What fibers do sails use?
The fibers from which sailboat sails are made could include any number of natural or synthetic materials, that can range from cotton, flax, or hemp, to polyester, nylon, and more. Deciding upon the right one usually depends on what type of sailboat you are using or your reason for sailing.
The most common material used in sails is also the most budget-friendly, known as "Dacron" within sailing communities, it's more often referred to as polyester by the rest of the world.
While this is a very typical choice among recreational and casual sailors, when it comes to more demanding needs, the fabrics and materials can get as exotic as kevlar, mylar, or carbon instead.
While all sails have their benefits and strong points, some are more durable and sturdy than others. For example, laminate sails which are constructed from multiple layers of film glued together, are able to withstand extremely high wind speeds and are also very resistant to damage from the sun's UV rays.
Those in search of a long-lasting and durable product may find laminate sails to be their ideal option, despite the higher price point. It also isn't uncommon to find companies that offer products developed from a combination of materials, such as those developed from aramid-kevlar or numerous other custom-made fabrics.
Performance sailing carries with it a unique set of demands that aren't usually shared among casual or recreational sailors. Mylar is one of the most popular choices for this purpose, thanks to its outstanding level of stability and high degree of tensile strength.
This makes it a sought-after choice for those involved in racing or simply anyone looking for a tight and accurate response. The material used in a sailboat sail is commonly referred to as "sailcloth" and can be woven, spun, or even molded into place (as with laminates).
Sail Measurable Factors
Fibers are the heart and soul of each type of sailing fabric, with a wide variety of performance factors that come into play. Cost-effectiveness is one very common consideration, measuring both the initial price of the sail, as well as how expensive it can be over the course of time.
Another measurable factor of the performance of sail fabric is known as "creep", which has to do with how much a sail tends to lose its shape over consistent and continued use. Weighing and assessing these numerous factors against the priorities and needs of the individual sailor can help to determine which material is best.
Flex strength is a term used to indicate the capability of a given sail (and the material from which it's made) to maintain its strength after having been folded back and forth throughout the course of normal use.
It isn't uncommon for performance sailboats and racing boats to feature sails that need changing more frequently than those on other sailboats, and for this reason generally have a lower flex strength.
Not only is polyester fiber one of the most resilient and affordable choices, but it also has the added benefit of featuring excellent flex strength. This makes it an optimal material for casual sailing (often called "cruising", or "cruise sailing") on a regular and ongoing basis.
One of the most UV resistant forms of sailboat sails available on the market comes from those manufactured using carbon fiber, which is virtually unaffected whatsoever by the sun's powerful and potentially damaging rays.
Carbon Fiber Sails
There is a wide spectrum of carbon fiber materials that exist for sailboat sails that can vary from nearly no stretch whatsoever, to highly flexible and durable sails which are comparable to other commonly used materials such as aramid.
While carbon fiber clearly ranks at the very top of available materials in terms of performance, its main detriment is the high degree of degradation it suffers due to flexing when compared with materials such as polyester. Thanks to its industry-leading performance and UV protection, carbon fiber also finds itself as one of the most expensive options on the market for sailing materials.
Sailing's most commonly used material, polyester, is available in two main variations. PET, short for polyethylene terephthalate, is the number-one most common fiber used in the world of sailing today.
Long having been replaced by stronger fibers when it comes to racing and performance, it remains a highly coveted option due to its resistance to abrasion and very low cost.
Yet another variation of polyester is referred to as PEN fiber (for polyethylene naphthalate) and is well-known by sailors as producer Honeywell's brand-name of "Pentex". PEN fibers are not considered to be lightweight, and stretch only about half as much as PET fibers while being just 1/5 better in overall strength.
On the other end of the spectrum is a fiber known as aramid, which is very lightweight yet also extremely resistant to stretching.
It features a very high breaking strength, and for this reason is a highly popular choice for racing sails.
It's commonplace to find aramid fibers blended with the even less stretchy and higher strength carbon, or used in laminate cruising sails.
Though considered to be somewhat of an exotic material, aramid is still moderately priced and can often be purchased for much less than carbon or other fibers.
Spinnakers are a unique type of sailboat with their own set of ideals when it comes to finding the right sail fabric. One of the most common choices is nylon, which is usually quite cheap, fairly lightweight, and boasts a surprising amount of strength.
Nylon can be very durable, while also offering a formidable amount of protection against UV rays.
Another very common option when it comes to spinnaker sailing is spectra, which provides superior UV protection and breaking strength along with high flex strength and very low stretch. As the sail ages however, it can give way to a change in shape as a result of permanent elongation with sustained use.
Signs Of Wear
As sails are used, they eventually tend to show signs of wear that include stretching in high load sections. This can cause steering to become more difficult while also impacting the shape and effectiveness of the sail.
By selecting sail materials that are more resilient to winds and have greater strength levels, these negative influences can be kept to a minimum.
Today's modern sails are expertly crafted to the highest standards of detail and precision, thus being capable to contend with harsh conditions far better than sails used long ago.
The History Of Sails
Animal Skin Sails
It is highly likely that the earliest sailboat sails were fashioned from animal skins, used on raft-like craft and dating back as far as 3300 BCE.
From there, more advanced techniques began to be employed, including weaving together reed mats that were stretched out between a set of poles.
By the time France, England, and Spain began duking it on on the high-seas over naval supremacy, sailcloth had started being fashioned from weaving together flax fiber for a reliable and consistent hold.
Eventually, this method would later be replaced with cotton sails for its improved quality and canvas.
The use of cotton as sail material had its advantages over flax and hemp, but not without its own set of unique drawbacks. Although cotton would be able to maintain its shape better and keep less wind from getting through, it also tended to be extremely rigid and stiff which made it challenging to steer in harsh or windy conditions.
Popularity of cotton sails soon caught fire worldwide in 1851, shortly after a United States racing yacht by the name of America soundly defeated a fleet of British yachts in competition (at the time, an unheard of feat). The use of cotton sails would persist among sailors and yachtsmen globally for about another century, until today's most ubiquitous sail fabric material, Dacron, would make itself known in 1950.
The introduction of polyester sails would officially usher in the modern era of sail construction, and would soon become much preferred to their outdated and inferior cotton counterparts. Sold under the"Dacron" moniker in the U.S. and by the name "Terylene" in the U.K., these new sails were able to keep their shape for years at a time - a stark contrast to the previously used cotton equivalent. The heat pressing process of these sails helped to deliver a higher degree of strength, while also providing a much improved lightweight design. Thanks to the way these fabrics are manufactured and treated, the impeccably smooth surface allowed nearly no air whatsoever to escape through pores or holes in the material.
Overall, there exist two main categories that sails fall into; those being fore-and-aft sails (which are generally triangular in shape) and square sails. These are further distinguished by being either primary sails which serve as the main propellant of the ship, or secondary sails that serve to assist it.
Sails are also grouped by function, such as summer or tropical weather sailing, cruising, storm sails and more, which can help narrow down the most appropriate construction materials to use. Modern synthetic fibers make up the vast majority of sail fabrics in use today, and there are configurations tailored to every kind of sail and sailboat on the water.
Sailcloths can be constructed in numerous ways, but are typically either woven or pressed together in a film of some sort (such as a laminate).
Breakthroughs in the world of sailcloth materials are taking place all the time, with experimental and innovative fibers hitting the market to accommodate nearly every type of sailor or sailboat imaginable.
It's hard to argue that we've come a very long way from the early days of the vikings, who set sail across Iceland and Scandinavia in the 19th century using sails made of wool.
Today's composite materials have risen enormously in complexity, with entire lines of trademarked and patented custom fabrics and materials from businesses all around the world.
Choosing The Right Sail
Choosing the correct sail means assessing your needs and priorities and moving forward toward your objectives. Even more variations of sails exist within the categories already mentioned, such as panelled sails which are a unique variety of laminate sail.
There are also fiber path and membrane sails, which each employee specific production in manufacturing techniques to achieve a consistent and reliable bond. Dyneema is one example of a widely known and used proprietary fabric, produced by Dutch firm DSM, and is growing in popularity both as a standalone fabric in its own right as well as a supportive material when combined with carbon. A near endless number of weaves exist, including the "DCX" Dacron, "D4" Load Path, " Square" Sailcloth, and more.
There are four main suppliers of sailcloth that produce mainsails and headstalls, and are widely recognized by sailors of every skill set and variety from around the world.
These include Challenge Sailcloth, Bainbridge International, Contender Sailcloth, and Dimension Polyant.
Having a near Limitless abundance of cloths, materials, and state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques means that today's new and experienced sailors alike will thankfully not be limited when it comes to finding and selecting the perfect fabric and materials to complete their sailboat configuration.
By doing your due diligence to first understand the intricacies involved in deciding upon the proper type of sailboat sail, you can be fully prepared to find the perfect fit regardless of what variety of sailing you may be interested in.