Roped In

One man’s idle ma­chines are an en­tre­pre­neur’s golden op­por­tu­nity.

Sailing World - - Starting Line -

Tim Ray only knew of Tom Allen be­cause of his top­notch rep­u­ta­tion among the many classes in which the Allen fam­ily has served as boat­builders, cham­pi­ons and men­tors to many. So, unan­nounced, he walked into the Allen Boat Co. in Buf­falo, New York, a few years ago and pro­posed a trade: busi­ness con­sult­ing for work­shop space. Fast- for­ward to to­day; Ray is run­ning a rope- man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity with Allen. What might seem to be quite a leap from that ini­tial barter is not so far­fetched. Each of them shares a work ethic and deep pas­sion for the sport.

Ray has a de­gree in en­vi­ron­men­tal science, as well as ex­pe­ri­ence in the field. Be­sides be­ing able to help com­pa­nies nav­i­gate en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, he’s the kind of guy who re­places old lights in the shop with LED fix­tures, re­cy­cles card­board cordage spools, and even saves line cov­ers stripped for ta­pered sheets and do­nates them to a lo­cal crafter who makes bracelets and the like.

Tom Allen Jr. is the Allen Boat Co.’ s sec­ond- gen­er­a­tion owner. The com­pany is best known for mak­ing one- de­sign boats, in­clud­ing the Light­ning, High­lander, Jet 14s and Blue Jays. Allen is the kind of guy who would never let a boat out of the shop un­less it was per­fect.

Cu­ri­ous about how the Allen fam­ily had a rope-man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in the first place, I met up with the two of them, and we drove past Ni­a­gara Falls to

Crys­tal Beach, Canada, where the plant is lo­cated. I know the area as Lake Erie’s home of the Buf­falo Ca­noe Club, which has long en­joyed a deep and tal­ented Light­ning fleet, but I had no clue there was a rope fac­tory nearby. Our des­ti­na­tion was a cork- in­su­lated build­ing once used to store ice blocks cut from the lake back in the day. You’d never know from the out­side, but there in the old ice­house are all the sup­plies and ma­chin­ery to make the lines we pull and climbers hang from.

When Allen Jr. took over the boat­build­ing busi­ness from his fa­ther in the late 1980s, the el­der Allen wasn’t quite ready to re­tire. The in­dus­try was in his blood, he still had plenty of en­ergy and he knew ev­ery­one. Tim­ing is every­thing, and G& B Ropes was up for sale. Allen Sr. bought it and had a good run of it for a while.

When Allen Sr. passed away, his son was busy build­ing boats, so the shop sat dor­mant for al­most 10 years, only oc­ca­sion­ally pro­duc­ing rope for the Light­nings he was build­ing. Allen Jr. had been wait­ing for some­one like Ray to come along, and even­tu­ally, he brought Ray across the U.s.-canada bor­der to see the fa­cil­ity first­hand.

When Allen first opened the doors for Ray, he cracked open a time cap­sule. Dust­cov­ered equip­ment was wait­ing pa­tiently to get back to work. Like the solid old ice­house, the ma­chin­ery was good in­dus­tri­alqual­ity stuff, and Ray saw past the clut­ter and cob­webs to see his new call­ing.

Large iron ma­chines with big gears will last for­ever with enough grease, and the tech­nique of rope braid­ing is time­less. Sure, newer equip­ment has the ca­pa­bil­ity to mea­sure length, and some back- end spool­ing equip­ment would save time, but for the low- vol­ume cus­tom needs of the sail­ing mar­ket, these in­dus­trial relics do the job just fine.

In one back corner, Allen and Ray show off a large ma­chine nick­named “Big Bertha.” It needs no warn­ing sign for me to know to keep fin­gers and loose cloth­ing clear. Bertha twists a bun­dle of fil­a­ments to­gether to make yarn. The fil­a­ments are the raw ma­te­rial of rope man­u­fac­tur­ing. They are wispy thin, like the cob­webs draped across the shop’s nooks and cran­nies, but these are much stronger.

Once twisted and spooled, the braid­ing ma­chines braid the yarns, and like all good rope man­u­fac­tur­ers, G& B uses a mix of dif­fer­ent fil­a­ment types for spe­cific ap­pli­ca­tions. There are a lot of braid­ing ma­chines for cores and jack­ets, which is handy be­cause there are so many dif­fer­ent ropes, and an al­most in­fi­nite num­ber of pos­si­ble color, line size and type con­fig­u­ra­tions.

Hav­ing some ready to go for com­mon types saves setup time, and a num­ber of dif­fer­ent lines can be man­u­fac­tured at the same time. Cov­ers are braided over a core that has al­ready been braided. The core feeds up from the bot­tom, and yarns are rhyth­mi­cally wo­ven around it to form the rope cover. The mov­ing parts un­spool­ing yarn and weav­ing it into rope is mes­mer­iz­ing, like watch­ing an open flame.

With his mar­ket home­work done, Ray de­cided to dif­fer­en­ti­ate G& B from larger com­peti­tors by ap­ply­ing a slightly dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy at the out­set. Most rope man­u­fac­tur­ers buy their rope al­ready twisted and braided then coated with a pro­tec­tive layer af­ter the braid­ing. Since Ray al­ready has that ca­pa­bil­ity, he buys the fil­a­ments pre-coated, which al­lows him to braid pre­coated bun­dles, mak­ing a con­sis­tent sur­face through­out the rope’s length. The idea be­hind the pre-coated fil­a­ment is that when the line runs through a block it doesn’t chafe against it­self, and when the line bends, it does not ex­pose un­coated parts to dam­ag­ing ul­tra­vi­o­let rays.

It also al­lows Ray to make the line in unique col­ors. By coat­ing the line at the yarn level, he can mix col­ors at the braid level. For ex­am­ple, if the line cover is blue with or­ange flecks, he can make the core blue with or­ange flecks so it matches. This is pretty cool when ta­per­ing a line so it is the same color, re­mov­ing a po­ten­tial source of con­fu­sion on the boat.

“How are you in­tend­ing to use this?” is the first ques­tion Ray asks. He can make just about any­thing, and he knows all the right com­bi­na­tions to meet the buyer’s de­sires. We sailors know what we want, and of­ten have some idea where to start, but we don’t have the full arse­nal, nor the col­ors, so suf­fice it to say, we’ll leave the spin­ning to these guys. Q

The fil­a­ments are the raw ma­te­rial of rope man­u­fac­tur­ing. They are wispy thin, like the cob­webs draped across the shop’s nooks and cran­nies.


Tim Ray, left, re­cently part­nered with Tom Allen Jr.’s shop in On­tario, Canada, to re­build his cordage com­pany, G&B Ropes. Ray keeps a watch­ful eye on fil­a­ments com­ing off the braider while Allen in­spects the newly wo­ven dou­ble-braided line.


G&B Ropes uses coated fil­a­ments in or­der to re­duce in­ter-fiber chaf­ing and im­prove UV pro­tec­tion. Tim Ray (right) says he en­joys cus­tomiz­ing core color schemes, which would not be pos­si­ble if the core was coated af­ter weav­ing.

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