Buying a New Sail
by Doug Pope
Owner, Pope Sails & Rigging
Much has been written about the latest in materials and construction techniques used to build cutting edge racing and cruising sails. While this information can be valuable to sailors planning to update their inventories, there is little guidance on how to go about selecting a sailmaker and choosing the features to be incorporated into the new sails.
Cruising sails are durable goods. That is to say, they are built to last more than three years and, if cared for, can have a useful life of nine or ten years depending on how much they are used. Sails are expensive. Material costs are high and it takes a lot of time to build a quality product. When these characteristics are considered it becomes clear that a little research is called for. A bad choice can mean that you're stuck with a sail that will detract from the enjoyment of sailing rather than adding to it. A typical approach to sail purchasing for a boat owner is to call half a dozen lofts for quotes and then choose the cheapest. There are reasons why some sailmakers cost more than others and a fundamental error is made when price is the sole determining factor in the decision of who to go with.
To begin with, shop locally. Generally speaking a sail loft's local territory is limited to about a two-hour drive. Start your inquiries close to home and if you don't find what you want then go farther afield. By choosing a sailmaker within a comfortable drive you make the relationship easier on both of you. Most sailmakers will want to go to the boat to take measurements and check details before beginning construction, after all it is easier to build it right the first time. If repair work or alterations are called for, you will get much quicker turnaround with the local guy than if you have to rely on U.P.S. to deliver the sail back and forth.
Talk to your friends and mooring neighbors about their choices in builders and features. Try not to rely on just one person's opinions but instead talk to several people, after all one guy might have had trouble with his full length battens while the next guy might be ecstatic with his. You may notice a pattern developing, good or bad, and that can help you narrow your choices. A well known and respected boat builder, Dave Nutt, said recently that the money people have to spend on their pastime is precious and that it's up to those of us in this business to make it fun and enjoyable to spend that money. When you're talking to sailmakers, follow your intuition. Is this person, to whom you are possibly going to hand over hundreds or thousands of dollars, really listening to your questions? Are you getting understandable answers and suggestions? Is this person asking you the right questions?
When you begin to discuss the purchase of a new sail the builder will want to know what type of boat the sail is for, what type of sail you want and what the basic rig dimensions are. For mainsails, the pertinent dimensions are the "P" and the "E". "P" is the maximum hoist of the sail from the top of the boom to the halyard sheave (or the black band at the masthead on some boats). "E" is the distance from the back of the mast to the end of the boom as far as the outhaul will go (or the black band at the end of the boom on some boats). For jibs and genoas these measurements are the "I" and the "J". "I" is the distance from the shear at the base of the mast intersection of the forestay and the mast. "J" is the distance from the front of the mast at the deck level to the pin where the forestay meets the stemhead fitting. If you have a common production boat these dimensions may be on file but be prepared to supply them.
You will probably be asked what kind of sailing you do. Cloth selection and construction details can depend on your answer. For instance a mainsail built for trade wind sailing should be built differently than one built to cruise Penobscot Bay. Are you a daysailor or are you going to cross oceans? This is not to imply that one should be satisfied with inferior quality as a coastal cruiser. It's simply a matter of appropriate choices.
Choosing the different features you want included in the new sail can be as simple as telling the sailmaker to copy the old sail, however, now is the chance to try something different to make your boat more manageable. Mainsails have to be the most flexible sail on the boat; they are up in all weather conditions. The number of reefs to be included can have a significant impact on the price and versatility of this sail. For day sailing, one reef is probably adequate. For coastal and offshore sailing, two reefs are appropriate. Having three reefs in a main is possible, but for offshore work a trisail is a better alternative.
Probably the biggest questions most people consider when buying a new main is whether to go with transverse battens or more traditional short battens. Sails with metal slides that run on a track attached to the back of the mast do not work well with transverse battens. These boats should stick with traditional battens unless a new track/slide system is installed. Masts that accept plastic slides and round slugs work pretty well with full length battens. What are the advantages? The two big pluses are ease in raising and, especially, lowering the sail and an increase in sail life. The sail will flog less while tacking and motoring into the wind and so less wear and tear is put on the sailcloth. The disadvantages are an increase in the price of the sail and an increase in weight aloft. Maintenance costs for traditional vs. transverse battens will be about the same. Full length pockets chafe on shrouds and traditional pockets will require replacement of the elastic at the inboard end periodically. There are as many ways to treat the ends of full length batten pockets as there are sailmakers. Some methods are rather crude while others are pretty slick. Ask to see an example of how the pockets are built. Some sailmakers use round rod or tubular fiberglass battens while others use flat battens. Ask your sailmaker for an opinion. There are compelling reasons for both types, so hear both sides and then decide what makes sense for you.
There are other things to consider for your new mainsail. Should the foot be attached with slugs or should it have a rope to slide into the groove on the boom? This is a matter of personal preference but you should tell your sailmaker what you want. Of course, if your boom accepts slides you don't have much choice. Loose footed mainsails offer incredible adjustability and are great off the wind but you need a powerful outhaul and the inclination to fool with it. A cunningham is a nice control to have but most cruising sailors can get along using the halyard for adjusting luff tension. Do you want numbers on your sail and if so, what color? And finally, make sure your sailmaker knows if you have an adjustable backstay. Many cruising boats today have roller reefing gear on the forestay. For those that do not, a three sail inventory is pretty common for coastal cruising. Such an inventory will include an all purpose genoa, a working jib and a storm jib. If you are upgrading the inventory then usually the genoa will be the first head sail to go. The overlapping genoa takes a beating against the mast during a tack, and along the coast of Maine light air prevails in the summer, so this sail will likely see a lot of use. Working jibs should be rugged and designed to be effective to 25-30 knots. Avoid battens in the working jib; they add expense to the sail, they will present a maintenance cost down the road and there is no measurable speed advantage.
Roller reefing genoas are by their nature somewhat of a compromise, after all we expect these sails to cover a wide range of conditions. The benefits include, of course, easing boat handling. Being able to deploy, reef and stow this sail all from the safety of the cockpit is a huge advantage. It takes less time to get underway and to button things up at the end of the day. The head sail inventory can be reduced, as a well designed genoa can be reefed to working jib size. The disadvantages are minor but include a slight light air performance penalty, increased maintenance cost because the sail is exposed to the weather at all times and the hassle of striking the big jib in order to set the storm jib. All roller reefing genoas will benefit from a flattening device in the luff. The natural tendency is for a sail to become fuller as it is rolled in. As the wind increases a flatter, smaller sail is better as you try to depower the rig. Most sailmakers recommend a tapered closed cell foam pad at the luff which will remove extra fullness. These pads are foolproof with no moving parts or zippers to fail at night when the wind pipes up to 30 knots. Sun covers are required along the foot and leech to protect the rolled sail from Ultra Violet (UV) radiation. There are two general types of materials available. The first type has a self-stick adhesive on the back and these are stuck directly to the sail. The advantage to these types is to the sailmaker because they are quick and fairly easy to apply. The problem with them is analogous to applying a layer of fiberglass to a traditionally constructed boat. As the wood expands and contracts, the bond between the materials fails. Likewise it doesn't take long for the sticky back sun covers to come unglued. Replacing these covers is messy and expensive.
The other basic type of sun cover relies on being sewn to the sail. There are two materials that are most often used. The first is Acrylic cover material like that used for sail covers and dodgers. It comes in lots of colors and will most likely last the life of the sail. The disadvantage is that it weighs 6-7 ounces and can hamper really light air performance. The other material is a coated 4 ounce sailcloth. The coating is UV resistant and has very good resistance to peeling. The disadvantages are that it may not last the life of the sail and it picks up a gray stain from air pollution laden rain water. Both of these materials allow the sailcloth to move independently of the cover. They both will have to resewn during the life of the sail as the stitching is attacked by UV.
There are a couple of other things to keep in mind. A sail with a high clew will roll/reef better and will provide better visibility. It will also be less likely to catch a wave in the foot. Usually the clew of the fully unrolled sail should be at least 6" to 12" above the lifelines. Your sailmaker will either measure the position of the genoa track, or you have to do it, to be sure there is enough adjustment to set proper sheet leads. You may want a tell tale window to aid in sail trim and upwind steering.
Just a quick note about storm jibs. In tough conditions there is no substitute. A working jib is too big and a roller reefing genoa cannot be rolled to storm jib size and be effective. In Maine in the summer, you may never need it, but you never know.
For cruising spinnakers the asymmetrical sail is the way to go. Unlike the common spinnaker, whose leeches are the same length, the asymmetrical chute has a luff which is longer than the leech. This type of spinnaker is finding wider acceptance in racing circles as well as in the cruising world and was just recently approved for use in racing under the IMS rule. These sails can be flown with or without a pole and they can add fun, excitement and speed to down wind sailing. Both triradial construction and radial head/cross cut bodies are available, with the latter being less expensive. The performance advantage of a triradial over the radial head sail is not big enough to be a factor for most cruising applications but the triradial will hold its shape better when the wind is up. The big choice here, besides colors, is cloth weight. The two choices are ¾ ounce and 1 ½ ounce. The big difference between the two will be much more resistant to tearing. For smaller boats choose ¾ ounce; larger boats need 1 ½ ounce. The cross over point is on boats in the mid 30-foot range.
There are many hardware products available to help with sail handling chores. For mainsails these include different luff car/track systems, in-the-mast and behind-the-mast furling systems, lazy jacks and other sail flaking devices. For head sails there are, of course, roller reefing units, and for spinnakers there are different dousing sleeves and poles. If you are interested in any of these, comparative shopping is more straight forward than sail purchasing, because these items are not custom made and the manufacturers put a great deal of effort into their literature. Most sailmakers offer a full range of these products and they may offer packages at a savings.
Beware of gimmicks. There have been quite a few products and construction techniques offered to sailors over the last few years that have not worked out or that are major compromises. The worst of these are actually dangerous. Remember that almost nothing fails on warm sunny days with flat seas and 12 knots of breeze. When someone says they want to sell you the latest and the greatest, a big red flag should go up. This is not to say that all the good ideas have already been developed, just be careful. If in doubt about something, ask for testimonials or references and then check them out.
With the information supplied so far a sailmaker can make some recommendations on materials, hardware and different cuts. It is important to take note of these details so that you can compare apples to apples. It's best to have a quote mailed or faxed to you, rather than taking it over the phone, so that there is less chance of confusion about the product and the price. Start a file folder with this information and when you have all your questions answered sit down and compare.
How do you compare quotes? Start with the cloth, after all this is the foundation upon which your sail will be built. Some sailmakers will be very specific about cloth choice while others will be quite vague. Cloth can account for the largest percentage of the price of the sail, so knowing what you're getting is important. A discussion of sailcloth could be the subject of another article but here are the basics. The three major cloth manufacturers in this country have similar product lines. From a cruising sailor's point of view these products fall into three general categories for upwind sails.
To begin with there are relatively inexpensive cruising Dacrons. These all purpose materials offer lower price with good flatness and consistency. The trade off is a stretchier sail that will not keep its designed shape as long as more expensive Dacrons. Also, typically, sails built with these materials will be heavier. The next step is a group of Dacron styles that are appropriate for performance cruising and club racing. Made from high tenacity Dacron yarns and engineered in a variety of different constructions to address the needs of the different types of sails, these materials offer excellent value. These products offer lighter weight with good shape holding characteristics and long life. Lastly, laminated cruising fabrics have come a long way in the last few years combining very strong, low stretch properties with longer life. These materials are also very resistant to tearing. Laminated materials are constructed from layers of different types of materials, each adding to the whole. These different materials include Dacron, mylar film, and for bigger boats, Spectra and Kevlar. The down sides to laminates are a somewhat shorter life than the performance oriented Dacrons with a significant increase in price in the cost of the completed sail. Not only is the cloth more expensive but these sails are more labor intensive and often there is more waste. In larger cruising boats the cloth weight savings can be dramatic particularly when Spectra fiber is used in the laminate in place of some of the Dacron. In boats to about 35 feet, however, large weight savings are not likely but the sails will be a lot stronger with less stretch.
The cloth choices may seem a little overwhelming but after discussing your needs with a couple of sailmakers things will become clearer and you will be able to make informed quote comparisons.
There are still other details to compare. How complete is the quote? Does it include things like mainsail insignia, numbers, sail ties or reef ties? Some sailmakers offer these and other items as options and some builders include these features as standard items.
Buying a new sail is a big investment and there are dozens of choices to be made in order to get a custom built sail that meets your needs. Taking a little time to find out what is being offered, and being an informed consumer, can make the experience exciting and enjoyable. After all, enjoyment is what this pastime of sailing is all about!