Sailrite founders, Jim and Connie Grant share a love for two things: sailing and DIY. From building boats as a kid, to making sails to conserve money, this duo built a unique business out of their garage. Their love for sailing runs deep, and I recently sat down with them to talk about the role sailing has played in their lives.
Jim’s sailing story starts in 1949, when his Dad built the family a home on Crooked Lake in Columbia City, Indiana right after World War II. Growing up on a lake, Jim learned how to sail at the age of 12, when he, his Dad and his brother built a sailboat.
“We built a Sailfish […] and we sailed it until it sailed no more,” Jim said.
The family then decided to tackle another project, restoring a Lightning sailboat, complete with a parquet wood cockpit. Jim, along with his brother, also built and raced fiberglass powerboats in American Power Boat Association (APBA) races.
Jim met Connie at a party at Crooked Lake. The couple dated while Jim studied abroad and eventually married. Soon after, they moved to Chicago to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago.
While in school, Jim and Connie bought an old Philippine mahogany sailboat for $600 and restored it with the help of Jim’s dad. When it was complete, they docked the boat at Grant Park Harbor. For two summers, to save money, Jim and Connie sub let their apartment in the city and lived on their boat. The second summer they even lived aboard with their 6-month-old baby, with only a Styrofoam raft as transport to the shore.
While in Chicago, Connie learned how to crew the ship for Jim and together they sailed competitively. In an effort to be thrifty, the pair also tried their hand at making their own sails.
“The first sail we ever made was for a Sunfish,” Jim said. “We made it out of sailcloth, or what the lady at the fabric store told us was sailcloth. It was a cotton sailcloth and it was too heavy. Every time the boat flipped it couldn’t be sailed again until the sail dried out!”
“No one made [their own] sails,” Connie added. “It was like a black art.”
They made an agreement with a sailcloth distributer that allowed them to finally purchase the correct materials they needed. Soon after, the pair sold their boat and moved to California, where Jim had accepted a teaching position in Political Philosophy at Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College).
For four years, Jim taught at the college, all the while building sails and racing boats. Jim and Connie built sails for their Cal20, which they raced locally. It was this exhibition of their homemade sails that would turn their hobby into a business.
“We raced that Cal20 and we did well,” Connie said. “We came in 2nd in Nationals and that’s how we started our business. All of our friends wanted us to make them sails.”
Jim and Connie ended up building sails for the entire local Cal20 fleet that year. Then Jim started writing articles for the Cal20 newsletter and giving lectures. The idea of teaching people how to make their own sails only grew from there. Jim took a leave of absence from teaching and never went back. A new company, Sailrite Kits, had been born.
Making sails on the waxed floor of their garage, Jim and Connie set up a business model for their niche business.
“Starting a business as a blank slate means that you get to make all the rules about how things should be done,” Jim explained.
They sold sail building manuals, sewing machines, and lots of 8 ft. Sabot sails, which were popular in the area at the time. To produce their own mail order catalogs, the couple even built their own print shop in their garage.
“We’re real do-it-yourselfers,” Connie said with a smile.
When asked what he loved the most about sailing, Jim thought for a moment, and replied, “The competition is primary, and the ability to choose any destination is secondary.”
“To climb aboard the boat and sail anywhere we want to go without spending a lot of money,” he said.
“I think [sailing] is a great way to connect with people and make friends all over the countryside, and for people who cruise, all over the world,” Connie said. “This business wouldn’t exist without our Cal20 friends.”
Jim and Connie also see sailing as a great way to connect with their grandchildren. Jim has gone to sailing competitions with his grandson and all of their grandkids have tried their hands at sailing.
“They all try it, and some of them like it and some don’t,” Jim said.
“I think we’re at about 50%,” Connie added.
Jim and Connie are now retired, but their love for sailing and DIY still plays a major part in their lives. Jim is the Assistant Sailing Coach at Culver Academy, and continues to sail 7 days a week and races MC-Scows competitively. While not on the water, he is restoring a 1970 Islander 37, which he hopes to have in the water by next spring. The couple plans to take the boat to the Carolinas.