Look after those sails

SAIL - - Contents - Tak­ing care of your can­vas doesn’t just save you money, it’s cen­tral to good seamanship By Brian Han­cock

Know­ing how to take care of your sails and how to re­pair them while at sea is an im­por­tant part of over­all seamanship. The last thing any sailor needs is to get caught on a lee shore with dam­aged sails. This ap­plies to both rac­ers and cruis­ers.

Th­ese days there is a fine line be­tween the kind of en­gi­neer­ing used for rac­ing and cruis­ing sails, as many cruis­ers are now opt­ing for high-tech mem­brane sails, as op­posed to conventional cross­cut Dacron or a lam­i­nate. But while a mem­brane sail in­cludes plenty of high-tech en­gi­neer­ing in its con­struc­tion, it is no more dif­fi­cult to re­pair than Dacron.

Be­fore we look at how to fix th­ese dif­fer­ent kinds of sails, though, we’re go­ing to take a look at some of the fac­tors that fa­tigue sails in the hope that we can pre­vent having to do any un­nec­es­sary re­pair. Whether it’s blow­ing dogs off chains, or you’re chasing cat’s paws in a drifter, there are plenty of ways to en­sure you get the most out of your sails over time. We’ll then take on the sub­ject of sail re­pair at sea next month in Part Two of this se­ries. Flog­ging: Flog­ging is the quick­est way to dam­age a set of sails, es­pe­cially mem­brane sails made from high-tech fibers like Car­bon and Twaron. Nei­ther of th­ese fibers do well when they are re­peat­edly bent, which is ex­actly what happens when a sail is al­lowed to flog. Over time the del­i­cate fibers will slowly fa­tigue. This ap­plies to all fibers, but es­pe­cially to th­ese more ex­otic ones.

Flog­ging can come in many dif­fer­ent forms: in­clud­ing sim­ply let­ting your main­sail flap in the breeze as you mo­tor back to the moor­ing. There­fore, ei­ther drop the main when­ever you are motoring or sheet it on tight to pre­vent it from flap­ping. Sim­i­larly, while it’s im­por­tant that you head into the wind when hoist­ing a head­sail, there is no need to cre­ate ad­di­tional ap­par­ent wind by motoring at a higher speed than nec­es­sary. Just main­tain enough way on to keep the bow pointed into the wind, and you’ll go a long way to spar­ing your sail. It’s the at­ten­tion to small de­tails that pay big div­i­dends over time.

An­other, more sub­tle, way of caus­ing a sail to flog is not trim­ming prop­erly. If the lead pos­tion on the head­sail, for ex­am­ple, is too far aft, the leech will twist off and flap. You should make sure, then, that the leech line is prop­erly tight­ened and use the trim line on the clew (if the sail has one) to it in where it should be.

UV Degra­da­tion: Right up there with flog­ging in terms of sail fa­tigue is that same in­gre­di­ent that makes sail­ing so much fun, the sun. It has been known for a long time that ul­tra­vi­o­let (UV) light has a slow and dele­te­ri­ous ef­fect on all fab­rics, but some are more sen­si­tive than oth­ers. Take Vec­tran, for ex­am­ple—it is a great fiber for mak­ing sails, both for rac­ing and

cruis­ing; how­ever, show it any sun­light, and it pretty quickly starts to break down. Sail­mak­ers and fab­ric mak­ers know this, which is why they will en­cap­su­late the UV-sen­si­tive yarns be­tween taffe­tas that have been treated with an­tiUV ad­di­tives. (The same thing goes for most fibers, but Vec­tran is es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble.)

In some cases, the my­lar films on lam­i­nated sails will also be treated with UV in­hibitors, which will go a long way to pro­tect­ing those fibers in the mix that are most sus­cep­ti­ble to UV degra­da­tion. When dis­cussing new sails with your sail­maker bear this in mind and make sure that the sail­cloth be­ing rec­om­mended has ad­e­quate UV pro­tec­tion en­gi­neered into the fab­ric.

No mat­ter what the fibers or type of con­struc­tion used, all cruis­ing head­sails should have a pro­tec­tive UV cover along the leech and foot so that when the sail is left rolled up on the head­stay the UV strip is out­er­most and com­pletely pro­tects the sail. If you don’t like the look of a UV strip, you can try a genoa cover that goes over the sail once it is rolled up. It’s sim­ple to use—just hoist it with a spare hal­yard and zip­per it closed as it is be­ing pulled up the stay. (Once hoisted there are lines that will al­low you to snug the cover closed so that it does not flap in the breeze.) A genoa cover can be es­pe­cially use­ful with mem­brane cruis­ing head­sails, where it seems a pity to add a low-tech UV sun­shield to the trail­ing edge of a high-tech sail.

The same ap­plies to boom cov­ers. Any time the main­sail is low­ered and lashed to the boom it should be cov­ered. For re­ally bul­let­proof pro­tec­tion you might con­sider having a main­sail cover that in­cludes a foil liner on the in­side. This liner con­sists of the same ma­te­rial that is used for mak­ing space blan­kets and com­pletely blocks the sun’s harm­ful rays.

Chafe: Chafe is the other great en­emy of ev­ery sailor. Un­for­tu­nately, it can’t be pre­vented, only mit­i­gated through the ad­di­tion of chafe pro­tec­tion. All sails rub against the rig and life­lines, and an area that is con­stantly rub­bing will soon de­velop into a hole that may, in turn, lead to the sail rip­ping. This ap­plies to all sails, no mat­ter their en­gi­neer­ing. For­tu­nately, there are a num­ber of things you can do to pre­pare both your sails and your boat to de­lay the in­evitably as long as pos­si­ble.

Start by adding spreader patches to both your head­sail and main­sail. Each time you tack, the head­sail, for ex­am­ple, gets dragged across the spreader ends, grad­u­ally weak­en­ing the sail in that area, so pro­tect­ing th­ese ar­eas makes a lot of sense. You can ei­ther go aloft and mark the sail where the patches need to go, or you can sim­ply wait un­til you start to see the marks on the sail where it has been rub­bing against the spreader.

While you’re at it, you can also add some kind of chafe pro­tec­tion to the out­board ends of the spread­ers by putting on a bit of leather, adding a plas­tic cover piece or sim­ply tap­ing the ends with stick­y­back Dacron. The same thing should be done where the head­sail rubs up against the stan­chions: add patches to the sail and then cover the top of each sta­tion with some kind of pro­tec­tion. An­other good idea is to add a strip of pro­tec­tion along the foot of the sail where it rubs against the life­lines.

Over-trim­ming a sail: As bad as flog­ging can be, over-trim­ming a sail can be even worse. Th­ese days many cruis­ing boats have at least one electric winch aboard, and while this rep­re­sents a ter­rific con­ve­nience, an electric winch can also some­times lead to some se­ri­ous sail dam­age. When you are crank­ing in on a sail by hand, there is a cer­tain amount of in­for­ma­tion trans­mit­ted through the winch handle. If, for ex­am­ple, you are hoist­ing a genoa and it sud­denly gets harder to wind on, then you know that per­haps the sail has hung up on some­thing and you need to act ac­cord­ingly. Electric winches, on the other hand, are so pow­er­ful they just keep on keep­ing on un­til some­thing breaks, more likely than not, the sail.

If you are hoist­ing a sail at night, in par­tic­u­lar, it may be a good idea to hand crank the last few feet, so that you an “feel” when it has reached ei­ther the hounds of the mast­head. It’s also a good idea to add full-hoist marks to your hal­yards. On a calm day at the dock, hoist the sail all the way up. Then, when it is at max hoist, mark the hal­yard against some cor­re­spond­ing point on the boat. (The edge of the winch is a good place.) You can also whip the hal­yard with twine in ad­di­tion to tick­ing it with a wa­ter­proof marker. This way you will be able to feel it stand proud when it’s dark.

While you’re at it, do the same on your head­sail sheets. Trim the sails per­fectly and then make a mark. That way the sail trim­mer will know to look at the sheet and never trim it past the mark you have made.

Ex­ceed­ing the sail’s de­signed range: Many of us have been caught in squalls and found our­selves with too much sail up, which can re­sult in a per­ma­nently dis­torted sail shape, es­pe­cially with lam­i­nated sails. For­tu­nately, there are a num­ber of things you can do to avoid dam­ag­ing your sails if you are caught in a sud­den squall.

For ex­am­ple, the sail is at its most vul­ner­a­ble when it is sheeted on tight, so if there is a sud­den in­crease in wind the best thing you to do is to ease the sail out in coordination with the helms­man. Specif­i­cally, as you ease the sail, the helms­man bears away, thereby caus­ing some the load to come off the sail while also pre­vent­ing the sail from flog­ging.

This ap­plies to both main­sail and head­sail. In fact, a sail that is en­gi­neered for a cer­tain amount of true wind when sail­ing hard on the wind can be car­ried in dou­ble the amount of true wind when sail­ing down­wind.

Mois­ture, mildew, main­te­nance: While mois­ture and mildew do not ac­tu­ally weaken the fab­ric of a sail, they do make it look un­sightly and can ul­ti­mately ren­der the sail use­less—un­less, of course, you don’t care about cos­met­ics. Most mod­ern fab­rics are treated with ef­fec­tive anti-fun­gal agents, and if you want to ex­er­cise an abun­dance of cau­tion you can ac­tu­ally have the sail dipped into an anti-UV and anti-fun­gal so­lu­tion. This may, in fact, be a good op­tion for those sailors who have in-mast furl­ing sys­tems and are based in the trop­ics, since it’s a chal­lenge to stop the sail from get­ting wet, and there is no ven­ti­la­tion in the mast cav­ity to dry the sail out.

In terms of main­te­nance, tak­ing care of your sails at the end of a sail­ing sea­son is just as im­por­tant as tak­ing care of the sail while you are out sail­ing. First and fore­most, make sure that you rinse the sail with fresh wa­ter. The salt par­ti­cles that are found in salt wa­ter crys­tal­lize as they dry out and the tiny crys­tals have sharp edges that can dam­age del­i­cate fibers.

If your sails need cleaning, you can use a mild de­ter­gent like dish­wash­ing liq­uid to clean them. For oil and grease, use an au­to­mo­tive de­greaser such as Sim­ple Green. There is only one chem­i­cal that re­moves rust stains and that is hy­droflu­o­ric acid. But be aware: it’s very toxic and this should be done by your sail­maker in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment. Once the sail is rinsed and clean you should let it dry com­pletely. Pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the patches, which will be the last to dry. If they are not com­pletely dry you may end up with mildew form­ing be­tween the folded lay­ers.

Next month: How to put to­gether a sail-care kit for your boat. s

The crew of the Volvo Ocean 65 Mapfre takes care of a bit off chafe while un­der­way

It’s read­ily ap­par­ent how the spreader can chafe the sail in this photo: note the re­in­forc­ing patch

A pro­tec­tive UV cover, like the leech and luff can­vas aboard this per­for­mance-cruiser, is a must

Re­duce sail chafe by cov­er­ing your spread­ers or spreader ends as well

Tap­ing your turn­buck­les re­moves an­other potential source of sail wear

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