On Deck

BUY­ING SAILS

SAIL - - Contents - Hav­ing the right in­for­ma­tion is crit­i­cal

It was not so many years ago that buy­ing a new sail for your boat meant a pleas­ant trip down to your lo­cal sail­maker. You made a call (email was not yet in­vented), set up an ap­point­ment and then spent a few won­der­ful hours look­ing at bolts of cloth, talk­ing boats and set­tling on a price. If you were a good cus­tomer a hand­shake would seal the deal, the sail would be made, and a few weeks later it was de­liv­ered to your boat and an in­voice would ar­rive by mail. Your sail­maker knew you by name—both yours and your boat’s— just as your fam­ily doc­tor knew your med­i­cal his­tory. More of­ten than not the sail­maker would bend the sail on per­son­ally, take the boat out for a sail to check the fit and cut of your new pur­chase, and gen­er­ally treat you like, well, a cus­tomer.

Those days, how­ever, are long gone. We live in a much more tech­ni­cally ad­vanced world where even im­por­tant pur­chases like a new sail are done via e-mail, phone, the web or some other “con­ve­nient” means. Old-fash­ioned ser­vice is gone, un­less of course you are spend­ing up­ward of fifty thou­sand dol­lars, and that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, since then, as now, that ser­vice doesn’t come cheap.

True, you want the sail to fit right, look good and per­form well, but you also want all these things at a rea­son­able price. For a sail­maker, spend­ing the af­ter­noon out sail­ing with a cus­tomer, while a pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence for both par­ties, is costly, and that cost in­evitably has to be added on to the price of the sail. The good news is that these days, with mod­ern fab­rics and com­puter tech­nol­ogy, the chances of a sail not fit­ting per­fectly and look­ing good the first time out are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rare.

In fact, the truth is that to­day you re­ally don’t need to know your sail­maker per­son­ally, nor do you need a per­sonal visit and sail check to en­sure that ev­ery­thing came out as de­signed. The world has changed, and so has sail­mak­ing. In some cases, you can now sim­ply go to “add one to your shop­ping cart” and with the click of your mouse have the sail show up via FedEx a few weeks later. Still, for all the high-tech, some as­pects of sail buy­ing re­main the same, in­clud­ing the fact that the process starts by ask­ing the right ques­tions. This in­cludes both you ask­ing the sail­maker the right ques­tions and the sail­maker ask­ing you ques­tions.

You also need to ask your­self some hard ques­tions like, “what kind of sail­ing will I be do­ing over the next cou­ple of years,” and “do I re­ally need the lat­est molded sail from the most ex­pen­sive fab­ric avail­able when the ex­pe­ri­ence level of my crew is ques­tion­able?”

Re­mem­ber, a sail is an ex­pen­sive pur­chase, and you need to be clear about what it is you are buy­ing. If, for ex­am­ple, you are think­ing about en­ter­ing your boat in the New­port-to-Ber­muda Race in a cou­ple of years, does it re­ally make sense to save a few dol­lars buy­ing a new Dacron head­sail now be­cause it’s all you can af­ford when you know that an in­vest­ment in fab­ric and en­gi­neer­ing will pay long-term div­i­dends? Per­haps, in­stead of that Dacron sail, you could have your cur­rent sail re­cut, and in a year’s time buy the lam­i­nated sail, which will

still be fairly new when the race starts.

It is also im­por­tant to ar­tic­u­late to your sail­maker what it is you ex­pect from your sails. For in­stance, is out-and-out per­for­mance your goal, or are you will­ing to trade some per­for­mance for dura­bil­ity? Maybe sail han­dling is more im­por­tant than sail shape. For a cruis­ing sailor used to phys­i­cally chang­ing sails, the feel of the fab­ric might be more im­por­tant than the cut of the jib, and a soft, tightly wo­ven Dacron a bet­ter choice than a stiff, highly resinated one. What­ever the choice, the process starts by ask­ing good ques­tions. Sails re­main cus­tom-made items, and just like or­der­ing a new suit, you should not de­cide on the first color you see. Do your home­work and you will be more pleased with the re­sults. Your sail­maker will also be happy to know that he has sat­is­fied a cus­tomer.

In­deed, it’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that an ed­u­cated cus­tomer is a sail­maker’s best cus­tomer. With this in mind, you should talk to other sailors with sim­i­lar boats, sailors with dif­fer­ent boats, and a num­ber of other sail­mak­ers, since it’s not only their job to sell you their prod­uct, but to make sure you get what you want and not what they want you to have.

Through­out this process re­mem­ber this very im­por­tant point: there are any num­ber of

ways to make the same sail, and in most cases they will all be good. There are, for ex­am­ple, var­i­ous styles of fab­ric pro­duced by dif­fer­ent fab­ric mak­ers that will all do an equally good job, so don’t be too con­cerned if two sail­mak­ers rec­om­mend two dif­fer­ent types of cloth. Ask about the mer­its of each kind, but don’t as­sume that one has to be “bad” and the other “good.” By the same to­ken, brand loy­alty is good, and if you’ve had a good ex­pe­ri­ence with a cer­tain fab­ric maker then that’s a good rea­son to ask for their prod­uct again. Sail­mak­ers, fab­ric mak­ers, and hard­ware mak­ers ap­pre­ci­ate loy­alty, and the re­sult will be a bet­ter sail for you.

Not sur­pris­ingly, sail­mak­ers need lots of im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion if they are to do their job so be sure that you are ready to pro­vide it. Again, they need to know if you plan to mostly race or cruise. They also need to know if you are day­sail­ing or head­ing off­shore, and in what re­gion of the coun­try you will be sail­ing. These days a lot of sail buy­ing is done over the phone, and a sail­maker lo­cated on Long Is­land Sound, where the sum­mer­time winds are light and vari­able, might not know that San Fran­cisco has a blus­tery af­ter­noon breeze that kicks up a short chop. This would be a valu­able piece of in­for­ma­tion if you are a West Coast sailor and want your sail to be de­signed and en­gi­neered to suit the lo­cal con­di­tions. A sail de­signed for use in choppy in­shore wa­ters will have a dif­fer­ent shape than one used in long ocean swells.

Once you have es­tab­lished the kind of sail you want, it’s time to move on to the next very im­por­tant step: in­for­ma­tion about your boat, in­clud­ing its di­men­sions and the ex­act size of the sails needed to fit the rig. Never as­sume any­thing—on ei­ther side. It’s not enough, for ex­am­ple, to sim­ply tell the sail­maker that you have a Beneteau 345, since there are six models of Beneteau 345, and they all have dif­fer­ent rig di­men­sions.

If you are not sure whether you have a tall or short rig, be sure and find out be­fore the sail­maker works up a quote. Be spe­cific about which model you have and, equally im­por­tant, know ex­actly what year the boat was man­u­fac­tured. A C&C 27 built in 1984, for ex­am­ple, has a dif­fer­ent boom length than a C&C 27 built in 1988.

You also need to tell your sail­maker if you know of any mod­i­fi­ca­tions done to the boat. Per­haps a former owner length­ened the boom or raised the life­lines. Maybe the boat has a whole new rig. Small de­tails like the height of your life­lines will have a bear­ing on your new sail. If it’s a cruis­ing head­sail, the sail de­signer will want to be sure that the foot of the sail clears the life­lines so that it does not chafe. If it’s a rac­ing head­sail, the clew height will be placed so that it does not hang up on the life­lines each time you tack.

The same points ap­ply to the rest of your rig. If you have a furl­ing unit, for ex­am­ple, make sure your sail­maker knows its make, model and year. If the deck lay­out has been changed, be sure to make that in­for­ma­tion avail­able. Sail­mak­ers work on the same prin­ci­pal as car­pen­ters: mea­sure twice, cut once.

Sim­i­larly, you need to think long and hard about things like the num­ber of reefs points; ful­l­length bat­tens ver­sus stan­dard; a main that is loose-footed or not; and pos­si­bly a foam luff for a furl­ing head­sail. Of­ten the an­swers will come from the kind of boat you have and the kind of sail­ing you plan to do. If you are go­ing off­shore, you will want at least two reefs, pos­si­bly three. If, on the other hand, you are only day­sail­ing a sin­gle row of reefs should suf­fice. Re­mem­ber that op­tions like ad­di­tional bat­tens, ad­di­tional re­in­forc­ing or reef points will in­evitably also make a dif­fer­ence in terms of price.

What­ever you de­cide, never un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of these “lit­tler things,” since they—like the tech­nol­ogy and fab­ric used in the sail’s ba­sic con­struc­tion—can have huge im­pact in terms of how the it func­tions un­der­way.

Once the leg­work has been done and you have had de­tailed dis­cus­sions with var­i­ous sail­mak­ers and gath­ered all the rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion about your boat, it’s time to get a quote—ac­tu­ally a num­ber of quotes since even if you have a good re­la­tion­ship with a sail­maker

it’s a good idea to get prices from a num­ber of man­u­fac­tur­ers to see what the mar­ket is like.

Be hon­est with your reg­u­lar sail­maker, if you have one, and tell him that you are ask­ing around for some other quotes. Also, be frank about what is most im­por­tant to you in terms of price, per­for­mance and dura­bil­ity. If, for ex­am­ple, you are strictly a bot­tom-line per­son then tell the sail­maker that you want the low­est price and that you will be mak­ing your de­ci­sion based upon this sin­gle cri­te­rion. If, on the other hand, you place greater im­por­tance on ser­vice, dura­bil­ity, war­ranty, per­sonal ser­vice or any num­ber of other fac­tors, make sure that is known as well. What­ever your pri­or­i­ties, make sure each sail­maker gets the iden­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion from which to gen­er­ate a price. It’s in your in­ter­est to be able to com­pare ap­ples to ap­ples as op­posed to quotes that vary in terms of fi­nal prod­uct.

Once you have re­ceived your quotes from the var­i­ous sail­mak­ers, it’s time to take a closer look at what has been pro­posed. Again. it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and that dif­fer­ent fab­rics from dif­fer- ent man­u­fac­tur­ers used by dif­fer­ent sail­mak­ers can all make for equally ter­rific sails.

If you have a num­ber of pro­pos­als it might be use­ful to place the rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion in a spread­sheet so you can com­pare your quotes more ef­fec­tively. List items such as fab­ric choices, fab­ric weight, sail area and such de­tails as the num­ber of reefs, the edge treat­ments, the war­ranty and any other im­por­tant pieces el­e­ments you’re con­sid­er­ing. By hav­ing this in­for­ma­tion or­ga­nized in such a way that you can view it all at a sin­gle glance, you will soon see if one sail­maker is off in terms of sail area, for ex­am­ple, or price.

In the event some­thing seems “off,” maybe call that sail­maker to see what ex­actly he or she was think­ing. You never know, it might yield an in­ter­est­ing new ap­proach in terms of the con­struc­tion of your sail. Also be aware that sail­mak­ers some­times use dif­fer­ent meth­ods for cal­cu­lat­ing things like sail area. With head­sails, for ex­am­ple, some will sim­ply cal­cu­late the area of a triangle, while oth­ers will take into ac­count leech hol­low and foot round. Same for main­sails. Dif­fer­ent

sail­mak­ers, for ex­am­ple, may fac­tor in a dif­fer­ent per­cent­age for the amount of roach on a sail.

Again, be sure to take a good look at these num­bers to see if there is one that stands out as po­ten­tially be­ing wrong, es­pe­cially since the two main el­e­ments that go into the cost of a sail are the amount of ma­te­ri­als be­ing used (fab­ric in par­tic­u­lar) and la­bor. Spin­nakers are most cer­tainly an area where you will see big dif­fer­ences in sail ar­eas and by ex­ten­sion the prices of the sails, so be sure to pay care­ful at­ten­tion to those num­bers.

Once you have done your home­work, it’s time to go back to the sail­maker and raise any re­main­ing concerns you might have, es­pe­cially with re­gard to price. Sail­mak­ing is a com­pet­i­tive busi­ness, and while sail­mak­ers want your busi­ness, they know their mar­gins and know where there is room for ne­go­ti­a­tion, so you may be able to work out some kind of com­pro­mise. You should know that there is usu­ally at least a 50 per­cent markup on sails, which re­sults in a 33 per­cent profit, giv­ing most sail­mak­ers a lit­tle room for flex­i­bil­ity. Bear in mind, though, that there is a fine line be­tween as­tute ne­go­ti­at­ing and sim­ply play­ing one sail­maker off against an­other in an ef­fort to save a few bucks. Among other things, the sec­ond method will prob­a­bly re­sult in you be­ing on the los­ing end in the long run, since you will get what you pay for. By this I mean that if the sail­maker has been bar­gained down in a fight for the low­est price, he may be tempted to cut a few com­ers when it comes time to ac­tu­ally build the sail. There are cheaper grades of fab­ric, for ex­am­ple, that look much the same as the bet­ter ones, and you might get your sail made from one of them.

Fi­nally, once you take the plunge and ac­tu­ally or­der your new sails, you should be aware that sails take a long time to build. If the sail is to be made from a cus­tom fab­ric, for ex­am­ple, the sail­maker might have to wait for the fab­ric maker to man­u­fac­ture the fab­ric be­fore he can start work. Sim­i­larly, if you are buy­ing molded sails there is a chance that the nec­es­sary equip­ment will be tied up with other or­ders.

With this in mind, it’s in your in­ter­est to give the sail­maker plenty of lead time, and if at all pos­si­ble, to avoid new sail pur­chases in the spring when ev­ery­one else also sud­denly re­mem­bers that they need that new rac­ing head­sail. Given the op­por­tu­nity, your best bet is to take ad­van­tage of Fall specials or to find a time when busi­ness is slower than nor­mal to or­der your sail. Not only will you get bet­ter at­ten­tion to de­tail, you will also get a bet­ter price, since a pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity needs to build prod­ucts to keep the work­ers work­ing. Re­mem­ber, though, to use this lever­age ju­di­ciously, since again, you get what you pay for.

With re­spect to pay­ment, for most or­ders it’s stan­dard prac­tice to make a 50-per­cent down pay­ment when you or­der sails and the bal­ance be­fore you re­ceive them. A per­cent­age of the bal­ance can be with­held pend­ing suc­cess­ful fit­ting of the sails and sea tri­als, but be fair on all ac­counts. You want your sail­maker to be there for the long run, and you also want your new sails to be right. In the end it may re­quire a bit of give and take. s

Brian Han­cock is a White­bread Race vet­eran, the au­thor of sev­eral books on sail­ing, in­clud­ing the sail-trim book Max­i­mum Sail Power, and founder of the sail­maker Great Cir­cle Sails

This grand prix racer sports a cut­ting-edge lam­i­nated jib and main, as be­fits the kind of sail­ing it does

Cross-cut Dacron sails make all the sense in the world for a day­sail­er­week­end cruiser like this

A va­ri­ety of fab­rics and fibers are avail­able for mak­ing sails, many of them com­pa­ra­ble in terms of both price and per­for­mance

Check­ing the fit of a newly built head­sail to make sure it is fly­ing as it should

Whether your sail is built on a mold (right) or stitched to­gether (left) ac­cu­rate mea­sure­ments like those asked for on this or­der form (in­set) are vi­tal

Spread­ing out a sail be­fore adding things like bat­ten pock­ets and reef points

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