Select Page

When thinking about the care, maintenance and repair of sails it helps to have some understanding of the properties of the ever growing range of modern sailcloth and the fibres they are made from, as opposed to the traditional canvas sails of the past.

Many boat owners send their sails off to their sailmakers to be laundered, checked, repaired and stored for the winter. Whether it is the sailmakers who do this work or the owners themselves, they should then be stored in safe conditions for the winter, out of harm’s way. It is a false economy to leave sails on the boat or store them in a damp garden shed as this will more than likely shorten their life considerably.

One of the most critical things to do is to wash or hose down the sails to remove dirt and salt. The other is to store the sails where they are safe from moisture, extreme temperatures and pests, all of which can inflict damage to sails over prolonged periods. Before going into details of basic sail care advice and maintenance, here is a quick aide memoire on types of sailcloth and sail construction.

Types of sailcloth

Some sail fibres are tougher than others, some are very light, others are more stretchy, some are best for racing sails, others for cruising sails, some are ideal for spinnakers, some are designed to stand up to the harshest marine environment. Added to which, sailcloth varies in price quite considerably.

Being aware of what materials your sails are made from is a good idea, as some materials require more sensitive treatment to others. For example, flex resistance is critical to the longevity of a sail. If a sail can flex without being damaged then it is going to last longer as the fibres that make up a sailcloth are flexed every time a sail is folded, creased or flogs in the wind.

Other sailcloth is impregnated with UV inhibitors to protect it from the sun’s harmful rays, providing a sailcloth which is both tough and durable.

Sail care and maintenance

The main types of sailcloth are:

  • Polyester – the most commonly used sail fibre, being strong, long lasting, has good UV resistance, good flex ability and is comparatively inexpensive. Woven polyester is often called Dacron, the brand name given by DuPont to their Dacron yarn introduced in 1951 and known as Terylene in the UK. Polyester fabric is used as a stand alone woven sailcloth and is also a component part of laminate sailcloths which are impregnated with resin to reduce the stretch and make them airtight. This gives better sail performance than basic Dacron but on the downside means they are less durable. PEN polyester is one such variation.
  • Nylon – lightweight and strong, making it ideal for spinnakers and gennakers. It absorbs shocks well and is stretchy, which is less of a problem for downwind sails as it is not so critical for them to hold their shape as it is for upwind sails. Note that nylon is easily damaged by exposure to chlorine, so never use bleach when cleaning nylon sails.
  • Aramid – fibres include Kevlar, Twaron and Technora. These are all lightweight performance fibres which are used for racing sails. They are also used in some laminated cruising sails. Aramid fibres are sometimes mixed with carbon fibres, resulting in very low stretch, high strength sails.
  • Vectran – a liquid crystal polymer fibre. This has excellent flex life and low stretch on the plus side but poor UV resistance and is expensive.
  • Ultra PE – fibres are processed polyethylene and include Dyneema and Spectra. These fibres have good UV resistance, very high strength and very low stretch. Ultra PE is expensive but has a long life and is often used for upmarket cruising yacht sails.
  • Carbon fibre – has very low stretch and very good UV resistance. Carbon fibres are used widely for top end high performance racing sails. Their weakness is that the fibres easily break if they are flexed sharply, for instance if the sail is creased when a sail is folded, making them vulnerable if they are not properly handled.

Sail construction

Sails are designed to have depth in their shape to make them work as efficiently as possible. One way a sailmaker adds shape to a sail is to add some curvature to the edges, particularly to the luff and foot but also to the leech. So when a sail with curved edges is hoisted up a straight mast the result is the sail has depth in it, which will help its performance.

Another way the sailmaker creates depth is to add curvature to the seams of panelled sails. This has a distinct advantage over edge curvature because depth can be added exactly where it is needed to give the best performance. A combination of these two factors is desirable and knowing this can help when ordering new sails.

Sail care and maintenance

Ultraviolet exposure

The two worst enemies of sails are salt and sunlight. All sails suffer from exposure to ultraviolet rays although certain sailcloths are more susceptible than others. The UV rays degrade sailcloth and stitching by changing the chemical properties of the material, breaking down the chemical bonds of the fibres and rotting the stitching through the process known as ionization. This causes the sailcloth to become weak, easily torn and eventually it breaks down completely. During the sailing season, the best protection from the sun is to remove the sails immediately after use but this is not always practical on larger boats where several crew may be required to do this.

The importance of having UV protective strips for furling headsails and boom covers for mainsails is therefore vital. If part of a mainsail is left exposed by an ill-fitting cover then it will degrade quickly and likewise an incorrectly furled headsail can leave sections of the sail unprotected if the sail has been furled the wrong way round – the UV cover has to be on the outside, which is a mistake easily made. So it is always worth double checking your sails are UV protected as much as possible through the sailing season to prevent them from becoming damaged, ensuring mainsail covers and UV strips are used and maintained properly. The stitching of covers and UV strips is susceptible to damage and is likely to need replacing more frequently than the sails’ stitching.

Sail care and maintenance

UV damage warning signs

The first signs of UV degradation of a sail is stitching failure. To check, look first for any stitching that has become unstitched, which will more than likely be caused by UV damage.

You can also test the strength of the stitching by plucking it gently with a sail needle or pointed tool. The thread should be able to be plucked without breaking but if it is in poor condition it will be easily broken. If this happens then ask your sailmaker to take a look and they may advise re-stitching the sail to strengthen it.

Another obvious sign of UV damage is discolouration of UV strips and any coloured materials on the sails, especially reds, oranges and yellows which fade more quickly in the sun than blues and greens. Also, white Dacron sails fade to a grey colour as they become UV damaged, a sure sign of a weakened sail nearing the end of its life.

Read more about sail checks, cleaning, stain removal and sail care tips in: Sail care and maintenance – part two here.

 

 

Sailboat rig checks – Part 1

Sailing boat rigs need to be checked regularly to reduce the risk of rig failure at sea. In part one of Sail boat rig checks we run through a series of useful checks that owners and skippers can carry out.

What boating skills should you have before you buy a yacht?

Many people dream of owning a yacht and sailing off into the blue yonder. What boating skills should you have before you buy...

A five day sailing cruise of the Solent, UK

Welcome to our virtual Solent sailing cruise – a five day sail in the south of England from Bosham Quay in Chichester...

First aid at sea – four common emergencies

In this blog we look at what to do in the event of a crew member choking, drowning, or suffering from hypothermia or fatigue. Knowing how to cope with them could well save a life, while not knowing could result in an avoidable tragedy.

How to tackle osmosis

Many owners of old GRP boats live in fear of osmosis, but what exactly is osmosis and what can be done about it? Osmosis comes about...

A simple guide to understanding tides when passage planning

Understanding tides when passage planning When planning a trip in tidal waters, check the tides before going afloat. Use...

Boat decks and superstructure

The deck of a boat is constantly exposed to the elements and should be inspected on an annual basis. Particular attention needs to be given to the overall condition of deck fittings such as the stanchions, cleats and chainplates.

Stern gear maintenance

The stern gear of a boat needs to be checked carefully when the boat is ashore as this is something that can only be done when it is out of the water. The same applies for any maintenance and repairs that may need doing, so it is best to check it all over as soon after an end of season lift out as possible.

Navigation safety: a quick-reference mobile app to learn the ColRegs NavLights and Shapes

 Safety at SeaSafety at sea will always remains a topical and important subject that will no doubt dominate the syllabuses of nautical...

Top five windvane self steering installation questions

Top five windvane self steering installation questions answered by Sarah Curry of Hydrovane International Marine, courtesy of Viki Moore from Island Cruising NZ

Understanding your mast and rigging

The rig of a sailing boat is put under huge stresses and strains so it is important for inspections of a yacht's spars and rigging to be...

Sailing into a storm

Weather forecasting has become increasingly accurate, but despite this, I was caught out recently by a forecast that considerably underestimated the wind strengths and consequently was sailing single handed in to a Force 8 gale, which proved to be challenging!

How to Avoid Collisions At Sea With The ColRegs

      Every Skipper Needs Accurate Knowledge of the IRPCS ColRegs As a responsible skipper it is every skipper’s duty to learn and apply the IRPCS...

Wooden Hulls – Part 1

Traditional wooden boats have a plank on frame construction, a centuries old boat building method that is still in use today. Variations of the traditional method include carvel, clinker and strip planking, which all relate to the way the planking is attached to the frame.

Jester Challenge 2022 – Sailing single handed from Plymouth UK to the Azores: Part 7 – Motivation

Jester Challenge – A modern experiment in old-fashioned self-reliance, self sufficiency, and personal responsibility. This is the seventh of a 10-part post where solo sailor, Bernie Branfield, shares his first-hand account of his single-handed, 2022 Jester Challenge, from Plymouth, UK to the Azores, in his 26′ Invicta Mk2, Louisa.

Jester Challenge 2022 – Sailing single handed from Plymouth UK to the Azores: Part 2 – Weather

Jester Challenge – A modern experiment in old-fashioned self-reliance, self sufficiency, and personal responsibility. This is the second of a 10-part post where solo sailor, Bernie Branfield, shares his first hand account of his single-handed, 2022 Jester Challenge, from Plymouth, UK to the Azores, in his 26′ Invicta Mk2, Louisa.

Sail trimming for cruisers

Sail trimming tips for cruisers. Whether racing or cruising, a well tuned boat will sail faster and tend to heel less than a boat with badly adjusted sails.

Distress flares – which flare, how & when to use?

How to use distress flares at sea Flares should be kept in a waterproof container in an easily accessible location such as a...

ColRegs Rule 14 – Head-on Situation

  ColRegs Rule 14: Head-on Situation (a) When two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal...

Five dangers a vessel may encounter at sea

What are the main dangers a vessel may face at sea and what should skippers do to reduce the risk of these happening?

Boat plumbing maintenance & troubleshooting

A boat’s fresh water system needs annual maintenance to keep it in good condition. Some boats have far more complex systems than others, with pressurised hot and cold water, associated pumps, an accumulator, calorifier and pressure valves, all to keep a boat owner busy.

Marine engine oil system maintenance

The regular maintenance of a marine diesel is key to preventing engine failure at sea. This means doing regular checks of the fuel, cooling, electrical and oil systems.

The give-way hierarchy at sea – who gives way to whom?

Whatever their size or type, all skippers have a responsibility to avoid collisions with other boats at sea.  It is...

Keel maintenance and Repair – Part 2

If you have ever witnessed a boat colliding with a rock or other submerged obstacle you will know that there is an almighty thump and the whole boat shakes and judders. While such hard groundings seldom result in catastrophic keel failure, something has to give and even the sturdiest keels can easily be damaged by such an impact.

Repairing chips and dings in gelcoat

The gelcoat topsides of a GRP boat can be pampered and restored to their former glory relatively easily when it is ashore. Gelcoat is only a very thin outer layer of the hull, often less than 1mm thick, so you should avoid cleaning it with highly abrasive cleaners, or an-ything that could potentially damage its surface.