Pittsboro company gives solo sailors a hand with tiller control system

kblunt@newsobserver.comAugust 10, 2013 

  • WaveFront at a glance

    Founders: Pete Crawford and Katherine Smart

    Products: The TillerClutch retails for $74.99. The TillerClutchX, for larger sailboats, sells for $84.95.

    Website: www.wavefrontmarine.com

— PITTSBOROIt was almost too much for one man to handle – even an experienced sailor like Pete Crawford.

As his small sailboat battled turbulent waters and 30-knot winds on the way to Cape Lookout, Crawford struggled to reef the sails and lift the keel while constantly guiding the tiller.

That anxiety-ridden voyage eight years ago inspired Crawford, 54, to design the TillerClutch, a patented tiller control system that has catapulted his home-based marine supply business into the global sailing industry.

Since 2011, Crawford and his business partner and wife, Katherine Smart, 58, have shipped the steering control system to customers in 42 states and 23 countries. Their Pittsboro-based company, WaveFront, has established partnerships with 10 domestic distributors, as well as two in Canada and Australia. Just recently WaveFront signed a deal with a Japanese distributor.

“These may be hard financial times, but people still want to sail,” Crawford said. “Many are downsizing to smaller boats they can use by themselves. There is plenty of potential out there.”

Sales of the TillerClutch increased 160 percent in 2011 and 50 percent in 2012, and the couple say they expect the growth to continue, since most U.S. sailboats less than 30 feet long are tiller-steered. WaveFront’s recent deal with the Japanese sailing supplier Yuukou Marine is also expected to boost sales, as most of the country’s sailboats are tiller-steered.

“Compared to America, smaller boats have been much more popular (in Japan) for their ease of use, and also because the harbors have been very expensive,” Colin Ferrel, manager of Yuukou Marine, said in an email. “These boat owners are mostly thinking about easy sailing, and the TillerClutch is incredibly easy to use. It really does change the sailing experience by freeing you to tend a sheet or check a map.”

For centuries, tiller-steered boats have taxed the abilities of even the most seasoned sailors. Though more responsive than wheel steering systems, tillers require constant control and often pose a challenge for those with limited hands on deck.

There are many tricks and devices used to control a tiller, from rope rigs to friction brakes, but most provide only a temporary hold.

“There are simple systems that work by tying the tiller to the sail, but that’s not going to last for long,” said Gary Edelman, coordinator of Discover Sailing, an organization that promotes sailing education and events. “If you’re going to do it over a longer course, there have been tiller pilots and electronic systems that people still use today. But there’s a big gap between simply tying a tiller off and using something electronic, and there are niches in between those that many people have tried to fill.”

The TillerClutch is a compact device that is mounted beneath the tiller handle and threaded with a taut rope attached to both sides of the boat. When engaged, a lever within the device prevents the rope from sliding through the opening until a sailor moves to release it.

Crawford tried to find the middle ground between a simple rig and an elaborate setup by improving on some well-known manual solutions. He wanted to design a system that didn’t rely on a tension knob to control friction or a rod to create resistance. Above all, he wanted to ensure the device didn’t snag on other parts of the boat.

The resulting product has proved useful to sailors of all ages, from children to retirees. The TillerClutch has also helped some disabled sailors reconnect with the water. WaveFront sold one of the systems to a man in Germany who lost his arm during a motorcycle accident. He said the device enabled him to sail again.

“The TillerClutch could definitely be a very assistive aid to someone with limited mobility,” Edelman said. “It could make sailing possible for someone who thought they couldn’t. There is a market for that.”

Lots of trial and error

Crawford is a tinkerer by nature. Evidence of his engineering degree from N.C. State University appears everywhere in his basement workshop, from the machines he built himself to the labels handwritten in neat capital letters. He birthed the idea of the TillerClutch in 2005 and quickly immersed himself in research and development, a five-year phase of trial and error that generated increasingly complex designs.

In 2006, Crawford and Smart incorporated WaveFront in anticipation of selling the TillerClutch. They sold the rights to a computer peripheral device Crawford had patented and used the money to fund the new business.

“Once I sold the rights to that patent, I had the money to buy the tools and materials I needed,” Crawford said.

Every design proved better than the last, but none worked perfectly. Five discarded prototypes led him to question the plausibility of his idea.

“You’re doubting yourself all the time,” Crawford said. “But, like a researcher, it’s hard to let go of your hypothesis.”

Crawford finally achieved success with a model that performed well in a wide range of sailing conditions. But its highly precise engineering rendered it difficult to mass-produce on a scale suitable for a very small business.

The breakthrough occurred at a trade show in Winston-Salem. Crawford found two North Carolina manufacturers that were able to produce the parts he needed in a quantity he could afford. WaveFront partnered with Wakefield-Vette, a thermal solutions manufacturer with a location in Cary, to produce the aluminum-alloy exterior. It hired Micro Waterjet, a West Huntersville-based company that specializes in precision cutting, to manufacture the internal mechanisms.

He placed his first order for 500 parts in 2009, and, after launching sales in 2011, began ordering double the quantity.

‘We’re making money’

WaveFront recently began selling the TillerClutch on its website for $74.99, and now online sales account for about three-quarters of its total revenue. It recently began offering the TillerClutchX for larger sailboats, which sells for $84.95. The TillerClutch products have proved popular in the United Kingdom, and Crawford and Smart may soon sign a deal with a distributor there.

“The whole ability to sell online is just amazing,” Crawford said. “We’ve sold thousands so far, and now orders range from one to 50 kits daily. We’re making money, and we’re totally self-sufficient.”

The profits aren’t yet enough to allow Crawford and Smart to quit their day jobs. Crawford continues to work full time as a civil engineer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, while Smart does freelance work in public relations.

Crawford assembles each of the products in his workshop, using his series of self-built machines to further refine the parts and connect them together. He guarantees a one-day turnaround time for all individual orders, even as demand increases.

Crawford and Smart may hire several part-time employees to help with packaging, but for now, they insist on assembling and inspecting the products themselves.

“If we travel, we take supplies with us,” Crawford said. “Quality is priority, and we want to remain on the high end of things.”

Blunt: 919-829-8985

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