Full Speed Ahead: Sewing for the USCGC Mackinaw

Joe and Barb Traub aren’t your typical museum volunteers. They volunteer their time and sewing talents for the United States Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw WAGB-83. This decommissioned Icebreaker ship was built during World War II as part of the war effort. While touring the ship, the couple couldn’t help noticing that some canvas covers were torn up and damaged due to the harsh winters on Lake Huron. One project led to another, and they have been sewing covers and other pieces for the ship ever since. Read about Joe and Barb, their sewing background, and a little bit of the Icebreaker’s history and the role it played in the war.

A Piece of History

The USCGC Mackinaw was built in response to the increased need to transport war materials — specifically ore — during the winter months of World War II. Icebreaker ships are designed with a strengthened hull engineered to plow through heavy ice and create a path for smaller boats to travel. Dubbed the “Queen of the Great Lakes” and “The Largest Icebreaker on the Great Lakes,” Congress authorized construction of Mackinaw on December 17, 1941, just 10 days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

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A photo of the USCGC Mackinaw breaking ice on Lake Huron in 1948.

The ship was built in Toledo, Ohio, and cost $10 million. The Toledo Shipbuilding Company won the contract. However, several delays and penalties forced the company to declare bankruptcy, and the construction was completed by the American Shipbuilding Company. The keel was laid on March 20, 1943. The ship is 290 feet long and the design is based on the Wind class of Coast Guard Icebreakers. However, Mackinaw was built wider and longer than other ships in this class so that the draft would be shallower. The hull was launched on March 4, 1944, and the ship was commissioned on December 30 of that year. Cheboygan, Michigan, remained the ship’s home port its entire life during active service.

The ship served many roles over its esteemed 62-year career. Not only was the Icebreaker a vital part of the war effort, but it also rescued stranded ships, assisted with shipwrecks, and even delivered Christmas trees to underprivileged children in Chicago. Mackinaw is a beacon of hope, a symbol of determination and goodwill not only for the Great Lakes region, but America at large.

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Decommissioned in 2006, the Icebreaker now resides in its namesake port, Mackinaw City, Michigan, and serves as a floating maritime museum. The museum’s educational programming and exhibits teach visitors about maritime history and the economy and ecology of Michigan and the Great Lakes. The ship is open to the public from mid-May to mid-October every year. Aboard the ship, workers offer public tours, educational tours, overnight encampments and group events.

Sailing, Sewing & Sailrite

Barb learned to sew during her youth. Her mother was a high school home economics teacher and taught her daughter everything she knew. When they were married, Barb then taught Joe how to sew. The couple enjoys working on sewing projects together — both projects for their home life and sailing hobby, as well as the projects for the Mackinaw. “We do the projects together for the ship,” Joe said. “Barb is the guiding hand that directs the process. She is the brain, and I work at her direction as I learn.”

The Traubs are longtime Sailrite customers with a unique connection to the company. Their first sewing project as a couple was a tiller cover for their Ranger 26 sailboat. Working in Columbia City in 1989 and needing supplies, Joe happened upon a local business called Sailrite. “I purchased the materials from [founder] Jim Grant himself and have been a customer ever since.” The couple even raced with Jim Grant when they were living in Indianapolis and members of the same sailing club.

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Joe and Barb Traub show off the docking pedestal covers they made for the USCGC Mackinaw using their Ultrafeed LSZ-1.

Besides sailing, they enjoy travel and home improvement projects. “We have made a variety of projects over the years,” recounted Joe. “We’ve sewn Sunbrella® window covers for our cottage and diaper bags and tote bags from old sails.” The couple have also completed a hard top dodger and bimini for their Catalina 30 sailboat, a fire pit cover and numerous sail repairs for their friends in Florida, where they’ve wintered for the past 10 years.

Sewing for the Mackinaw

Joe and Barb Traub have been involved with the Mackinaw since 2015. “Our neighbor is the director of the museum and another friend works in the office,” Joe explained. “During a visit on the ship, we noticed that some of the canvas covers were in bad shape from the continued exposure to the weather. We asked if we could make a cover for the fuel storage area. One project led to another, to another, and on and on.”

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The first sewing project the Traubs completed for the ship was a fuel storage cover.

The Mackinaw received a grant in 2018 to spruce up the historic ship, including resurfacing and repainting all exterior surfaces. The project’s goal was to preserve this important piece of American history and prevent further deterioration. Joe and Barb have been busy helping with this effort by sewing covers to keep certain parts of the exterior protected and well maintained. “We are volunteers just trying to maintain the appearance of the ship,” Joe stated.

The couple has completed three projects for the ship. Their first project was the cover for a fuel storage area made from Sunbrella Marine Grade fabric. Next, they completed eight docking pedestal covers made from vinyl and eight letter bags that hang above the lifeboats. “For the letter bags, one side required stitching through four layers of 20-ounce vinyl. No problem for the Ultrafeed®! “We’re currently working on a tow line winch cover that is 60 inches wide by 12 feet in diameter. The Sunbrella, thread, fasteners and HH-66 Vinyl Cement were all ordered from Sailrite.”

Joe and Barb are proud that their covers protect exterior parts of the ship and enhance the look and appeal of the vessel. They feel honored to donate their time and talents toward volunteering for such an important and noble piece of American history. Mackinaw WAGB-83 is a continuous reminder of American ingenuity, hard work and determination. The ship serves as a goodwill ambassador throughout the Great Lakes region, educating and inspiring both the young and young at heart.

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To learn more about the ship’s history and museum information, please visit www.themackinaw.org.

Outdoor Awnings: A Dream Home DIY

Debra Brown is well acquainted with the world of sewing, having started her first project as a teenager. But what began as a fun, sporadic hobby turned into necessity years later when Debra and her husband moved to Portland, Oregon, and purchased a beautiful Cape Cod home built in 1937. After moving in, they quickly noticed their dream home was not without flaws. “The back of the house faces west and the August sun in Portland can be brutal. The house came with seasonal awnings for each window to mitigate the heat, but unfortunately, they were old and tattered. The awning company wanted $4,000 to remake them — seven in all!” 

Bolstered by her “can do” attitude and sewing skill set, Debra set off to find a way to perfect her new home by creating her own awnings. This would prove to be her greatest sewing adventure yet, and would eventually lead her to Sailrite’s tools and supplies. We’re happy to have been a part of the journey, and Debra was kind enough to share her success story with us.

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Q: What’s your history like with sewing? How long have you been doing it and how did you learn?

I learned to sew in middle school and still recall my very first projects as a 14-year-old — a simple gym bag and a dirndl skirt. Since then, over the years I’ve enjoyed sewing clothing and simple home décor items. When my husband and I moved to Portland, Oregon, and bought an 80-year-old house, my brother, Jesse, encouraged me to take on more ambitious sewing projects including draperies, duvet covers and Roman Shades. Jesse had been sewing custom home décor items for decades and taught me everything I know about sewing with heavier weight fabrics. He had also loaned me one of his industrial sewing machines to complete my projects in the past.

Q: What was the process like of creating your awnings? 

When I decided to try making new awnings for our house, I knew it would be challenging. I had no idea what types of fabric were available, or what tools and notions I’d need. I began by taking apart one of the old awnings and documenting each step so I’d know how to construct a new one. My brother suggested I visit the Sailrite website to learn about appropriate fabrics and thread. I was amazed by the selection available and settled on Sunbrella® Marine Grade Fabric, based on Sailrite’s recommendations for awning construction. 

I ordered just enough fabric to complete the first awning, as it would be a test as to whether or not I could really do this. Next, I needed the right tools. My best friends turned out to be the Sailrite® Edge Hotknife and Seamstick Basting Tape. I could never have managed the Sunbrella without these two lifesavers. Construction of the first awning was slow going. I borrowed two different sewing machines from Jesse just to get started. 

It took me two entire days to create the test awning. I made lots of mistakes but also learned a lot about working with large pieces of Sunbrella. Sailrite’s videos on sewing flat-felled seams were incredibly helpful and helped me gain confidence in my abilities. I knew that if I was going to proceed with constructing six more awnings, I’d need a lot more fabric. But most importantly, I knew I’d need a heavy duty walking foot sewing machine that could handle the project, and that I could easily set up and move around in my sewing area.

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The Sailrite Edge Hotknife was an invaluable tool for cutting Sunbrella.

Q: How did you decide on selecting a Sailrite Ultrafeed® Sewing Machine? What are your thoughts on the machine so far?

I spent a lot of time on Sailrite’s website researching machines and watching videos on working with Sunbrella Marine Grade Fabric. I decided on Sailrite’s Ultrafeed LS-1 PLUS machine. I selected the PLUS package because I wanted the Industrial Carrying Case and accessories included in that package. I was not disappointed. The day my machine arrived, I spent time watching Sailrite’s assembly video and videos on winding bobbins, threading the machine, and sewing basic seams. Without these videos, I would not have felt comfortable setting up my machine and getting started sewing. They were incredibly helpful. 

After completing six more awnings — the last one in a record time of three hours — I can say with confidence that the Ultrafeed LS-1 is an elegant workhorse that seems to have been made for my project. The machine easily handled multiple layers of Sunbrella fabric. I never experienced stuck fabric, the machine losing its timing, or any of the other issues that I had with the borrowed sewing machines I’d used in the past.

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Working with layers of thick Sunbrella required the Ultrafeed LS-1.

Q: Do you plan to sew other projects using the Ultrafeed? 

Now that I’ve finished the awnings, I’m excited to try other projects that utilize Sunbrella, such as patio cushions or maybe a heavy duty tent for my husband’s hunting trips. He’s already asked me to do some repairs on one of his canvas backpacks. Now that I have the experience, the tools and the Ultrafeed LS-1 machine, I’m thinking the sky’s the limit! 

Q: What was the most rewarding, and most challenging, part of constructing this project?

One of the most rewarding parts of the project was simply the realization that I could recreate a large custom item from scratch if I invested in the right tools and materials. The other big rewards are the energy savings on the second floor of my house, which, in the absence of awnings, can be very hot in the summer, not to mention saving over $2,500 by making the awnings myself. That’s even after my investment in the LS-1, the fabric, and the tools and supplies needed. 

The greatest challenge was not having an existing pattern or sewing instructions for these custom awnings. Sailrite made the sewing easy. It was the cognitive piece — thinking through the steps involved — that was the most challenging.

Q: What was the reaction of your family and friends to the new project? 

My family was really impressed with the new awnings. They watched me sew them over a couple of weeks, and were amazed at how professional they look. At first, some of my friends didn’t believe that I actually made them myself. “No way!” was the most common response I received after revealing the beautiful new awnings on the back of my house. Thank you, Sailrite!

Baby on Board: Sailing, Sewing & Raising a Family

Jon and Leah Kruger have been enjoying the liveaboard lifestyle since 2011. They both grew up in sailing families — Jon sailed on traditional wooden sailboats in Maine, and Leah spent seven years of her childhood aboard her parents’ Frasier 41 named “Synchronicity.” She spent four of those years circumnavigating and sailed the South Pacific, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, Caribbean and the West Coast of the United States.

Jon and Leah met in 2009. They spent their early dating years borrowing Synchronicity from Leah’s parents and sailing in the Pacific Northwest. They both knew they wanted to live on a boat, and so they eventually scraped together enough money to buy a 1981 Nor’West 33 dubbed “Brio” in 2011. Ever since, they’ve been living aboard and sailing the open waters, including transiting the Panama Canal in 2014, wintering for three seasons in Portland, Maine, and cruising up and down the East Coast.

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Jon and Leah during the early years of their sailing adventure.

In April 2018, the couple welcomed their first child, Zephyr, to their crew. Now, this adventurous sailing family lives year-round on their sailboat with their 1-year-old son in tow. In addition to her captain duties, Leah is also in charge of all sewing projects and sail repair onboard using her Ultrafeed® Sewing Machine. With the addition of their smallest crew member, some of her recent DIYs have included safety and baby-proofing projects, including weather cloths and an enclosed v-berth sleeping area for little Zephyr.

She shared her one-of-a-kind story with us…

Q. What made you want to become liveaboards? How long do you plan on being full-time cruisers?

I think we both independently knew we wanted to live on boats, even before we’d met each other. So when we realized that this was a shared dream, it really cemented our relationship and our future paths. We had the advantage of living with our parents and keeping our initial living costs super low, so we were 100% focused on funneling all of our energy and savings into finding a boat and outfitting her for cruising.

When people ask if we’ll live on Brio forever, I always say definitely not – we want a bigger boat at some point! Not to say we’ll never want to live on land – forever is a really long time, after all – but we have no immediate intention to become land-based.

I work remotely and Jon runs his own business, so living on a sailboat has enabled us to be climatic nomads, heading south in the winter and north in the summer, and enjoying the most of the East Coast that we can! Having a baby has really reinforced how much we value our time together and the freedom to dictate our own schedules, and I don’t think any of that will change any time soon.

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The happy family enjoying some fun and sun at the beach.

Q. What do you like most about the liveaboard lifestyle? What do you like least? What’s a typical day like now with Zephyr onboard?

I heard someone describe cruising as “a series of Saturdays,” and I think that’s pretty perfect. It’s not that there aren’t chores to be done or groceries to be bought (or water to be lugged, or decks to be scrubbed), but it’s all in a sort of fluid, schedule-less manner. One of the things I like best about cruising is how flexible it is. When we started cruising, I was 24 and Jon was 25 and we had $6,000 saved to make it through the year. We had no refrigeration, no electronics, literally lived on tacos and beans, and somehow still spent $10,000 – giving us our first lessons in boat maintenance and debt!

Now that we have a steady paycheck income, we can afford to stay in marinas and upgrade Brio with new electronics and refrigeration. We still try to live carefully and within our means, but I appreciate how elastic your spending can be with this lifestyle.

I also have to say that the people you meet cruising are hands-down the best part of the whole deal. Regardless of your boat or your budget, cruisers are a welcoming crew – and adding a baby to the mix has just made it easier to strike up conversations with strangers!

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Zephyr “helping” at the helm of Brio.

Q. Can you tell me how you came up with your weather cloths design using window material so you can still enjoy the view?

I’ve spent so many hours staring at solid weather cloths, wishing I could see the horizon! Actually, the other factor was we bought a roll of Strataglass™ for our dodger project, and later decided to use Makrolon® instead (a stiff, glass-like polycarbonate window material). So we had a leftover roll of Strataglass just begging to be used! It felt a little frivolous to use such an expensive product on weather cloths, but we absolutely LOVE them. We haven’t even bothered taking them down since they no longer block the view. Another bonus? They act as toy-containment devices since little Zephyr has quite the arm on him.

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A beautiful, uninterrupted view thanks to Leah’s clever Strataglass weather cloths.

Q. Besides the weather cloths, what other sewing projects have you made for your boat?

Oh gosh, there are so many projects! I got super lucky with a secondhand Ultrafeed LS-1 that another cruiser was selling in Mexico, and I put that baby through the paces. On the LS-1, I made two biminis (the first from hand-me-down Sunbrella®, the second from new!), replaced the windows in our old dodger, made jerry can covers, replaced the v-berth and quarter berth cushions, updated the main settee cushions, cockpit cushions, etc. – all the little stuff! We never had any real money to work with, so I was always collecting other people’s handoffs and repurposing them. For example, someone’s discarded boat cover became our new bimini, the leftover foam from someone’s v-berth project became our cockpit cushions, and an old mainsail cover made great new jerry can covers!

The first really big project I tackled was dinghy chaps. I probably watched the Sailrite video 15 times, pausing and rewinding to understand each step as I attempted patterning for the very first time! This was also one of the first projects I ever attempted with all-new materials – Sunbrella and double-sided basting tape included – and it felt absolutely incredible to realize that I could actually make something really nice!

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Leah’s first big sewing project was making dinghy chaps.

The dinghy chaps gave me the confidence to tackle a project my husband had been nagging me to try for years – a new dodger. We modified our existing frame to be a couple inches lower, so the top could be wide enough for two 100-watt solar panels, and then we set about building a brand-new Stamoid™ and Makrolon dodger. Since we were saving the labor costs on the dodger, we went all out on the materials. Stamoid, a vinyl-coated polyester fabric, is such a nice product to work with. I bought a leather hide to add reinforcement along the bottom edges and on the handrails, and Makrolon windows are the absolute clearest and most rigid windows you’ll find in a soft dodger. I will admit that sewing through Makrolon sounds a bit like gunfire – I don’t think the LS-1 appreciated it – but it was a workhorse right to the end!

After the dodger, we decided it was worth it to invest in a brand-new Ultrafeed machine. I wanted to replace the luff tape on an old genoa so that it could work with our new furler. So for the first time in 7 years of Ultrafeed ownership, I needed a zigzag machine. I bought a new Ultrafeed LSZ-1 and it was like Christmas in September – what an incredible machine!

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Leah proudly completed this dodger project with her secondhand Ultrafeed LS-1. Shortly after this project, she upgraded to a new LSZ-1.

Since then, most of my sewing has been focused on baby-containment devices! I started with a Phifertex® and Stamoid lee cloth that went across the whole v-berth, and then quickly moved on to a full baby-berth zip-in enclosure when we realized Zephyr was not going to be slowed down by a mere suggestion of a wall! The zip-in enclosure has been a lifesaver, giving us a completely safe space to tuck him away when it’s rough or he’s asleep and ensuring we don’t have to worry about an accidental fall or escape while underway. Peace of mind is our new priority!

Q. What made you decide on an Ultrafeed? How do you enjoy sewing with it?

The Ultrafeed Sewing Machines are amazing. My experience sewing on an older LS-1 really sold me on the quality of these machines, and the support is unparalleled. I remember having an issue with the thread balling up, and when I contacted support from Mexico, they emailed me step-by-step troubleshooting directions and answered all of my questions, despite the machine being secondhand and probably 10+ years old!

The new LSZ-1 is even more impressive – my impression is that you can really sew anything on this, including lighter-duty “household” projects. Additionally, I tell anyone who will listen to fork over the extra money for a Sailrite Swing-Away Binder. After going through 400 feet of binding on the dodger and bimini projects, I am 100% a binding attachment convert!

People often raise their eyebrows when they realize I own a full-size Ultrafeed on our 33-foot sailboat. “Where do you keep it!?” is a common question. I always tell them that the Ultrafeed is like another crew member, and it fits in exactly one spot on the boat (under the v-berth) – so that’s its home! It’s not even just our projects – the dockside sail repairs and last-minute patches we’ve been able to help other cruisers with help me feel like we’re able to repay some of the cruising kindness and favors we’ve been shown! There is no way I would ever sail without a Sailrite.

Q. What do you love about sewing? When did you learn to sew and from whom?

I love that you can take something someone else might consider broken or useless and repurpose it into something completely new. I love that sewing enables you to feel self-sufficient and to make dramatic changes to the way the boat looks and feels. Initially, I learned to sew from my mom and grandma, so I think I also love the feeling of family and a shared passion that it instills. I hope my son will grow up to love sewing as much as I do!

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With views like this, it’s no wonder Leah and Jon plan on continuing their life on the water.

It sounds like this happy little family is loving life on the open sea. Baby Zephyr seems born to thrive in this nomadic lifestyle, and Leah and Jon have no immediate plans to stop cruising. As the saying goes, when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.

Finally, are you wondering how they came up with the name “Brio”? Leah was looking for a short word that expressed the couple’s passion and excitement for sailing and the cruising lifestyle. Brio means “enthusiastic vigor and vivacity.” Looks like they found the perfect word to sum up their life philosophy.

If you’d like to tag along on their aquatic adventures, you can follow their blog at www.withbrio.com.