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Cruisers Become Canvas Makers at Inner Banks
Litzenbergers swallow the anchor in Oriental
May 17, 2023

I.S.S.—keep it simple, sailor. That was their approach to cruising, and now, to business. For husband and wife crew Breena and Spencer Litzenberger, the new owners of the 20-year-old brand and business Inner Banks Sails and Canvas, the simple life looks a bit different these days.

A small, historic home. A black Lab, a cat, and two cars. Industrial sewing machines and rolls of muted colored fabrics, and a streamlined approach. For Breena, 35, and Spencer, 36, the decade before they took over the canvas shop looked a bit different than life does now.

Spencer and Breena Litzenberger.

That slice of time held a nearly a dozen different fixer-upper boats and even more bodies of water. Water crossings between Alaska and the Western Caribbean. And years of do-it-yourself budget cruising and international short-term job contracts.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought the Litzenbergers’ live-aboard lifestyle to a halt. A lock down in Central America, and an even more unnerving encounter with local militia upon re-entering a post pandemic United States in the Florida Keys, had the couple subconsciously looking for the perfect place to call home.

“We love North Carolina and especially Oriental because people are so friendly here,” Breena said. “Where we come from, people are very hard. That’s why we loved cruising so much. We are extroverts.”

Inside the loft – a lot of space is needed to work on sails and canvas.

Jumping off the boat and swimming to greet the people that just pulled into a remote Bahamian anchorage. Putting back together a defunct diesel engine in a sweltering boatyard in Guatemala. Navigating a wooden trimaran that goes up to 17 knots through British Columbia, and the California coast. There was no such thing as a typical day when Sailing with the Litzenbergers, which was the name of a podcast and YouTube channel they kept throughout their travels. It made a ton of friends.

On Straight Road at the edge of Oriental, nearly adjoining the fire station, the loft is quiet and spacious. Something neither Spencer nor Breena had for a decade before that.

Both grew up in Alaska. Spencer was born and raised there, and Breena came by way of Colorado with her family in high school. Her parents worked as civilians at an Air Force base. His dad was a contractor while his mom ran a small restaurant.

A repair-in-waiting. The couple have streamlined their process to be more time friendly.

Spencer’s parents now live on Maui, which Breena and Spencer were still both tan from a recent visit. Spence more so than Bee, as they sometimes go by for short. The pair met in college, graduated, and married. By then Breena’s parents lived in Panama City, Florida, where the young Litzenbergers, 21 at the time, decided to buy their first boat.

A 35 foot Irwin Citation, they bought it with half their savings. They did well with that boat, sailing it to the Bahamas and using kerosene oil lamps for running lights.

“We were young, dumb, kids that read too many Lin and Larry Pardey books,” Spencer said.

The young Litzenbergers aligned with long-distance cruiser sailing philosophies popularized in the 1960s. At time when refrigeration, electricity, and offshore communications were harder to come by and more complicated.

Breena works on piecing a pattern together at different stations in the loft.

They were living in the 2010s, but might as well have been operating in the years the boats they were sailing had been built. Breena and Spencer were self-contained, yet forced to interact with their environment regularly. From cruising community members and locals when they had to learn to clean a carburetor or needed a part in a foreign port. To nothing but an automated message on a VHF radio, or later a weather route through Single Side Band radio that would check-in on passage, but they couldn’t talk back.

While most would call this antiquated, it suited the Litzenbergers’ 90s-kid nostalgia just fine. They loved the nuances of it all. They loved being disconnected.

“Breena’s mom got us a Spot Tracker [GPS], and you had to press the button every night, tell them where you were,” Spencer recalled. “I just wanna call you from a pay phone, like the good old days. Now there’s StarLink. You go to the Exumas and everyone has the next thing.”

Roux was a small rescue, said to be at his full size of 35 lbs when Breena and Spencer got him about a year ago. Slight error – he’s now closer to 90.

“Like, I thought we were out here sailing.”

So it went from season to season. Breena and Spencer would buy a boat, fix it up and sail, and then sell it for a slightly better or more interesting one. Their boat resumé included production boats like a Tartan 34-C, and a tiny 20-foot twin keel Westerly that they towed to Florida on a trailer, launched, and then crossed the gulf stream. There were homebuilt boats like a steel cutter in Guatemala and wooden trimaran on the west coast. And their current boat, which is for sale, is an aluminum 1986 sloop rig Rumba 41.

Eventually their project management experience, and some fellow cruisers’ recommendations, landed the Litzenbergers on cruise ships all around the world where they ran lighting crews. These short-term contracts were just enough to float them through another cruising season.

The couple work on projects, sharing tools and switching up responsibilities.

“We honestly would probably still be doing it if we didn’t have to make money,” Breena said of their feast or famine sailing lifestyle. “When we first sailed up here we never had the intention to stay, but we saw the business for sale and our jobs had dried up because of the pandemic.”

Having sewn all her life Breena took the initiative repairing or replacing any canvas such as the dodgers, biminis, and covers, on the boats the pair lived aboard and cruised over the years. Spencer also had a mechanical mind, with a knack for executing jobs. Between the two of them they had the hard skills required to take over at Inner Banks.

“Mark and Luann were going to mothball the place,” Spencer said, barefoot at the loft on a spring afternoon.

Spencer & Breena Litzenberger, with dog Roux at Inner Banks Canvas.

As a business, Inner Banks Sails and Canvas had operated as a sort of hub for cruising sailors for 32 years, with visitors coming and going all day long. The loft also had a sail repair sector and affiliate with national sailmaking brand Doyle for new sail builds, in addition to exterior and interior canvas works.

Owned by Oriental residents and sailors Luann Parins and Mark Weinheimer, at its height the loft had a staff of five working. But having reached retirement age, they had scaled back to the skeleton crew of just the two of them. Inner Banks had been for sale for six years, advertising in regional sailing magazines. Then, they placed a simple classified ad on a familiar site – TownDock.net.

When the Litzenbergers pulled up to the town dock in Oriental for the first time, they weren’t sure of their next move. So when they saw the business advertised for sale on TownDock for not much more than the price of what they might pay for their next boat, the Litzenbergers made an offer.

The previous owners put the biz into an asset sale, which granted the Litzenbergers the brand and everything in the building for one lump sum. Then, they were to stay on and and train for seven months (Mark and Luann still own the building).

A dodger frame is fastened to the floor. A custom pattern lays nearby.

“They’re passionate about the craft and they love this community,” Spencer said.

“They really paved the way for us,” Breena added. “Luann was a fantastic mentor. That was my first experience working one on one with another woman in the marine industry, or in general.”

The transition went relatively smooth, from boat life to land life and trainees to business owners. But this major lifestyle change wasn’t without its challenges. For almost an entire year Breena and Spencer were unable to find a place to rent, and lived on their boat.

“Which was great when we were cruising,” Breena said. “Not when we were trying to run a business.”

After the couple finished their training and took over management, they were still operating as interior/exterior canvas fabrication, sail and canvas repair, and a sailmaking affiliate. They were working 14-hour days when they were finally able to purchase a house – which required renovation.

Tools of the canvas trade: foam, needles, and fabrics.

The stress of it all triggered an auto-immune disease in Breena, causing her to lose all of her hair in four weeks. From below shoulder-length red hair, to completely bald.

“We never felt like that on boats before,” she said of the newfound roles they found themselves having to fulfill. “It’s wild what the body does when it’s that stressed out.”

That’s when they knew they had to make a change. They had come to shore and found chaos. They had to keep it simple. Canvas, sail repair, and sailmaking were three different businesses all under one roof.

They dropped their Doyle affiliation, closed the door on new sail projects, and stopped offering sail repair. Hodges Street Sail Repair is right in town, they said. They’ve dropped it from the name, too. They’re now Inner Banks Canvas.

Spencer carefully cuts out a window.

Breena and Spencer also stopped taking walk-ins, who mostly came around for scraps or spares. They now give any fabric materials, spare zippers, or grommets to the Inland Waterway Provision Company. Without so many walk-ins, they’re able to focus on paying customers.

“I’m not much of a salesman” Spencer added. “We wanted to just focus on canvas and that craft. Mark had a passion for sail repair and sailmaking. That’s not really our expertise. Sometimes it’s better to just make a good hamburger than do a bunch of different things.”

Their streamlined process is paying off in the form of job security. They have a year of job orders on the books, and have been noticed by companies like Pacific Seacraft, which has contracted the Litzenbergers for all of its new boat builds and refits.

Breena said the community and industry support has been tremendous. She’s enjoying experimenting with more luxurious fabrics, while Spencer is working on cutting down lead times.

As for leaving the cruising life, the Litzenbergers aren’t too troubled. “In Oriental, we’ve found a cruising community on land.”

Story & video by Emily Greenberg. Photos by Emily Greenberg & Allison DeWeese.

Posted Wednesday May 17, 2023 by Allison DeWeese

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