by John Curnow
A lengthy and distinguished career has afforded Dave Ullman one formidable insight into both the art and business of sailing. As a direct result of his many achievements, Dave has a genuine interest in ensuring that future generations have access to the experiences and learnings of the past.
Veteran Dave Ullman 2007 Melges 24 Worlds
So then. Let's actually start with his significant and distinguished past. Dave was born and raised in Newport Beach, California. He came from a sailing family, where his induction to the water was certainly dramatic. ‘Dad was very adversary; we went to Catalina Island a lot, which was 20 miles away, nearly every other weekend. He had a Pram dinghy and when I was about three years old, he would tie a line on the Pram and send me off sailing out the back of the family vessel. When it was lunchtime, he'd pull me in. That's how I learned to sail', was how Dave described it.
This wasn't enough to turn Dave off the sport. On the contrary, clearly it actually engulfed him. ‘I started racing when I was six. There was an adult group who sailed boats called Balboa dinghies. They were like an early version Sabot with one sheet of eight-foot plywood as the main part. They asked me if I'd race with them, to which I said, ‘Sure'. At six years of age, most of the other kids around weren't sailing at all', he said.
The local junior racing program ensued from there and when he was around 14 years of age, Dave got serious with the International Snipe class. Now as a result of that, the first of his international campaigns had been born. ‘It seemed like it was something I could do. I did a lot of surfing at the time, too.
Dad, a pretty bright fellow, sat me down when I was about 16 or 17 and said ‘You're surfing and sailing a lot. You've got to decide which you're going to do. You can probably make a living sailing or maybe surfing', given that surfing's pro circuit was just burgeoning at the time. ‘So it was at that point I started sailing a lot more and surfing less', Dave explained. Interestingly, that happens to be not too dissimilar to one Greg Norman and his golf versus surfing debate when he was of a similar age. Of course, Greg also got to the top of his chosen field of endeavour.
A sailmaking apprenticeship was certainly on the cards for Dave and it was whilst at high school that he worked at the local loft, Baxter & Cicero. ‘I worked summers and weekends for them, used their sails and also helped to promote some of them too. They were probably the best sailmakers in the world at that time, which was all before North Sails came about.'
Seasoned and highly awarded yachtsman, Dave Ullman has seen everything the world has to offer, and praised Audi Victoria Week as unique.
In 1967 and now some 21 years of age, Dave had two good reasons to settle down: a new wife and a baby on the way. The result was the creation of his very own loft, Ullman Sails, which has a 43-year pedigree in the business of making sails.
When asked if sailmaking has changed in the last 20 years or so of his monumental career, Dave replies, ‘Yes and no. The sails have certainly changed a lot, whereas sailmaking, as an actual business, hasn't changed very much at all. It's still small, a bit of a struggle and quite rewarding and fun to do. There are about five major groups involved today and that number has been around for quite a while.'
Of some of the fragmentation that has been around his industry in recent times, Dave merely passes it off, saying ‘…that's always happened. Groups come and go. Times change.' Dave was in Australia not that long ago, where he was asked about his own loft and brand, amongst other things. ‘Yes. We're really proud of how our presence in Australia has developed, over time. We now have five lofts and some really good dealers too. They're a really fun bunch of guys.'
Naturally then, the next question is just how does Dave see his loft, relative to the others in the global market. ‘Of the five main groups, definitely North's has the biggest share. I would say the other four are Quantum, UK, Doyle and Ullman. I don't know about the volumes each produces, but certainly in brand recognition. In some places around the planet one group will be strong and in some places, it's another, but all four are fighting for a similar patch of turf'.
Ullman Sails has multiple centres of expertise, where each one-design class has a central loft that is in charge of the development. ‘It's the only way to do it', said Dave. ‘Otherwise you're going to have seven or eight types of sails, made all over the world and nobody getting the badge!'
‘For example, we have a number of groups testing Etchells sails around the world, but all our development reports back to Sydney. With our Etchells sail designs, we are quite happy to say ‘We've got these sails and our lofts the world over can use the very same pattern.' Our whole Etchells program, including all the development, is based here in Australia, which I'm sure is going to bring rewards very soon indeed. We're also doing something very similar in Newport Beach and Italy for some of the Melges classes.'
This, in itself, is an interesting segue as Dave has sailed a lot of classes over the years and is arguably best known now for his Melges 24 exploits. ‘It's probably my favourite class now.' Dave quickly added, ‘The 470 was my favourite boat when I was younger; and I am probably better known for that, overall. It was a really good group of people that were sailing 470s when I was sailing them. However, now, I really enjoy sailing the Melges 24. It's really like a 470 for older folks. I've been sailing it now for 15 years and just keep being drawn to it.'
Dave Ullman has also spent a lot of time on other Melges craft. ‘I've sailed a great deal on the 32s and we're presently doing some development with the 20s and sailing them a bit', Dave commented. At the time of this interview, he was watching the Melges 32 Rock and Roll when she was doing quite well at the 2010 Audi Victoria Week regatta in Geelong (just outside Melbourne, Australia), back in late January. ‘She's a really good sailboat', he said and was impressed that during the Heaven Can Wait 24hour race on Lake Macquarie (New South Wales), the same vessel got around the 28nm course five or six times.
‘They're a pretty special boat, the 32s, and I think you'll see them really come on strong in Australia in the future. Around the world they're slowly replacing the Farr 40 as they're more affordable and much more fun to sail. Every owner that changes over just has a big smile on their face; I mean, the boats light up and go. The Farr 40 is great competition, but not anywhere near as much fun.'
Dave also finds IRC racing quite interesting and thinks that Melbourne has developed a really solid racing fleet over the last five years. ‘Look at the 52footer class here – it's great. Sydney might think it's the centre of sailing, but Melbourne is challenging that!'
When asked if Australian IRC fleets are the strongest in the world, Dave responds with, ‘Um...that might be a stretch, but certainly the quality is very, very good. The quantity is probably not there, however.'
Commenting on some of the racing he was watching in Geelong, Dave said, ‘You miss the first shift if your start isn't very good and you get cleaned up. It takes a long time to get back if you're spending some time going the wrong way!' Corio Bay was very flat on the day in question, which prompted him to say, ‘The sailing's beautiful; it's fun. Hopefully tomorrow it won't be too light and shifty.'
A little earlier in the same trip, Dave had sailed an invitational event on Melbourne's Port Phillip when it was blowing 35 knots.
‘It was great. It was fun. In the last race, we had the medium up as the wind hit' and when asked if the sailmakers would guarantee the mediums in that strength of breeze, he said, ‘I guess not. If you took it back for warranty work, they'd kind of look at you sideways.'
As the discussion came back to lofts, one noticed that Dave is dedicated to continuing to grow the Ullman Sails group. He sees that there is a basic rationalisation going on, where smaller operators are joining groups and getting all the benefits of that. ‘If you are a small independent, you get tired of hitting your head against the wall and you go and join a group.'
‘Each group has something different to offer you and you pick one that offers what you're looking for in terms of name recognition, support and being associated and working with other like people. It would take a very strong, really good independent loft to stay independent and then expand these days. It would be very, very difficult. So I think the independents will have to go one way or the other. You end up having to work twice as hard on your own, especially at big events. Whereas if you're part of a group, there's somebody who has already done what you're trying to do and can help you out with it.'
‘We're certainly happy with our very strong presence in the USA, but we really appreciate that we have such solid connections here in Australia and Europe.' In terms of Asia, Dave states, ‘I go a couple of times a year to keep my eye on it. We also work closely with the China Sail Factory. We are their biggest customer and we almost think of them as our extra loft. We've been with them for ten years. We were their first really strong customer, so we've gone through the whole development with them, including membrane/string sails. We did most of the development for them.'
‘Other than North's, everybody's technology in membranes is the same. We all use the same machine. Some might tell you a million different things, but the reality is we all use the Aeronaut machines and we all build out of the same types of panel. It's all basically D4s and they are brilliant! Really ahead', Dave commented. ‘In the not-so-distant future, North's mould patents will run out and then we'll all have the same products again for a while. After that time, there will be something completely different in the way sails are built. Membranes will be gone; sails will be better and a lot cheaper too, so owners will love that!'
Dave has now shown us a brief history of certain classes, sailmaking techniques and the business of making them. He also gave us a snapshot of what is currently occurring around the globe and what else might be happening in the future.
So with all of that in mind, we might leave it here for now and save the rest of Dave's unique thoughts on the art and business of sailing for Part II of yachting's elder Statesman – Dave Ullman.
The winning Pegasus 505 team of (front) Dave Ullman and Shana Phelan and (rear) Andy Estcourt, Bill Hardesty and Brent Ruhne. - 2007 Fullpower Melges 24 World Championship