Sails: Care, Handling, and Some Basic Facts

My short-lived racing career was abruptly terminated by an owner who said derogatory things about my mama. My job was navigator and winch man. This individual was a tense wound too tight racer with a rude mouth. I had warned him about discussing my mama when we tacked and threatened to pitch my lock in winch handle but alas he ignored my warning. Over the side went the winch handle along with my racing career.

I learned a little about ocean racing but the single thing that stuck in my memory was most sail boats just don’t go that fast. Having slogged to weather a many mile in a schooner put new light on the saying that nothing goes to weather like a 747. I don’t claim to be a sailor, but rather a floater. On all our voyages we generally try not to strain the boat or ourselves. Sort of go in the general direction of your desired port as comfortably as possible and always keep the option open to change directions if the sea takes a mind to humble you a bit. I know some of you racers would disagree with this line of thinking, but I go to sea to slow down, not speed up. If I get the boat reasonably trimmed going basically towards my desired destination, I’m a happy camper. Then I can settle down to some serious fishing, reading and just being awed by the depth and size of the living hydraulic thing that surrounds me. When I get there I don’t want to rebuild my boat, just tidy up a bit.

What does any of this have to do with sails? Well, I’ll get to that part. Over the years I have learned a few things about sails. This should please you stink potters (excuse the slip) fellow yachtsman. I figured once that over thirty years my expenditures on sails would have purchased me enough fuel to motor a single screw vessel easily around the world. Now sailors don’t like to admit this, but power boaters really do better on weather legs. In fact, they will go directly into apparent or true wind, no problem. We all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and power boats do it better hands down. Personally I don’t like the noise, but my hearing is failing and well maybe a trawler when I get my AARP card. If the truth be known, most sailors really want a powerboat, but we don’t know where to stow the mast.

We once met a sailor from a communist block country that would immediately strip his sails after anchoring. We later learned they were polypropylene and he was trying to get four or five months out of them before he went to the hardware store and got some new tarps to sew a new set. We later gave him a spare anchor because what he was using in no way resembled one. He could only remain in port usually forty eight hours because of his communist passport and we pray he found refuge somewhere. He was about as much a communist as my eleven year old daughter. So here we have the sails most foremost enemy, sunlight. Ultra Violet light really works on sails and sailing on cloudy days only is not a reasonable answer. Ultra violet will degrade any sail material especially the more expensive laminated racing sails like Spectra or Vectran. I have always stuck to woven Dacron, as it is the most durable. A Dacron sail well cared for should last ten years in New England but only three to four years in southern waters if frequently used. So keep your sails covered well when not in use or better yet in the sail loft off season as around here, you get climax mildew especially on roller head sails. Wash your sails as salt water keeps things wet and the salt crystals act like an abrasive material on the sail fabric. Tight well-fitted sail covers do much to prevent ultra violet attack.

The worst enemy of sails is “flutter.” You bend the coat hanger repeatedly and it breaks. Same goes for sail cloth fibers. Luffing sails and loose leach lines will severely shorten a sails useful life span. One sail maker I talked with said flutter would reduce a sails life by as much as 80%. One thing that affects cruising sailboats sails the most was the advent of auto pilots. Lots of times there is no one on deck to watch for improper sail trim and the sail flutters for hours as the watch stander is doing something else besides standing watch. Sails have become high tech with computer design programs and new materials, but actually sail prices have come down in the last fifteen years. Sails are even made of Kevlar but Kevlar dissolves in salt water, so don’t expect them to last that long. Also Kevlar sails don’t like to be folded. So what do you do with that big deck dragger when you shorten sail. Spectra sails have delamination problems because the fabric is very slippery and hard to bond to Mylar and they are prone to mildew problems. If you want to avoid mildew, get your sails dry. Hose them off and hoist them to air dry. If they need cleaning, the best way is a good grass lawn, a garden hose, and a soft scrub brush and some elbow grease. Don’t use Clorox on sails, especially Kevlar because bleach dissolves the stuff. For my pocket book, Dacron is the way to go. Many lofts now use Teflon coated thread which is about five times the expense of polyester thread. Teflon coated thread has much better resistance to ultra violet. Normal poor quality Polyester thread lasts about two and a half years and is easily attacked by ultra violet rays. Good quality polyester Dacron thread that is ultra violet treated lasts tight to ten years and most lofts use good quality thread. Your local sail maker can guide you into the best type of sail for what you intend to do with the boat. When it comes time to purchase a used boat, unless the sails have been replaced recently, it’s a good idea to have the loft inspect the sails and render an opinion as to condition or any necessary repairs before you sail away. Sailmaking like surveying is a life long discipline and you can learn much from your sailmaker. Get to know then as they have a vast amount of knowledge to share with you.

I’m sort of glad my racing career was cut short. One wag once said ocean racing was like standing in a cold shower tearing up one hundred dollar bills. Racers probably do make the best sailors but my pocketbook is emaciated enough from just owning the boat. I’ve had a few big rips and one hard lesson I learned some years ago. If you think you need to reef, do it. Waiting five more minutes has really gotten me into some unnecessary jams. We even slow the boat down on night watches by reefing unless it’s a really clear. It’s easier to shake a reef out than put one in when it blows up a bit in the dark. May your sails always be filled with a fair breeze and may the depth of the water never be less than your draft and remember, the Lord loves sailors.

© Capt. Neil K. Haynes January 1999

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