fill a niche,” said owner Robert Ingwall. “We are the place to come when you need something that is hard to make or difficult to find.”

The shop, which recently moved to its current location at 2233 Third Ave. S, made all of the sails for the luxury flagship of the Clipper line when it first set sail in 2000. The Royal Clipper, and its smaller cousins the Star Clipper and Star Flyer, are owned by Swedish entrepreneur Mikael Krafft.

“We sail the Caribbean in the winter and Europe in the summer,” said Bill Dwyer, director of sales and marketing. “We are constantly working with sails. We like (Island Nautical) services, so that is why we stayed with them.”

d4s_royal100514_13926350_8colThe sail loft is currently working on a “spanker” for the Star Flyer, a 360-foot, four-masted ship that entered service in 1991. “It’s a triangular sail, the most aft sail on the ship,” said sail designer Bill Durant. “It basically helps the boat go straight … sort of acts like a rudder.”

The sail, which measures 114 feet long and 51 feet wide, is made out of woven 17-ounce Dacron, and has to be built in stages. “We probably do 10 to 15 sails for them a year,” Durant said. “It seems like we are always working on something.”

But Island Nautical provides services to more than multimillion-dollar tall ships. “They are our go-to shop,” said Olympic gold medalist Allison Jolly, coach of the University of South Florida’s top-rated sailing team. “When something breaks, they can fix it or make a new one.”

Jolly said her sailors are particularly hard on pintles and gudgeons, the hardware that attaches a rudder onto a boat. “They are always rusting out,” Jolly said. “But they can fix them. It’s not easy to find a place that can do stainless steel manufacturing.”

And that is the key to Island Nautical’s success, Ingwall said. “Manufacturing in the U.S. has been dropping off for years,” he said. “But here we are in the center of St. Pete making sails, seat cushions, everything the boater needs.”

Ingwall is new to the bay area — he bought the company that currently employs 42 people a year ago because, he said, “I wasn’t looking for a job … I was looking for a way of life.”

He grew up in North Carolina, where he was an avid sailor, but added, “Up north you have a racing season. The great thing about Florida is people race year-round.”

Island Nautical is a little hard to find. “We’ve got a retail shop in a commercial space,” Ingwall, 42, said. The company recently commissioned a colorful mural painted by the legendary Vitale Brothers, who started their downtown St. Petersburg art company in 1992.

Fred Bickley, an open ocean racer who recently completed several of the WaterTribe’s small boat challenges (including last month’s 300-miler along the coast of North Carolina), said he doesn’t know what he would do without the shop.

“Big sails, little sails … they do it all,” said Bickley, who’s gearing up for a trans-Atlantic voyage in the summer. “They are the best shop around for the serious sailor.”


Island Nautical made all of the sails for the Royal Clipper, the luxury flagship of the Clipper line, which first sailed in 2000

Sailmaker Todd Neill sews a patch on a sail for a tall sailing ship at Island Nautical in St. Petersburg. The sail measures 114 feet long and 51 feet wide and has to be built in stages.

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