01 December 2010

Sail Care Simplified

I have several friends who make a living building and repairing sails and they're not going to like what I say here, so let's just lay it on the table. Unless your sails are heavily damaged or need adjustments you simply cannot do by hand at home, there is absolutely no need to spend money sending sails to the sail loft annually. There, I've said it, and I'm stickin' to it. Now let's review the three standard methods that experienced sailors use to ruin a perfectly good sail, new or otherwise. Some of these tricks can accomplish the objective in a single summer sailing season. Others require more time, patience, and effort.

First, make sure you do everything in your power to guarantee chafe. Here are just a few suggestions. I know they work because I've tested them many times on my own boat.
  • Never tape the rig.
  • Have the main ride up and down on the standing rig as long as possible when sailing downwind.
  • Flog the jib for a minimum of 35 seconds during each tack (45 seconds in winds over 20 knots).
  • When handing the jib, make sure it drags in the water and removes all visible barnacles.
  • Snag the jib on the anchor and maintain tension indefinitely.
  • Hoist the main off wind and insure the battens are caught in the standing rig, then continue to hoist.
  • Always fold sails on a concrete driveway (blacktop is a reasonable second choice).
  • Avoid folding sails. Instead crumble and stuff them into the smallest sail bags you can find.
  • When necessary, walk on the sails (street shoes only).

If you do the exact opposite of everything listed above you will be moving in the right direction.

Second, discard your sail covers immediately. You should never cover or bag sails. Exposing them to the sun for extended periods, particularly during summer, allows UV radiation to soften the material, making it much easier to handle. Unfortunately UV damage cannot be fully accomplished in a single sailing season, but you can get a good start. Good results take dedication but once you succeed, you'll be amazed at how easy sail handling becomes. One downside is that you may have to repeat UV degradation each time you buy new sails (and this will be often). But when you think back on the aggravation of furling stiff new sails and covering them with tight fitting covers, you'll be glad you took time to do the job right.

If you do the exact opposite of everything listed above you will be moving in the right direction.

Third, never wash your sails. To wash sails correctly they must actually be removed from the boat, and there are many better things to do during football season. Besides, leaving your sails bent on (and uncovered) during the winter gives your boat a ready-to-go appearance that will be the envy of your friends at the yard.

If you do the exact opposite of everything listed above you will be moving in the right direction.

Now that the fun's over let's get to the point of this diatribe: washing your sails. Avoiding chafe and preventing UV degradation are the basics that most folks have at least heard about, but salt in sails is the "silent killer." If you don't believe me ask your sailmaker the next time you're signing the check for that new sail. Dry salt crystals in sail fabric behave like a million sharp tiny knives, cutting into the material every time the sail moves. Eventually you can just push your finger right through the material, and while much of this is due to UV radiation, salt is a major factor. It's also something one can address, unlike pervasive UV exposure. Some sailors never wash their sails for logistical reasons, and some call in the sailmaker and just sign the check. But if you have (or can borrow) space to wash the sails annually, you will extend their life immeasurably. Yes, it's cold in November up north, and yes, it takes a little time to set up and clean up, but you will not regret the effort.

Basic sail care tools include simple cleaning supplies (right) and sufficient space to wash, rinse, and hang the sail. I like to wash sails on the lawn because this surface will not damage stitching or the material itself. I can then move the sail to the "dryer" without causing additional wear and tear. Be very careful when selecting cleaners. For most purposes regular dish washing detergent is sufficient and will not damage the material. In fact the real cleaning agent in this process is water itself: only water will dissolve the salt and rinse it away. You will also need a large clean brush, and I have found that a standard "push broom" is ideal. Just make sure it's dedicated to sail cleaning only, and not to sweeping the floor of your oil-stained garage.

Now lay out the sail flat on the lawn (above left) and rinse with water. After rinsing the sail for upwards of 55 minutes, do it again for another 55 minutes. Well OK, maybe that's a bit much, but you get the idea. Then actually wash the sail by filling the bucket with soapy water and brushing back and forth with the big broom. You really cannot overdo this, but eventually you'll get bored and cold and want to move on so turn the sail over and repeat the entire rinse and wash process from soaking to brushing. By the way, I never bother with stains on the sails unless there is a very good reason to remove them (oil, adhesives, etc.). Stains are not "slow" underway, and many times the cure is worse than the disease. I have some stains on my sails that go back decades and I cherish them, largely because I cherish the memories of where I got them.

Now that the sail has been thoroughly rinsed and brushed with soapy water, it's time to hang the sail for drying. The best method for drying sails is sailing on them in a gentle northwest breeze, but we cannot wait until next spring to do this so we resort to hanging them. I can usually find three strategic spots for rigging a snatch block (left) and using the sheets themselves to hoist the sail (right). It helps to have just the right amount of breeze if you can arrange it, but realistically this is late fall and we make do. The really important task once the sail is hanging and off the lawn is to continue rinsing with fresh water. Rinse both sides and continue rinsing. This gets the remaining soapy water and salt out of the fabric and really contributes to the life of the sail. We are getting close to the end of the road here, so bear with me.

After the sail has been hanging for 3 or 4 hours (and with any luck not flogging itself to death in the wind), I usually find that the lawn under the sail is itself sufficiently dry to allow dropping the sail and not getting it too wet. I don't worry too much about the errant strand of grass or weed getting tangled up in the sail, because it will disappear to leeward the first time the sail is used. I then take the sail inside and lay it out loosely in the basement for a few days to let it really dry. Next my wife and I fold the sail carefully (above left) while I shout incomprehensible commands and gesture erratically at her. She seems to really enjoy this, and I get that last whiff of the pleasures of command just at the end of the season. Finally I bag the sail and hang it from a hook in the basement where it's dry and cool all winter (above right). Here it rests until called into action in the spring.

This has been a long-winded description and if you're still awake you may want to know that I have several sails that are over 30 years old and still serviceable. I attribute their long life to the sail care described above.