The Upcycling of Sails. When Mark Pine saw old sails being thrown in the trash he set a new course to start Brooklyn Sailbags. At the helm
of a new venture with a crew of different talents, we spoke with him about his new business repurposing old sails.
❖ By Roger J. Greiner ❖ Edited by Michael C. Bohn Sr. ❖ Photograph by Robert Engle
IT'S IN THE BAG Mark Pine standing on a dock at a City Island, NY marina. The CEO of Brooklyn Sailbags has a unique business model: "Give me your tattered and damaged sail, and I will make you a bag filled with memories".
What does a good idea look like, and how do you know it when you see it? Sometimes it's in front of you, staring you right in the face. Other times it's an epiphany! And other times you stumble into it, or it stumbles into you. But what about those times when you have ruminations about bringing your dream to life? A dream you have been thinking about for a long time. For Mark Pine it was all of the above—a confluence of energies—so he set sail on a business journey that breathes new life into sails that would otherwise be discarded.
Tell me about your sailing background. How did you get started?
The first time I went sailing was in summer camp when I was ten years old. I rediscovered sailing when I went to a sailboat racing Meet-Up at City Island Yacht Club in the Bronx. I met a couple of captains who needed crew members. I joined the yacht club and fell in love with yacht racing, and have been doing it ever since. I race in the western Long Island Sound as well as several weekend races throughout the season. On Mondays boat owners looking for new crew often take out new sailors for a social sail to get acquainted with the sport, and to see if there is interest and potential in getting new sailors to race.
Yacht racing has expanded my knowledge and has taken the sport to the next level for me. Casual sailing, or cruising is more relaxing and laid back, which is a “take-your-time pace,” whereas racing involves doing things fast, efficiently and as a team. It also involves strategy. You must adjust the shape of the sail to take advantage of wind shifts, or change the direction you are sailing by tacking or jibing. You have to work with what a particular sailboat has, and make the best of each situation.
When did the idea hit you to create Brooklyn Sailbags?
My girlfriend got a present, a recycled sail bag, and the idea intrigued me. The sail bag was a simple design, but it was expensive. I couldn’t believe the price! I thought, “wow, I could probably get the sail for free from some of my sailing buddies, and make it myself.”
Soon afterwards I was competing at Block Island during race week, and came across another sailor carrying two unique sail bags, different from anything I had seen. I asked her where she got her bags, and who made them. She told me the sails came from her family boat that they sailed nearly every weekend as a family for the past 30 years. She told me when her father passed away the family sold the boat, but that the person buying the boat did not want the sails, so she wound up keeping them. She held onto them for a year or two, then decided to take the sails to a seamstress to make bags with the tattered sails. The bags that she made were used with sections of the sails that had her dad’s handwriting on it.
I thought the bags were very beautiful and distinctive. I told her, “I love your idea and how you created a family heirloom.” She said that this was one of the last things she had with her dad's handwriting and she wanted a keepsake, so why not make bags for the entire family to remember dad and the fun times we had sailing together.
At that moment I said to myself, I think I’m going to start a recycled sail bag business. Some of my initial thinking was, that if I can help just one person with a similar story, it would be a wonderful feeling.
Why did you decide to call your company Brooklyn Sailbags?
Although the bags are being manufactured in Mount Vernon, New York, the first seamstress I hired was located in Brooklyn. The name Brooklyn has been incorporated into many business models by different companies. So I figured why not sail bags?
How many other businesses are making similar products to Brooklyn Sailbags?
There are other sail bag manufacturers out there. Two that I know of. But most of these businesses are not local to New York City, and none of them have my unique business model.
Do sailboat owners generally throw their sails in the trash?
Yes, often they do. You can get a pinhole in a sail—literally a pin hole—and in 5 minutes of sailing the hole will get bigger. If you continue to sail, the next thing you know the entire sail will rip if you do not haul it down fast enough. Depending on the damage, it might be repairable, it might not. Captains will often try at first to make a temporary repair with special tape if the rip is not too large. Afterwards they will take it to a sail maker to see if the sail can be fixed, and ready to sail again. At that time the sail maker will tell the captain if the sail can be repaired or not. If it is not repairable the sail maker will hold on to the sail for me.
Sometimes sails can’t be repaired. New sails are expensive, and can range between $3,000-20,000 per sail, so repairing a sail is always the first choice. But this can also be costly, on average around $1,500.00, depending on the damage. The thinking is, if it cost $1,500.00 to repair a sail, why not get a new sail? So yes, owners of sailboats do throw their sails out if they cannot be repaired. This is where Brooklyn Sailbags comes in. Over the years I have established great relationships with sail makers and boat owners who now save irrepairable sails for me.
What do sailboat owners get in return for their old sails they give you?
If they give me a sail I will make them a bag in any of the styles offered.
And so you find boat owners are open to that?
Absolutely. One thing boat owners like to do is to make team bags out of the sails they give me. There is camaraderie on a boat, and you have anywhere between five to fifteen team members that donate their time to race on your boat. A lot of captains are sentimental, as well as the crew. At the end of a sailing season all team members can have a bag that I make them from the donated sail.
I was involved in a sailing race on Block Island in 2015, and a sail from one of the boats in the race ripped while they were racing. In a case like that, I can turn that tattered sail into wallets, belts, bags, whatever it is the captain and crew may want. I can make it for the entire team, so that the team of a specific boat will know that the items I make them came from the time spent racing at Block Island during race week. They will remember that special day when they blew up their spinnaker or blew up their main sail. Sailing is all about the memories created, which can manifest in a bag or other items.
Preserving memories sounds like it is a big part of your business model.
Yes it is. Or at least I think it will be, we'll see. I am hopeful that it is something boat owners and thier crew will like, and becomes an integral part of my business model. It’s a big part of what Brooklyn Sailbags is about. Upcycling of damaged sails into bags that have memories attached. After a season of sailing to know that the team has a piece of that sail in the form of a new bag, well, that's pretty cool.
Lots of things happen out on the water when you are sailing. Sometimes people get hurt, sometimes they take first place, sometimes the team takes last place. It doesn’t matter what happens because everybody is very dedicated to the boat's cause. Having memories of the time spent with the captain and your teammates is something that can be commemorated with a bag made from the sail from the boat you sailed on. The captains of the boats would be ecstatic to give a bag to each of their crew because people and time are a given on sailboats. Everyone volunteers their time to be out on the water and to sail, and to acknowledge a crew's efforts with a timeless gift demonstrates an appreciation, it says thank you for your commitment.
How many bags can you make from one sail?
Generally speaking each sail is different in size, so it is not an easy question to answer. Sometimes the sail is in such bad shape that I may get about 3-5 bags out of one sail. With larger sails I may be able to get up to 10-15 bags out of one sail.
Are Brooklyn Sailbags durable?
They are extremely durable. The material is made to withstand bad weather and years of use. It’s hard to say exactly how long the bags will last, but my guess is 10-15 years, if the bags are taken care of properly. All of my bags are machine washable.
What materials are Brooklyn Sailbags made of?
Dacron® mostly, but sometimies Kevlar®, which is the same material used to make bullet-proof vests. Most people think that when they see a white sail, it’s a canvas sail, but that’s usually not the case. Most sailboats have not used canvas sails in years. The sail material these days is much lighter and stronger, much more durable and lasts longer.
You talk about manufacturers, sails, sailboat owners, and the sport of sailing. Now your starting your own business.
What have been some of the challenges?
Challenges (Laughs) They are so many… Paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork! Choosing sails, of course. And working with the seamstresses and my stylist… listening to everyone's advice. Everybody has advice, which is great, but how to make sense of everyones advice is not easy. Suggestions like wrapping the handle around the bottom of the bag or not, or suggesting every bag have a zipper. Between the sample bags that have to be made, people making all sorts of decisions, and working with many different people in the industry, the work can be overwhelming and discouraging at times. I often thought about quitting. Nothing good comes easy. I try to keep driving towards my destination even if there are bumps in the road.
You see, coming from an IT background and building computer networks, I am used to getting things done quickly. The quicker you get things done, the more people appreciate it. And that's awesome. But this fashion 'thing' is tough, who knew sailbags would be considered fashion. It’s such a long, drawn out process, from manufacturing to marketing to point of purchase, it's very different from building computer networks.
I’m learning the business from the inside out. I’m learning that there are many ways to make my bags. I’m just one guy starting a handbag business. Bigger companies may come out with a little makeup bag. For them this involves months of meetings about many different things. What should we line the bag with? What kind of zippers should we use? There are over 100 different types of zippers, many difffering in color. There are also many different types of materials, all of this is new to me, and I’m learning as I go along. Finding where it can be done properly and cost effectively. Many people don’t realize how much effort goes into making a sample, or a line of bags.
There is a process that the designers and the manufacturers have. These processes are quite different from what I know. It’s frustrating at times. Sometimes I just want to sit at a sewing machine and pump these bags out myself because “if you want something done right, you do it yourself”, that’s the logic that I’m using. I thought of buying a sewing machine and producing bags myself. The problem is I’m not a professional seamstress, and I could never handle the scale and intensity of producing bags myself.
Instead, I’m doing it right. I’ve tried small, independent seamstresses in Brooklyn but have settled on an a small, industrial bag manufacturer and a small group of professional seamstresses to produce my bags. They are very professional and highly skilled craftsmen/women. They have worked with me over the last year, and have helped me to overcome many challenges. This includes the tattered and damaged materials I bring them to work with. It is a collaborative effort. They bring a lot to the table. The main cutter of the sail material, Michael, is an old-school Italian tailor who used to be a custom suit tailor in downtown Manhattan for over twenty years. I’m really lucky to have him on my team. He knows what he is doing and how to get the most out of every sail. So my waste is minimal.
Overall, I am very excited to be my own boss and creating a product I believe in. A product that is filled with memories and keepsakes for boat owners and their crew. A product which is upcycled.
What makes Brooklyn Sailbags different from your competitors?
I personally know the people that are creating my bags, and we produce everything locally. A product that is made in the USA, using American workers. I’m trying to do my part to keep Americans working with the added bonus of upcycling used sails.
Also, from what I have researched, some of my competitors are using material that looks like sail cloth, but technically it’s not sail cloth. They are using new materials, which is not sail cloth because the sail has never been sailed. This means they are not using recycled sails as they claim in their advertising. To me that does not fit the criteria of recycling, or upcycling. A few of our competitors do utilize used sails, but our bags are uniquely different, because they have a weathered look. This creative approach is different from what these competitors are doing. There is really no way to get rid of stains from exposure to salt water and severe weather. I am using tattered and damaged sails that have been sailed. I do utilize some new materials, like the webbing for the handles, thread, zippers, and grommets. I would love to create my bags with more recycled material, but my designer has suggested it’s better to use new material for these parts of my bags to make them stronger. My hope is that customers will love Brooklyn Sailbags because we stay true to who we are.
What can we expect from Brooklyn Sailbags in the future?
Customers can visit our website to see the many types of bags we offer, and to purchase Brooklyn Sailbags online. I am also looking to sponsor sailing events and regattas to give back to the sailing community that has supported me. I am getting a lot of positive feedback from fellow sailors and boat owners who are learning about what I am doing. They often tell me they would like to give me their old sails when the time comes. This is one way that Brooklyn Sailbags will be able to thrive, and allow us to grow.
What would you say is the upside to Brooklyn Sailbags' upcycling?
It is a great feeling to know that I am helping to keep sails out of landfills. It is also a wonderful feeling to know I am helping boat owners and their crew preserve memories, never forgetting the crazy days out on the water. Memories of a particular day, when the wind was blowing 30 knots, and the mainsail or jib broke. Believe it or not, days like that are considered special. What better way to remember a special day than to have a Brooklyn Sailbag made with the sail from a season out on the water, and with great stories attached to it? Owning a bag made out the sail that made that day or season memorable is a one-of-a-kind bag, and Brooklyn Sailbags can help commemorate these special times, one bag at a time.