New fitting a fresh start for Hall Spars founder

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 9/8/18

Eric Hall was once president and CEO of thriving Bristol-based spar and rigging maker Hall Spars, the firm he founded that supplied masts around the globe for maxi-racers, cruisers, Cup …

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New fitting a fresh start for Hall Spars founder

Posted

Eric Hall was once president and CEO of thriving Bristol-based spar and rigging maker Hall Spars, the firm he founded that supplied masts around the globe for maxi-racers, cruisers, Cup contenders and more.

That company fell on hard times though, went into receivership a couple of years ago and eventually shut the doors of its Bristol plant. Although operations continue in Holland and New Zealand, US operations are under different ownership now and reduced to a service facility in Portsmouth.

From that hard experience, however, has emerged a new venture.

He may not build towering carbon fiber masts any more, but Mr. Hall’s latest venture, Alphalock Systems, manufactures a critical mast component.

Last week, his fledgling company celebrated a milestone when it packed and shipped its first three Alphalock automatic halyard locks to Dutch yacht builder and shipyard Royal Huisman.

He’ll be following them across the Atlantic soon to see them attachment to a near-300-foot three-masted schooner.

Mr. Hall had brought his prototypes to the international boat show in Amsterdam where Royal Huisman representatives took a look. They were well versed on his work at Hall Spars.

“They had seen what we (Hall Spars) could make,” he said, and they all knew that the design for this halyard lock and a 2008 predecessor product was mine.

The distinction is important, Mr. Hall said.

Back in 2008, he said he had devised the AutoLock halyard lock that was sold by Hall Spars.

But when the company assets were sold off, AutoLock went with them.

“It was not a real happy ending for Ben (brother Ben Hall, then Hall Spars vice president)) and me,” Eric Hall said last week. Forty years after founding the company, “we ended up with zero dollars in our pockets. …They would not give us the rights to my AutoLock.”

Well, he said, “If I can’t join them I’ll beat them.”

Mr. Hall set out to devise a new and improved halyard lock, the path to which was Solidworks, a program and system that enables the engineering of solid shapes that can then be ‘printed’ out by 3D printers.

What it is, essentially is the next step in engineering, he said — first came rulers, pencils and erasers, then came CAD design, now it is CAD gone three dimensional.

He loaded the latest version onto his computer and went to work. “I’d do one, find a hiccup, then another and another and another.”

The final product, he believes, is a great step forward and solution to the “creep” problem that has bedeviled sailors for years.

The halyards that hoisted sails 40 years ago were made from stainless cable, which eventually gave way to stronger and lighter synthetics.

“But no matter how tightly you cranked them up, the synthetics had this mysterious and infuriating tendency to creep” — loosen ever so slightly but just enough to ruin a perfect sail shape.

The lock, up at the top of the mast, stops that tendency, and, he believes, no lock does that better than his new Alphalock.

The beauty is its solid state simplicity and lack of moving parts — no springs to wear out, no trip-line to get in the way, and essentially only two moving parts, two rotating locking ‘flippers,’ he said. “The best engineered products are always the simplest products.”

You hoist the mainsail, it clicks into place at its highest point (he likens it to the click of a ballpoint pen), and it won’t let go. Releasing it requires only a good tug on the halyard. “The motion is more fluid, more precise,” than earlier versions.

Built “by international machine shops” mostly of titanium, the Alphalock systems are also tough, able to stand up against many tons of force.

They come in an endless variety of sizes. The three sent off to Holland are big — 30 inches long, but those suited to a 30- to 40 foot sailboat are a fraction of that size. And there related products for bowsprits, gaff cars and more.

Customers, he expects, will include owners of racing sailboats for whom sail shape is critical, and high-end cruisers.

Tumultuous couple of years

The project, he said, is also a good antidote to the “pretty tough” months leading up to and following the loss of his company.

The abrupt announcement that Hall Spars was headed to receivership was a stunner for many to whom the Broad Common Road plant seemed a shining success with high profile projects and a parking lot full of employee cars (employment peaked at just over 100).

But there came a time, mostly after the great recession of 2008, that all was not as rosy as it seemed.

“We went from an $18 million company to a $9 million company overnight,” Mr. Hall said. The branch in Holland was in marginally better shape; one in New Zealand was more resilient. Especially telling was the fact that hardly any of the US facility’s spar orders were from the US.

“We were busy all the time but cash flow had become a real problem” and with that the challenge of paying suppliers promptly. Word gets around fast in the industry, he said, which made customers all the more reluctant to sign on for substantial long term projects.

“The biggest thing may have been our failure not to go after good non-marine business quickly enough,” especially aerospace with which they had enjoyed some success.

He admits to being staggered by the loss of the company — “Early in 2017 I wasn’t smiling a lot.” But six months later, his outlook had changed — “There was also this great release — maybe this won’t be so awful after all. I have all sorts of passions and finally time to enjoy them.”

One day came a call from an old customer; his Hall headboard had broken? Can you fix it?

“I knew why it broke — I told him I’m learning Solidworks, let me give it a shot. Maybe I can reverse engineer it.”

He did manage to fix the rig part “better than ever”, and his tinkering led to other ideas.

The scale of this new venture may be far smaller than what he once oversaw, “but I’m having fun with it again.”

And he said he wishes the best for the Hall Spars that emerged — even if it is under different ownership. “I still have a lot of good friends there — and that name is still there, a reminder of what we built.”

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