Get to know your local sailmaker
A sailmaker (and I'm not talking about a sail salesman) but instead the guy who has a giant warehouse with rolls of dacron string on pegs along the wall and countless nylon bags piled high on plywood shelves with a spotless, varnished floor that has never seen a basketball.
He’s the kind of guy who mends his own boat shoes when the side blows out because he has the right sewing machine and he drives a 1985 Datsun pickup that is always filled with someone's mainsail.
He’s the guy that you want to know because he can tell you all about how the “J” and the “P” of a sail makes it most efficient and how the fabric needs to be laid to take the maximum load from the outhaul on the clew.
These are all things that a sailmaker knows and loves to talk about that makes my ADHD mind quiver and my eyes glaze over.
But if you want to know the ins and outs of designing a sail, there is no one better than your local sailmaker. Because he is the guy that can turn your second hand sails into works of art, if they still have life in them
Used sails are the way of the world
If you're like me, you probably spend most of your time in the pre-owned under 45 foot class in the world of sailing and because if you do, you're in luck. Travis says that for the most part, if your sails have resin left in them, they can be mended and reshaped into a functional form for your sailboat. Even when the stitching is worn and dry rotted many times, sails can be restitched for as low as $100.
Sails are supposed to be slightly stiff and shapely. They are sewn with fabrics that have resins embedded in them to keep their shape and their form. Travis says, “as long as your sail hasn’t lost all its resin, we can usually do something to make it work for the customer once again.”
He says that lots of times if the leach line of sail is worn, they can trim it down and resew it into a usable sail once again. He tells me he has even taken a 130% genoa jib and cut it down to a 100% working jib because the belly of the sail was still usable even if the edges were shot from improper trimming or excessive luffing.
What kills a sail?
Improper trimming and excessive luffing are both big factors in the death of a sail. But they are not the worst culprits that kill a sail according to Travis. “The worst thing that happens to sails is sun damage,” says Meindl, “Your skin burns in just a few minutes in the sun. A sail sits out in the sun for weeks on end.”
He tells me that you should treat your sail as you would your skin. The stitching used in sails is incredibly vulnerable to sun damage and the resins that give the sail shape also break down from UV rays.
That is why Travis says they sew “sunbrella” patches onto roller furlers and a sail cover is so important to your main. Sails that sit on deck in a boat are subject to hours of sunlight every day and by properly covering them and when you're not going to use the boat for anything more than a few weeks, you should remove them from the mast and store them inside.
While you're at it, if you're removing sails, you should also loosen batten pockets and release luff lines and other tensioned fittings on your sail. “They won't necessarily harm the sail if you leave them in, but why stress the fittings if you don't have to.”
Does Reefing Kill a Sail?
According to Travis, if your boat is less than 45 feet, a reef won't do much damage at all. He says it is designed to reef without any real risk of doing any damage. He tells me that most sails on small boats (that's right, a boat under 45 feet is small by many sailmakers and captains standards) are set up with reef points, clews and tacks that are reinforced with extra layers of nylon and other types of reinforcement that prevent the sail from whacking out too much under heavy loads.
In reality, boats smaller than 45 feet cannot really catch enough wind to do any real damage as once the wind gets too strong, the boat will just luff up wind and spill out the excess breeze. But on boats over 45’, a reef becomes a much bigger problem because the loads you are dealing with on those size sails can make even the best sail tweek out and stretch in a way the sailmaker never intended.
If you can change sails for heavier conditions then you should especially on big boats, but even on little boats a storm jib is a better alternative to a reefed genoa on a roller furler.
Can you kill a sail by cleaning it?
The short answer is yes. While it is difficult to ruin your sails by cleaning them, use of harsh chemicals, or harsh cleaning techniques that wear away the resins and degrade the fabric can kill a sail.
Travis says even when cleaning your sail, you should treat your sail like your skin. Bleach can burn your skin and eat a hole straight through a sail. Harsh marine-grade chemical cleaners can also melt the stitching and burn your sails. Never use any product on your sail that you would not put on your child’s hands.
Common household dish soap like “Joy” or “Dawn” are the best ways to clean dirt and grime from sails. Simply lay your sail out on a nice grassy lawn and use a gentle brush with some dish soap or gentle laundry detergent to wash stains and mildew from sails.
Be sure to flush the sail with plenty of fresh water to get all the suds off the sail. And I like to use the sheets and a tree to hoist the sail up for rinsing and drying when done washing. You too can get creative and turn your front lawn into a sail loft.
But how do I know if my sail is dead?
Odds are, only the nastiest of moldy, crumpled sails that have been sitting in bilge water for the last decade are completely dead.
Most times, your sailmaker can be like Miracle Max from the Princess Bride, and they are “only mostly dead.”
A good cleaning, some updated stitching and maybe a nip or tuck here or there can bring even the doggiest of sails back to life. A sail should have a waxy feel to its surface and hold a shape under load.
Sadly though, if your sail looks like stretched out underwear hanging from your mast, it might be too far gone and might be causing you undue strife underway.
Sails that bag excessively under load from being overstretched or luff excessively on the edges from improper trimming may in fact be catching too much wind and causing your boat to heel excessively.
The good news is that even these types of sail can be resurrected by the hands of a skillful sailmaker and before you toss it out, take it by a reputable sailmaker and get their opinion on what might be done and how they might make you happy with your sail once again.
But Don’t Believe Everything You’re Told
While you will not find a more enthusiastic fan of sailmakers than I, I must warn you that not all sailing world people are ethical and a reality check should always be employed when taking the advice of service providers, even sailmakers.
I had a student in Oriental, North Carolina who had a roller furling main on his Beneteau. He was a new sailor and had enough money to bring this boat and its sails back to life and he asked me to teach him the finer points of owning a sailboat.
We took his sailboat out a few times and put it through its paces. He blew an impeller on our first trip and filled the cabin with smoke, but gained great confidence when he managed to fix it himself while underway.
On another voyage, he fouled his main sail in his mast when he tried to furl it and we spent the better part of an afternoon unjamming his main and teaching him never to release the main halyard on his mast without retensioning it before furling the main.
Having learned those lessons, I felt he had the tools to own his boat and that gave me the confidence to send him on his way and tell him he could sail off into the sunset.
A few months after I sent him on his way, he messaged me and told me that he had decided to buy a new mainsail. I asked him why having spent hours getting to know his mainsail personally while underway and seeing nothing wrong with it.
He told me that a sail maker told him that his sail was too stiff for his furling system and that he needed a new one that was less stiff. There was no mention of operator error and that he kept getting it stuck because he didn’t know which line was his main halyard.
Instead he dropped upwards of $10,000 on a new sail that he didn’t need, because someone told him his sail was too much like a sail.
Not everyone in sailing will be completely forthright with you when you ask them for help. Many in fact will tell you to buy things you don't need and that’s a shame.
Sailing is tough enough without predatory service people. But learning the right way to care for your sails and knowing that even the worst sails can be resurrected by a responsible and ethical sailmaker should give you hope that sailing may be the right thing for you.
If you have any question about that, remember that sails are like an airplane wing that you fold up and put away. Always be gentle with your sails, using lots of fresh water and gentle cleaners while keeping them out of the sun whenever you can.
And if you ever have any questions, email me and I will do my best to get you the answers you deserve.
Do good, have fun and sail far.