Sailing to Success

Offshore Spars in New Baltimore is among the few mast-makers left in the world.
A mast in a warehouse.
CARBON SUPPORT: Masts, or spars, are made from carbon fiber materials that are both rigid and lightweight.

Industry consolidation and the COVID-19 pandemic has put Offshore Spars in New Baltimore in the driver’s seat — or captain’s chair — among the world’s sailboat mast-makers and rigging suppliers.

Masts, also known as spars, are the main support for sails on a sailboat, and Offshore Spars is one of four manufacturers of its kind left in the world.

“A lot of the growth is a result of what’s going on in our industry,” says Steven King, owner of Offshore Spars since 2013. “There’s a lot of consolidation of spar-makers in the world. A decade ago, there were probably 12 (companies). Now there’s maybe four.”

Two of the largest competitors, according to King, are owned by a private equity company that is making what King calls “questionable business decisions” that are improving the outlook for Offshore. “The marine market is extremely strong right now,” he says. “Ever since COVID-19 hit, people are spending more money on boats and our market is just exploding.”

Offshore Spars increased its revenue to $4.5 million last year, from $4 million in 2019 and $2.8 million in 2017. It has 35 employees, up from 20 workers in 2017.

Company statistics for Offshore SparsThe company specializes in the design and manufacture of custom, carbon-fiber spars for large sailing yachts. Its products include masts for cruising and racing; electric, hydraulic, and manual furling booms; spinnaker poles; and boom spirits.

“We’re very strong in the custom market,” King says. “We dabble in a couple of production jobs here and there, but for the most part our strength is the custom market — refitting a boat or a new build (where we) custom-design and build the spar to fit the boat perfectly. There are so many options we can build in.

“Working with private customers is pretty nice when it comes to ordering and cash flow,” King adds, explaining that with his customers, money tends to be an afterthought. “The money just shows up,” he says.

Offshore Spars started in 1976 as Motor City Electric, which was owned by Mike Feldman. Over time, the company started making aluminum rigs for sailboats built in Michigan and Canada, and its name changed. The company crafted aluminum rigs for several years, then expanded from rigs for small, mass-produced sailboats to larger, custom projects.

In 1992, the America’s Cup team contracted with Offshore Spars to help its crew build masts for its winning vessel, called America3. This marked the introduction of carbon fiber not only to the America’s Cup competition, but to the Offshore Spars shop, as well — including the purchase of a 110-by-3-foot autoclave to cure the composite spars.

“That’s what got the carbon fiber spar manufacturing off the ground here,” King says. “Sailors are always looking to go faster. It’s part of the nature of the sport. Anytime you can make something lighter, it helps them go faster.”

That capability led to Finland’s Nautor’s Swan, maker of some of the most eye-catching sailing yachts in the world, becoming Offshore Spars’ primary customer. “In about the late 1990s, we were building carbon masts for all of (Swan’s) bigger boats, and they were still building smaller masts for some of their smaller boats.”

Swan eventually sold its mast-making business to Offshore Spars, which purchased another autoclave for the shop in Finland. That facility closed during the 2008 economic downturn. King bought the business from Feldman in 2013. “In the first five years that I had the company, business was steady with U.S. work,” King says. “We weren’t doing much with Europe. We’ve seen a lot of growth over the last two years.”

In 2020, Offshore Spars delivered 40 spars to customers worldwide. There are 28 masts currently in production. The company operates out of a 38,000-square-foot facility at 22 Mile Road and Gratiot Avenue in New Baltimore. It includes a small machine shop with manual machines, a CNC carbon cutter, a waterjet cutter, two autoclaves, and five spar-turning stations. The shop also features two spray booths:  150 feet and 80 feet long, respectively.

According to King, work on a mast begins once a naval architect presents a plan for a craft.

“You start with the spec and make sure that’s what the client wants,” King explains. “You’re working with a naval architect and their vision for the boat. Once you get the order, you go to design, working with the rigger to make sure we have all the measurements correct. We coordinate with the shipyard from start to finish.”

Man working mast
SMOOTH SAILING: The raw materials and labor needed to produce carbon fiber masts can be costly, but the end result is a lighter, faster sailboat.

The company creates production drawings, works with the raw material, creates the spars, and helps install the completed masts in the boat.

“We do all our own machining, our own paint,” King says. “We fabricate, we build rigging — we pretty much do everything from start to finish in our facility.”

While New Baltimore isn’t a traditional maritime production hub, King says metro Detroit’s industrial heritage and its growing aerospace presence makes it “a great city to manufacture in.”

In addition to supplying new sailboat-makers with carbon fiber offerings, the Offshore Spars crew is working on replacing the masts of an older wood boat with composite masts that will be painted to look like wood.

A year ago, Offshore Spars assisted the America’s Magic 2021 America’s Cup team manufacture spars for its entry in this year’s race. Rather than actually make the spars, Offshore Spars lent its shop, equipment, and manufacturing experience to an America’s Cup team, which moved into the spar-maker’s facility and did the work on the spar itself. Beyond helping the 1992 and 2021 U.S. America’s Cup entries, Offshore Spars also assisted the 1995 all-female America3 team.

Peering ahead, King is looking off the bow rather than the stern. “We have a lot of potential future growth,” he says. “We’re definitely in a growth period that’s going to continue for a while. It’ll be interesting to see if the market cools down a bit. But we don’t have a lot of competition. Once you get to a 70-foot boat, there’s really only two or three other companies worldwide (to fill an order). There’s a lot of potential to sell to the entire world.”

The company’s expertise in carbon composite manufacturing will help drive future growth.

“There’s not really much place for aluminum anymore,” King says. “Cheaper production boats still use aluminum, but once you get to a 50-foot boat, it’s pretty rare to have aluminum.

“Carbon is the wave of the future. Even the budget boats are trying to figure out how to use it. The raw materials are more expensive and it’s more labor-intensive, but it’s a far superior material. It’s lighter, stiffer, and it doesn’t corrode.”