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DON'S LOG: stories, experience and advice

Making Sails Last

This article is strictly for the cruising sailor who uses good old white Dacron or one of the long lasting off shoots of Dacron developed for classic yachts. It is often said experience is the best teacher, but lessons learned are often a painful and expensive. This article is based on my personal experience, of more than 70 years of maintaining sails often under difficult circumstances backed up by information from Graham Knight of Antigua Sails. He has been repairing sails in Antigua since 1970. He has probably repaired or supervised the repair of more sails than anyone else in the world. Staying on top of the situation, and moving with the times, as described below I extended the life of Iolaire's sails to the point that often sailmankers/repairers said to me "it is good that everyone does not take a good care of sails as you do because if they did it would really cut into our sail repair business!!"

My sailing and sail repair career started in the days of cotton sails, manila or linen running rigging, a good school to learn, hand stitching to repair sails, but seeing the end of cotton sails, manila and linen running rigging was a great pleasure. But I will say that, with out doubt, in years gone by the most comfortable bunk in the boat was curled up in a DRY cotton spinnaker in the focsale.

The three things that destroy sails are weak stitching, flogging and UV degradation. When Dacron sails arrived on the scene the greatest problem was weak stitching. I rapidly learned the hard way that sails split from the leach in, seldom from the body of the sail out. If we noticed a seam opening up in the body of the sail, that afternoon I or my crew would re stitch by hand the seam that was beginning to open up. If the sail started splitting from the leach in, before you could get the sail down it would split from the leach all the way to the luff.

When Dacron first arrived on the yachting scene in the Caribbean there were no sail makers, sail repairers except for the locals who built canvas sails all hand stitched.

Sitting on Yacht Haven dock with a mainsail that had split luff to leach, sail spread out on the fuelling dock( only place big enough to spread it out) re sewing by hand 15' of seam two rows of stitching 30' of hand stitching, taught me to regularly check the leach of all sails and re stitch the weak points before they failed.

Finally about 1962 Jack Carstarphen of Maverick found a heavy duty foot pedal singer sewing machine, straight stitch that we all used for sail repair. This was not ideal but it was much better than hand stitching. Exactly how I found it, I have forgotten, but just before my late wife Marilyn and I decided to emigrate to Grenada I managed to buy a heavy duty Paff zig zag machine with a heavy duty electric motor all mounted in a proper table. We disassembled it, packed it in Iolaire's port (windward going to Grenada) pilot berth as I knew there were no heavy duty sail making machines in Grenada. I knew that to maintain Iolaire's sails I would have to do it myself.

By periodically setting up the sewing machine in Grenada Yacht Club bar where I could spread the sails out ,and regularly re stitching the leach and 3' in from the leach, and the same on foot of the high cut yankee the weak stitching problem was ended for Iolaire.

If sails are periodically taken to a sail maker/repairer and he is asked to check the sails, re stitch as necessary leach, and foot of headsails, all seams 3' in from the leach, plus the batten pockets if the stitching looks suspiciously weak, this will substantially increase the life of the sail. Also once the sail is two or three years old the sail maker can ascertain where the sail is chafing on shrouds and spreaders. He should glue on re enforcement patches for spreaders and cut narrow strips to cover the seams where they chafe on shrouds. If all this is done the life of the sail will be increased considerably.

Flogging is another great cause of sail damage or destruction. In the days when Iolaire had cotton sails I had so much trouble with batten pockets being torn or the sail under the batten pocket being torn when the sail was flogging either when tacking or reefing that I decided when I ordered my first Dacron mainsail from Charlie "Butch "Ulmer (father of the present Butch ulmer of Ulmer Kolious sails) that I ordered a battenless main. This eliminated the problem of broken battens, battens fouling the rigging when sails were hoisted or doused, but I had either a fluttering leach or the leach line was pulled taught a curled leach.

The Pardey's have always used battenless mains but I did not.

When the battenless main was coming to the end of its life I replaced with a main with battens. To keep the wooden battens (plastic battens hand not yet been invented) from breaking and tearing the batten pocket or sail, I installed three very thin battens in each pocket. Being very thin, they would bend further without breaking than a single thicker batten. I also removed the batten pockets, sewed a patch under the pocket and then re installed the pocket. As a result if a batten did break if it tore a hole since under the pocket it was double thickness, the hole was usually in the batten pocket rather than in the sail. A hole in the batten pocket was much easier to repair than a hole in the sail.

However the problem of flogging mainsail was solved in 1989 When Robbie Doyle gave Iolaire on of his first stack packs with a fully battened main sail. Fully battened sails are nothing new. The Chinese had them on their junks 2,000 years ago and in the last years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century the sailing canoes almost all had fully battened sails.

Fritz Fenger author of that wonderful little book, Alone in the Caribbean, sailed his 18' rudderless cat ketch canoe Yakaboo from Grenada up thru the islands to Saba where he had to quit because of sunstroke. Yakaboo was a cat ketch with stayless masts. The sails had full length battens and were almost flat topped!!!! As it has often been said "it is very difficult to invent anything to do with sailing. If you look back far enough in time it was done before. The new inventions are usually an old idea that works better today because of modern materials".

I will nor get in the argument as to whether fully battened sails are faster than battened soft sails but from the cruising mans standpoint the fully battened sails beat the soft sails six ways to Sunday. When you are reefing the full length battened sail, it does not flog. If a squall comes thru that the skipper feels will only be a short one, the main can be eased, the main completely de powering it yet it will not flog. It may take some strange shapes but will be de powered. Once the squall passes it can be re trimmed.

Iolaire being a yawl we leave the missen up when at anchor so she always lays head to wind rather that tacking back and forth against the anchor rode. With the soft missen when it was blowing hard the missen often set up a rather bothersome chatter. However with the fully battened missen, no chatter, but a "clunk" as the battens filled port or starboard.

When Dacron sails first arrived on the scene we thought it was heaven. The Dacron was unaffected by changes in moisture. Gone were the days of having to carefully ease the halyard and outhaul as you sailed into a fog, or rain soaked the sail. Gone were the days of carefully drying sails to make sure they did not get mildewed, and forget about putting on the sail cover (sail coat to the English) to make sure the night time dew did not dampen the sail.

Unfortunately we discovered the hard way, in the tropics that Dacron was subject to rapid UV degradation. The European tereleyne was even more subject to UV degradation than the American Dacron... We also discovered the light easily handled Dacron sail covers were not the answer, the sail still suffered UV degradation. The solution was to make the covers of canvas, mildew proofed vivetex now replaced by sumbrella.

The life expectancy of mains, missens, and foresails on schooner, was greatly increased if the crew every day as soon as the sail was dropped, the sail the sail cover(cover to americans, coat to the English) went on but all too often this was not done.

The solution to the problem came when Robbie Doyle invented Doyle's stack pack. In1989. He gave Iolaire one of the first to test. We discovered a few problems as the stack pack was originally conceived. The lazy jacks were dead ended at the masthead with adjustments via tackles as the tack. This made it impossible to obtain enough slack in the lazy jacks to allow us to set our full length awning. Also it was impossible to set the sail unless you were absolutely head to wind. Even then there was difficulty with the lazy jacks fouling the full length battens. After some head scratching we came up with the solution. Install a block just below the upper spreaders. Then we lead the end of the lazy jack that was dead ended at the mast head, thru the block below the upper spreader down the mast to a cleat on the mast. In this way, once the main was down the lazy jacks could be eased and carried forward allowing us to rig our full length awning. We would leave them forward until the main was hoisted then set them up, We used the lazy jack adjustment at the tack as the fine tune, the one up the mast thru the block below the upper spreader as the coarse adjustmemnt. Once the problem solved and tested, I faxed (the internet had not yet been invented) Robbie. I told him that the stack pack with the fully battened sail was superb but " feed all the manuals thru the paper shredder and shoot the guy that wrote the manual! " I also explained in the fax how we re rigged the lazy jacks. The manual was re written for the lazy jacks to be installed the Iolaire method.(SKETCH FROM JEREMY) He never told me if he shot the man that wrote the manual!!!!

One problem with the stack pack was in the final assembly, sewing the cover to the foot of the sail, the membrane to the cover then the membrane to the sail. This was a three person job, one pulling, one pushing and one sewing. Also it was virtually impossible to repair the cover or the lower section of the sail unless you found a sail maker that had a deep throat machine and was willing to put three people to work to do the repairs. Thus I urged that when making future stack packs the cover be secured to the sail, via a zipper, the cover to the membrane via a zipper, and the membrane to the sail via a zipper. Not only would this make the stack pack easier to build, but it would make it easy to remove the cover and membrane for repair. Built in this fashion if someone wanted to go racings it is easy to remove the cover, membrane and lazy jacks, and re install once the racing is finished.

A fully batten sail installed in a Doyle Stack pack or one of the similar units now on the market will last virtually forever. Iolaire's original stack pack installed In 1989. After six hard seasons in the Caribbean and a Transatlantic passage, it was replace with a Street Pack! A Doyle stack pack installed with zippers. The original was replaced not because the sail was worn out but the cover and membrane were falling apart. Since it was all sewn together it was too difficult to repair and was replaced. The new Street Pack was installed in 1995. The cover and membrane have been removed and repaired three times but the sail is still going strong when I sold Iolaire ,17 years after the Doyle /street stack pack was built!!!!

Now there are many versions of the stack pack available. Before you order one, make sure the sail, cover, membrane, if it is fitted, are all connected with zippers rather than being sewn together. The lazy jacks should be rigged as per Iolaire, coarse adjustment alongside the mast, fine adjustment at the tack.

HEADSAILS, roller furling, roller reefing, and hanked on

Iolaire has been fighting the problem of UV degradation on roller headsails for 50 years. I installed roller FURLING jib and staysail on Iolaire in 1961. The were roller furling on their own luff wire. We were able to make them work as they were set up via a two part halyard lead to a winch the enabled us to put enough tension on the luff wire which was the same diameter as the headstay such that the head and staysail stays were slack. The system worked well but it was a case of all the way out or all the way in. To minimize UV degradation, any time we were not sailing for two or three days the sails were lowered, coiled and stowed in a bag. Despite this, eventually the leach and foot of the Yankee became weakened by UV rays. The stitching could be re done but the last 12 "of material eventually became shot. Graham Knight of Antigua Sails pointed out the test to see if Dacron was severely weakened by UV degradation. Take a sail needle and push it thru the material. If it goes thru cleanly, all is well, the sail can be restitched and repaired. But if there is a pop as the needle goes thru the material is shot.

Eventually the leach and foot of the Yankee were shot, but the body of the sail was fine so my crew and I laid out the sail and removed the luff wire. I then took the sail to a sail maker and had him cut off the last 18" of the leach and foot. He then rebuilt the head tack and clew corners, spread the sail out and measured the luff. My mate and I shortened the luff wire to the proper length, fed it thru the sail, found two palm trees the right distance apart and set the luff wire up with 4 part block and tackle. We then adjusted the luff tension of the sail, secured the head and tack cringles to the ends of the wire, and secured the sail to the luff wire. We now had a good J2 and bought a new J1.

Heading north from Grenada to St. Thomas where there was little windward work, we would use the J1. Once in St. Thomas since we knew we would be beating to windward until we reached Antigua, and that Iolaire was a little "over hated" with the J 1. Since the sails were set on their on luff wire, all in or all out, we could not reef the headsail as you can with a sail set on a foil. We would remove and stow the J 1 and hoist the J2 We would use the J 2 until we reached Antigua. Once in Antigua we would switch back to J1 as heading south from Antigua as we knew we would be eased sheets most of the way back to Grenada.

This same operation, cutting the sunburned material from the leach and foot of high cut jib, making the J1 into a J2, can also be done on genoas, reducing the maximum 150% Genoa to a 135 by the method described above. With headsails fitted to a roller reefing foil this operation is much easier than the operation we did of installing a shortened luff wire that was tensioned between two palm trees!!!!

From the late sixties thru to the 80's in the Caribbean bent up and broken down roller reefing headsail gear was stacked up in rigging lofts like old cordwood. Despite the limitations of my roller furling headsail rig, i.e. all in or all out, because of the unreliability of roller reefing headsail gear I was UN interested in switching to roller reefing headsail on a foil. In1986 Olaf Harken tried to talk me into buying Harken roller reefing gear. He promised a very good discount but I was totally uninterested. Finally he stated what he was trying to sell me was the first of their large sized gear. They wanted it tested. He offered to GIVE me the gear and a headsail to fit for FREE if I would test it. Needless to say I accepted. The gear has worked perfectly nine hard years use in the Caribbean, 3 transatlantic, 17 years cruising and racing in Europe and was still going strong when I sold Iolaire.

However in one way it was a step backwards. Whenever we are not sailing for any amount of time we removed the headsail. With the roller furling headsail that furled on its own luff wire it was easy for one person to slack he halyard drop the sail and with difficulty one person could coil the sail into the sail bag. Two people made coiling the sail into the bag an easy operation. However removing the big yankee from the headstay unless there is little wind blowing is a three person job, the same when hoisting it. Thus it is not done with the frequency that we did when we had roller furling sails, and the sail suffers. Many boats to eliminate the sun burn problem on the leach and foot by sewing on a sacrificial layer of sumbrella about 18" wide. It looks like hell and does not improve the set of the sail.

The better solution is to hoist a cover for the roller headsail. I first saw these covers in the Baltic in the late 90's. They were quite common on German yachts. Now they are available in the states as during the 2011 Annapolis show I saw five boats in the Annapolis Yacht Club marina that had their roller headsails protected by full length covers. The covers do not flap in the wind. They are hoisted, then tightened via a lanyard threaded thru a hook and eye arrangement.

I have been told by Evely Nye, head of Custom Canvas St Thomas , the north agent, that the best headsail covers are made by Etiene a French single handed race skipper who also does deliveries. Go to www.atnine.com for information

This certainly looks like the solution to the UV problem with roller furling headsails. Regularly check and restitch the leach, the foot and 3' in from the leach and foot, hoist a cover whenever the boat is not going to be used for a few days and the headsail will last an incredibly long time.

Graham Knight feels that about 60' is the longest luff length that a cover can easily be hoisted. Above that size friction begins to cause problems. However the winter of 2014/5 while cruising the Caribbean I saw a couple of boats whose headsails must have had a luff length of 80 to 90 feet(an estimate)

On problem that arose with Iolaire's Yankee as it got old. When sheeted in hard, the foot and leach were tight but the body of the sail would not flatten. Des Mc Williams who was head of McWilliams Sails in Crosshaven, now head of Ulmer Kolious Europe, explained to me the problem. In the old days the excess material cut off the leach and foot was folded (see drawing pg 192 OSY vol 2 sal drawing coming to you late this week or early next week) and sewn back on the sail as luff and leach tabbing. However as labour costs went up, instead of making the tabbing as above described, the sailmankers installed tape webbing as leach and foot tabbing. As time goes by the tabbing shrinks while the sail does not. If an well used sail is spread out and the tabbing removed from the sail it will be seen that the tabbing is considerably shorter than the sail. The sail maker resews the tabbing back on the sail and installs extra tabbing. You have a vastly improved headsail. As your headsail gets old, it is worth while to have the sailmaker remove the tabbing, then re secure and lengthen it as necessary,

One problem with the head sail covers for roller furling headsails is that because of friction there is a limit as to how big they can be made. Graham Knight feels that 60' is about the maximum luff length practical. Above that size friction between the cover and the sail is too great to facilitate easily hoisting and dousing the cover. This leads to two problems, above 60' luff length the sail is too big to regularly take down when the boat is not being sailed so it is left up and the leach and foot suffer from UV degradation. To prevent this some boats sew a sacrificial layer of material the same color of the sail material so it is not noticeable. Mark Fitzgerald, the long time skipper of Sojana, a 120' high tec ketch, paints the leach and foot of his sails with white emulsion paint which has proved to minimize UV damage. Graham says North INK liquid is available in different colors that can be sprayed on to minimize UV degradation. North has spent a lot of time, money and effort to discover and test this liquid so with great justification North is telling no one where it comes from. If the sail is clean it can be sprayed on existing sails.


Preserving hanked on headsails from UV degradation is easy if they are stowed in double zipper turtle bags as they can stowed hanked on the stay ready to be hoisted but stowed in the bag. Time to hoist, unzip the double zippers, attach the sheets and hoist away.

To make a double zippered turtle bag, take the sail, or sails to the sailmaker along with a short piece of rod a little larger than the diameter of the stay on to which the sail is to be hanked. Spread the sail out, hank it on to the rod, then lightly tension the clew and flaked the sail down. Fold the clew forward so that the length of the flaked down sail is approximately the distance from the stay to the mast. Then have the sail maker make a bag, with a full length zipper. Close the forward end of the bag around the rod that represents the stay, closing the bag with either a hook and eye lashing or a flap secured by Velcro. Then have the sailmaker install a second zipper such the when the second zipper is closed the sail bag forms a very tight tube, a turtle. Then have the sailmaker sew a number of webbing straps to the bottom of the bag long enough to go around the bag to secure the bag to the life lines when the sail is dropped and stowed in port.

As the late Rod "the great god rod" Stephens always said, the turnbuckle for adjusting the headstay should be at the mast head. Then when the time comes to switch headsails it is easy to hank on the headsail to be hoisted underneath the one that is up. If the sails are stowed in turtle bags, two headsails can be left stowed on the head stay. This means that when one is up, the one that might be switched to, is all ready hanked on and ready to go.

For those sloops that have a removable staysail stay that is properly set up -see www.caribbean compass.com ??? month and year article Heavy weather staysails. With the turnbuckle at the mast, with the stay being set up with a proper lever that will tension the stay without the necessity of a turnbuckle adjustment, the sail is right down at the bottom of the stay, stowing the staysail in a turtle bag is the way to go. It is left on the stay, bag and stay stowed alongside the mast and ready to go whenever it is needed. This is the system that was successfully used on L'll Iolaire.

And finally when sails are being re stitched, Graham says if you can persuade the sailmaker to use Cortex thread, tendara-tex available from various sources but he buys from Baimbridge. The thread will last longer than the sail. Sailmankers do not like this thread as it is expensive and the machine must be specially set up to use it.

In summation, sails are damaged or destroyed by flogging, stitching failure, sails usually split from the leach in, and UV degradation. Re read this article, follow the advice given. If you stick to plain ordinary Dacron or other long lasting material, your sails will last many years. Which firm makes the most UV resistant Dacron is not a subject in which I am willing to become involved.

If you are using modern high tec racing sails be resigned to short life expectancy of your sails.

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