For Scott Newell, president of Blue Water Ropes, it seems an unremarkable fact that the products his family business makes has helped climbers ascend Mount Everest, or to swing from the heights of stadium roofs. To others, it might just seem awesome.
“We’re not on the local radar because we’re not a local vendor. But we sell all over the world,” he said. “We’re lucky enough to play in several playgrounds — one’s recreational, one’s military, one’s industrial and (also) fire-rescue.”
Blue Water products are used at accident scenes where emergency crews must rappel to the rescue, or hoist people to safety. They are also used by special forces units on the battlefield, and by those who inspect bridges, or wind turbines or to do any of a thousand other tasks.
But some of the most exotic users are adventurers who travel the world seeking whatever is vertical and extreme, and whose idea of relaxation is hanging from sheer rock faces, or climbing to the roof of the world. That’s appropriate, because such sports are the reason Blue Water exists in the first place.
In the late 1960s, Newell’s father, Dick Newell, was interested in what was the extreme sport of the time – caving, sometimes called spelunking. He was part of West Georgia Grotto, a group of West Georgia College students and others who explored caves as a hobby.
“There were two types of rope back then,” said Scott Newell, “A boating rope (a type of laid, or twisted, line) … and a braid-on-braid (an inner braided line surrounded by an outer braid) and it was a real bouncy rope.”
Neither type, he said, was particularly suited for caving.
Luckily, Dick Newell knew something about textiles. His great-grandfather was L.C. Mandeville, founder of Mandeville Mills, which dominated Carrollton’s textile industry from 1890 to 1954. Newell made a special kernmantle rope for himself and the club — a line with a tough inner core sheathed by a friction-resistant cover, and it proved to be very popular.
“And then it was word of mouth,” said Scott Newell. “We did mail order for awhile, and went dealer-based in the mid-’70s.”
Nowadays, Blue Water sells to retailers of all sizes across the world, from small mom-and-pop stores to giant companies like REI.
The company is one of the very last textile companies left in West Georgia. Newell’s son attends the University of West Georgia, but also works at Blue Water.
“That’s six consecutive generations involved in textiles here,” said Newell.
The plant is located on Lovvorn Street, near what is now the Mandeville Mill Lofts.
“As far as I know, this is the last of the land L.C. Mandeville owned,” said Newell.
Being a family-based business has its advantages, Newell said. By not having to answer to stockholders, the company is able to adapt quickly to changes in what has proved to be a volatile marketplace. Newell has seen all the domestic suppliers of his raw material disappear, while other economic forces affect sales in some parts of the world.
Blue Water’s 55,000-square-foot plant is a meandering assemblage of buildings filled with state-of-the-art machines. There are racks of colored spools of fiber that are unwound by spinning machines into a single strand. These strands, in turn, are combined to make a wide variety of rope, in a multitude of colors, sizes and strengths.
The sheathing on the rope is the most visually arresting part of the product. It is applied by a very unusual machine, with spindles loaded with different colored strands mounted on several circular platforms that rotate at high speed. When the machine is running at full speed it appears as if those spindles are simply spinning; but when the machine is slowed down, the spindles are seen to orbit around one another in dance-like patterns; patterns which are transferred to the sheathing in a process very much like knitting.
There is nothing incidental in the design of a rope, Newell said. The inner core is white, so that if the colorful outer core were ever to break, indicating imminent failure, the person hanging from the rope will immediately see the core and know the rope is damaged. And the colorful, patterned sheathing helps the line stand out easily against dark or wet rock, and be visible in low light.
Each rope is tested on site and is constructed not only to various government standards, but also to those of private organizations, like those that govern mountaineering.
Blue Water products have been carried by climbers who reached Mount Everest, but also by daredevils who were the first to conquer the harrowing “Shark’s Fin” of Meru Peak in the Gharwal Himalayas. Many of these athletes are personally known to Newell, and they all praise the strength, durability and safety of Blue Water lines.
Newell also climbs when he can find the time – but is hesitant to do it in such company.
“You deal with all these world class athletes and you don’t even want to try,” he said. “It’s like going golfing with Jack Nicklaus.”