There’s only a handful of church gatherings in Ucluelet, BC, but my friends and I ended up at one that took us out for lunch, then rescued us from a soggy disaster of a tent that night, putting us on warm beds and couches. At this lovely little gathering I met Nelly and Jens Heyduck, artisans who moved to Canada from Germany four years ago. They planned to be here for only a year, but have found a home in Ucluelet – Tofino’s less touristy but no less picturesque neighbour.
Nelly and Jens are the founders and crafters of Ahoy Bags. The bags are made from retired sailcloth donated by sailors and yacht clubs. Thanks to Jens’ skill with a heavy-duty sewing machine and Nelly’s background in design, the bags are both durable and eye-catching.
Because this couple handles all aspects of Ahoy, from design to production, to marketing, I reckoned learning these skill sets would be the source of most obstacles for them. Jens didn’t think so. Growing up in Germany, he tells me, he learned sewing and craftsmanship, and his previous ventures have taught him skills that readied him for this enterprise. Nelly agreed: “Even though it’s really different from what we’ve done in the past, everything we’ve been learning has come together in this project.”
Making bags out of sails is admittedly different, even though their art backgrounds have prepared them well. Nelly has a Diploma (equivalent to an M.A.) in Design, and has worked in graphic design and product design. Jens comes from a background of antique restoration and conservation of cultural heritage. However, it’s not just the product that’s a change-up for the Heyducks; it’s also the first major business project they are doing together as a couple. “We have our challenges, but we love what we do”, smiles Nelly. “I am privileged to work on a product that is mine. New things are happening really quickly. The first time I took our products to the market, I met tons of people.”
Locals really appreciate Ahoy’s upcycling model. Ucluelet and Tofino are low-industry towns where ecologically-sensitive living is really important. Yet, the bags have global appeal. Holidaymakers from around the world buy from Ahoy. Nelly lets me in on their secret: “When we place the templates to determine the cut, we pretty much fall in love with every corner of the sail – The patina, seams and hardware all tell a story. Our customers pick up on that dialogue. We think the best stories are yet to come, when the customers take these bags on their very own adventures. We keep in contact with a lot of our customers, especially via Facebook. We are excited to hear stories back from them.”
Jens and Nelly told me some of their adventures and mentioned that they especially love meeting fellow Germans. “We have found we can reach out to more German people here than when we were in Germany! We run a Bed & Breakfast and meet people all over the world. As we share stories and hospitality, we become really close,” shares Nelly. Nelly’s letters home “get people interested in why they are living in this rainy little place – and they are watching us”, she says. “It has opened doors.” Having no relatives nearby opens up time for the Heyducks to connect with their neighbours and visitors more, “but we miss having a community of young professionals,” they share.
One major logistical challenge that Ahoy Bags faces is in the sails themselves. Nelly says, “some kind souls donate their old sails or scraps, but at this point, it’s word of mouth.” Sometimes the Heyducks will receive word of an available sail, but have to drive a considerable distance to pick it up. Sailing is incredibly popular in the Victoria and Vancouver areas, so sails are unknowingly tossed there all the time, but it’s a long way from Ucluelet. The Heyducks hope that as the word gets out about Ahoy’s practical, ecologically-friendly upcycling process, that sailors will see a perfect recipient for retired sails. “We’re sure some people don’t know that there is a better alternative to dumping their sails. If you give us a mainsail, you’ll receive a bag. One hand washes the other!” exclaims Jens.
Jens and Nelly have been involved in all kinds of interesting design and restoration projects, but why bags? I ask. Jens laughs. “During the long winter months, trapped inside, one comes up with all strange ideas! We actually started talking about this idea during a drive back from Port Alberni. We wanted to create classic, green yet durable bags handcrafted from decommissioned sails. For Nelly it had to be a simple yet functional design, taking all the original seams and repair patches into consideration. For me it was the nautical spirit and traditional craftsmanship associated with it that let me sign on. In general, bags break too quickly. We wanted to make something really rugged. Sail are exactly that. They can propel a ten-ton boat through the water.” Nelly adds, “We had a lot to learn. Sails are not identical. There are differences in quality, weight, size, and so on. We needed to get an industrial machine because a home sewing machine can’t handle layers of sailcloth.”
They are particularly excited when I ask them how they see their faith playing into what they do and make. Nelly shares that recently, the verse 2 Corinthians 5:17 is really significant for their trade: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here!’ “We had our old life”, she says, “with all the things we have done in the past, and when we come to Christ, he upcycles us; he renews us! Like people, these sails have a past, including scars and bruises to tell their story. When God upcycles us, we become something entirely different – and with much purpose!”
Find Ahoy Bags on Facebook and see their charm for yourself.