UK Sailmakers' Encyclopedia of Sails
9.1 - Care and Protection of Sails
As sailmakers, we are acutely aware of the cost of sails as part of the total investment in owning and operating a sailboat. Experience has also shown us that the treatment of new sails after they are delivered can greatly extend or shorten their useful life.
Naturally, one of the main determinants of a sail’s life span is the quality of the materials used and the workmanship of the sailmaker. High-quality custom sails like those produced by UK Sailmakers will generally last a good deal longer than sails made by production sailmakers — American or foreign. Regarding proper treatment of sails to promote a long useful life, there are many steps that can and should be taken. We have divided these into three main areas:
- Preparation of the boat and rig.
- Proper treatment of the sails on board.
- Care and maintenance.
In each area we have a list of suggestions or recommendations that you may want to use as a check list.
PREPARATION OF BOAT AND RIG
- Tape all cotter pins, sharp corners and other points that can tear or chafe sails. Give particular atten-tion to the pulpit area. Make sure you tape off the turnbuckles where the lifelines attach.
- Place boots or tubes over turnbuckles, both to prevent chafe and to keep grease and oil off sails.
- Be sure the lifelines are clean and free of meathooks. Give particular attention to the stanchion tops. Acetone is a good cleaner for vinyl-coated lifelines.
- Install rollers or padded boots on spreader tips.
- Be sure wire halyards have no meat hooks or open wire on the shackles which might chafe or snag the sails.
- Position guards to close off any “V’s” in the rigging that may catch the sails when they are being hoisted or lowered.
- Wash the deck before each weekend of sailing, and polish the spars periodically so that sails don’t pick up any of the aluminum oxidation.
- Dry out your sails before leaving them on the boat for any period of time. One way of doing this is to simply spread the sails around the main cabin and forepeak so that the air can circulate and dry them between outings.
- Avoid the practice of drying sails by hoisting them to flog in the breeze.
- Finally, minimize exposure to direct sunlight when drying your sails.
PROPER TREATMENT OF SAILS
- Be sure the hardware on your boat is entirely compat-ible with your sails. For example: The clew of the mainsail should not ride above the boom so high that an excessive load is put on the last slide or the bolt rope.
- Don't use your sails in excessive wind. Check with your UK Sailmaker for the wind-range appropriate to your particular sails.
- Don't luff or flog your sails unnecessarily, or motor with your sails up.
- Shorten sail as soon as conditions demand it. Don't luff your mainsail when a reef is needed. Don't carry a jib that is overburdening the boat — change down to a smaller jib.
- Don't allow running backstays or unused halyards to slap against the sails. Be sure running backstays have all their cotter pins and sharp edges taped or covered in leather.
- Don't over hoist sails. A vertical wrinkle along the luff while sailing is a good indication that too much tension has been applied. You should normally use just enough luff tension to eliminate horizontal wrinkles in the sail.
- The same thing applies to the main outhaul. Tighten the outhaul only enough to eliminate vertical wrinkles in the sail.
- Don't over-tighten leech cords. Tighten them just enough to remove the leech flutter, and note that as the sail is trimmed harder, the leech cord should be eased.
- It is critical that headsail sheet fairleads be located in the proper fore and aft position in order to avoid straining either the leech or the foot of the sail.
- With overlapping headsails, it is possible to trim the sails so hard that they come into contact with the spreader tip. This should be watched carefully, particularly on a puffy day. If you sheet the sail to one inch off the top spreader in heavy air, and the wind dies, the sail will push up against the spreader tip. Therefore, have the trimmer play the sheet in puffy conditions.
- When tacking, be sure to cast off the leeward sheet early enough to keep the leech from hanging up on the spreader during the tack.
- Never use laminate sails (Mylar or Mylar/Kevlar) without first applying both spreader and stanchion patches as supplied by your sailmaker.
- Before furling or flaking the main, ease the outhaul so that the foot of the sail is not under tension — there is no need to stretch it out. If you have a roller furling jib, ease the halyard at the end of the day to prevent the luff from stretching out of shape.
- After sailing, be sure to cover the mainsail if it is left on the boom. Similarly, if you have a roller furling headsail, make ure is rolled up with the UV cover on the outside of the roll.
- If you do tear or otherwise damage one of your sails while you are using it, here are a couple of pointers.
- Get the sail down as quickly as you can in order to minimize damage.
- If possible, don't use the sail again until you have it repaired by a professional.
- Small tears, cuts, pinholes, etc., are generally not anything to worry about and shouldn't prevent you from using the sail.
- The best temporary cure for minor damage is tape. Sticky-back insignia cloth, duct tape, or even adhesive tape from your first aid kit will work. The stickier the tape, the better! Try to rinse the area with fresh water and dry it first. Then tape both sides of the sail. Acetone can be used to help dry the sail if nothing else works. Simply apply the acetone to the spot you want to fix and wait until it evaporates.
- In an emergency, you can sew up your dacron sails with a needle and thread. If reinforcing material is needed, use one or more of your sail stops. They are very strong yet easy to sew. On the other hand, we do not recommend trying to hand-sew laminate sails. The stitch holes made by a sailmaker's needle often does more harm than good.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
Sails that have been used frequently, or in heavy weather, should be washed at the end of each season, preferably by your local sailmaker. If that's not possible, soak the sails in a warm soap solution for a couple of hours, then hose them off thoroughly. Make sure they are completely dry before folding. If the sails are particularly dirty, add a small amount of bleach to the water before soaking. Dirty spots can be lightly scrubbed. Laminate sails should be hosed off, dried and folded. Try not to soak or scrub them.
Blood and Mildew: Soak the stained area in a mild bleach solution for two hours; scrub lightly.
Rust: Rust removers are offered under many commercial names and are available at just about any hardware store. Just make sure you rinse the cleaned area thoroughly.
Oil, Grease, and Tar: Dab the stained area with acetone or lighter fluid and then rub the stain with clean rags. Once the stain is lightened, scrub the area with a detergent and water solution. Rinse all the acetone out of the material.
All sails should be folded or rolled in a manner that avoids sharp creases. Sails should be stored under well-ventilated, clean conditions. Damp-ness, which may encourage mildew, should be avoided. While mildew growth does not affect the strength of these sails, it can cause unsightly stains that are not easily removed.
BACK TO THE LOFT
It is very important to the life and strength of your sails that you return them to your sailmaker's loft once a year for checking, refurbishing, and washing. This practice can add years to the life of your sails and help you to get the most out of them in terms of speed and appearance. We cannot emphasize this point too strongly.
GOOD LUCK AND GOOD SAILING!