American Sail, Quietly Closing on 40 By Dan Dickison
inter, for most sailors in the Southeast, means the off-season. And for the majority of boat owners, this is a time for indoor projects and deferred maintenance. For some in the Carolina Low Country, it’s a chance to attend the annual Charleston Boat Show at the end of January. Though this is largely a gathering for powerboaters, a few sailing-oriented companies still exhibit their products and services. Among them, you’ll find American Sail—a family-owned firm from Charleston that has been building and selling small sailboats to the recreational market for the better part of four decades. Since its establishment in 1976, American Sail has been creating what its founder, Dave Stanton, calls “fun family sailboats from 8 to 18 feet.” Back in that era, Stanton was a management consultant with General Recreation Corporation, a group of sporting goods companies. In 1971, the company transferred him to Charleston to head up its sailboat division, the American Fiberglass Corporation. Stanton says that he grew to enjoy the sport so much that he purchased the Aqua Cat line of products from the company in 1976 and struck out on his own to build and sell these boats under the name American Sail. “I had never stepped foot on a sailboat before they asked me to take the helm at American Fiberglass,” admits Stanton, but he jumped in with both feet. He phoned the Annapolis Sailing School and arranged for a week’s worth of private lessons in Florida. “I wanted to know everything that I could about sailboats right away.” That determination has been pivotal to the success of the company he subsequently started. According to Stanton, American Sail has built over 30,000 sailboats in 36 years of operation. Initially, the majority of those products were Aqua Cats, a cat-rigged catamaran that company literature claims has introduced thousands of people to the joys
Dave Stanton of American Sail with the Aqua Finn hull. Photo by Dan Dickison.
of recreational sailing on two hulls. Among those folks, reportedly are King Hussein of Jordan and Bobby Kennedy. Gradually, Stanton expanded the company’s array of products. In the 1980s, American Sail introduced its Dink line of tenders, as well as the Sunfish-like Aqua Finn, which he developed with the Boy Scouts of America, and later the American 14.6 daysailer. In the ‘90s, American Sail introduced a 10-foot, sloop-rigged daysailer with a main and jib and dubbed it the Pennant. This was intended as a family training boat, but it did double duty as a yacht tender after a motor mount and oarlock sockets were added to the package. Later that decade, the company expanded its design of the American 14.6 to offer an 18-foot version. American Sail, which is now run by Stanton’s son Chris, builds seven different models at its 4.5-acre facility, including two versions of the Aqua Cat. None of these sells for more than $10,000. For 2013 he says, “We’re very optimistic. We’re growing and we’re developing new products, and we’re profitable. This year, we are targeting production in the 600-boat range.” Stanton ascribes his company’s success to three key strategies. “No. 1, we strive to build products that last,” he says, pointing out in particular the use of vinylester resin in the hull skins to prevent blistering and the fact that every product is laid up by hand. “We don’t own a chopper gun, and we glass aluminum backing plates in every place that we mount hardware. Every piece we make is engineered to stand up to the rigors of the learn-to-sail market, which tends to be exceptionally tough on boats.” No. 2, says Stanton, “Customer service is key. We back our products up so that if a replacement part is needed, there’s no waiting. We have the inventory and the capability to overnight a new rudder assembly to someone in, say, Indiana, so that customer spends the minimum amount of time without the use of their boat. Even if it’s a small part www.southwindsmagazine.com