When sailmaker Mike Bartles saw a “for rent” sign in front of a large barn at 73 Corey Lane in Boothbay, he immediately called the number on the sign. Tom Witt answered, and thus began the process that would lead to Bartles starting his first business: M & H Bartles, Sailmakers.
Mike has been in the business of sails and sailboats since working in the sail loft at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, where he and his wife, Harley, are from, in 2011. They met at the museum when Harley went to work there too after a semester in the Mystic Study Abroad Program at Williams College.
In 2012, Harley, who had spent childhood summers at her grandparents’ camp on Moosehead Lake, got a job at the University of Maine at Orono. She moved to Maine and Mike started looking for jobs in Maine as well.
“We wanted to stay in Connecticut, but we were open to Maine, and once she moved up and I’d come up to visit, we decided it was a great place,” Mike said.
In March 2013, when the Mystic Seaport Museum was restoring a whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, a request for bids for a new suit of sails went out. Nathaniel S. Wilson, Sailmaker, of East Boothbay, won the contract.
As luck would have it, a position at Wilson’s loft had just opened up, and Mike landed it. It was the perfect fit and the perfect opportunity for the young sailmaker.
“Nat is the authoritative source on sailmaking in the United States,” Mike said. “He has a tremendous depth of knowledge on something that is actually very specific, as in what works and what doesn’t.”
The Bartles bought a home in Boothbay Harbor and eventually Harley found her perfect sail-related job, too, as manager of corporate relations and sponsorship at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.
Mike worked for Wilson right up until October, when he saw the “for rent” sign and took a leap of faith. “This is a brand new step for us,” he said.
Witt had bought the building five years ago from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, when he and his wife, Sue, were building a new home. He used it as a storage space and a temporary workshop.
Initially, when Mike and Witt went before the Boothbay Planning Board for what they thought would be a simple change of use, it was denied due to zoning. The two men left the meeting unhappy with the decision.
Mike said it wouldn’t have been easy to find another building that would meet the standards needed for a sail loft, as the one on Corey Lane did. “You need a specific space to work in,” he said. “You can’t do something like this in a two-room office downtown.”
Luckily, two days later, Code Enforcement Officer Jason Lorrain fixed the problem. “He found that, based on the way Tom was using it and the way Bigelow had initially used it, it fell under a continuation of a nonconforming land use,” Mike said. “Because they had used it for manufacturing, then I was allowed to manufacture sails here.”
Mike is slowly outfitting his space with the necessary tools, mainly sewing machines, for sailmaking. Among them is a massive machine that looks like it came out of a 19th-century sail loft. It did. It’s a Singer 7 Class. “I couldn’t believe I found one of these,” he said. These were built over the last 150 years and they’ll sew through just about everything.”
“The thought of starting my own business has always kind of been there,” Mike said. “Once you work for a small sailmaking company and really have a hands-on approach to it, working on every facet of the sails, as opposed to a factory-line approach, it takes away any interest of working in a factory-like place.”
Mike hesitates to call himself a master, but he has the background and know-how any good sailmaker requires. “I do have a fair amount of knowledge and I have manuals from the 1830s,” he said. “I can see what they did. That should be a good starting point.”
When Harley isn’t working at her own sail-related job, she’s at the loft, helping in the office and offering a second set of hands when needed.
Witt, a lifelong sailor, said he’s thrilled to have the sailmaking business in his barn, right down the road from his home. “For anybody who’s sailing professionally, Mike will take good care of you,” he said. “If anyone rips a sail, they can bring it right here and get it fixed.”
Mike has just completed a small blue sail for a dinghy. It wasn’t a big job, but it’s a start for the new business owner and there’s more on the horizon. “The client also has a sail on order for his other, larger boat,” he said.