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Choosing a cruising sail

Most cruising sailors I know put off buying a new main or genoa until what they’re using has become a patchwork quilt that would look more at home aboard an old sampan in Hong Kong. Price and durability, it seems, are always key factors, but in a growing number of instances unfamiliarity with new sailcloth and sailmaking technologies is slowing the decision-making process.

I know. I’m one of those folks who hem and haw over whether to buy a new suit of sails, even though my 1968 Bristol 27’s mainsail sags like an aging weightlifter and tears along the foot whenever I hoist it in a moderate breeze. The 150 genoa isn’t much better, but what’s the sense of plunking down $5,000, or perhaps more, on two new sails for a boat I might sell next season?

Of course, following a harsh reality check — like admitting you don’t leave the dock without a roll of rip-stop sail-repair tape in your pocket — most cruisers recognize that the boat they’re sailing this season is probably the one they’ll be helming in 2010. So purchasing new cruising sails really comes down to learning about what options are available, what’s right for your boat and for the wind conditions where you sail, how often you get out on the water, and how much you want to spend.

In the beginning

For those with little or no knowledge of sailcloth history, it might be useful to start at the beginning — or at least the 1800s, when most sails were made of natural fibers, typically flax or cotton. Cotton was cheap and easy to manufacture but proved susceptible to rot, deteriorated in sunlight, and soaked up water like a sponge. It wasn’t until nylon arrived on the scene in the 1940s that sails became far more durable and lighter, spawning big changes in sailmaking.

Far better than cotton, particularly since it was somewhat UV-resistant, man-made nylon still tended to stretch, absorbed some moisture, and lost strength with each use. Despite these limitations, nylon’s popularity grew and wasn’t surpassed until the mid-1950s, when DuPont released a woven polyester yarn called Dacron, technically known as polyethylene terephthalate. For more than three decades Dacron reigned supreme among sailmaking materials. However, due to its lighter weight, nylon remained the choice for spinnakers.

Dacron is resistant to mold and the ravages of sunlight, can shed water and holds up to heavy loads without stretching completely out of shape. Racers embraced it because of its strength and ease of handling.

Judging by the sail inventories aboard most cruising boats, Dacron hasn’t been usurped as the all-purpose sail fabric. However, development of new — albeit pricier — polyester materials like Kevlar, Spectra, Vectran and carbon, and advanced methods of manufacturing, are making inroads, once again driven by the racing set. The sailcloth industry refers to these new materials as exotics.


By the late 1980s laminate sails had become the rage. Lightweight, strong and far more stretch-resistant than Dacron, they were much favored by the racing circuit, where expense often is of minor concern. But laminate sails are less common aboard cruising boats and remain somewhat mysterious to many sailors. It needn’t be so.

A laminate is basically a strong “sandwich” built from layers of material with yarns known as scrim glued between them. Put under extreme pressure, these components become a single material. Among the films used in laminate sail layers is Mylar, which boasts low stretch and zero porosity, desirable features for racing or cruising.

Scrim — unwoven yarns that resist stretch when parallel to each other but don’t exhibit much integrity when yanked in the opposite direction — are laid out in patterns that suit the sailmaker or sailcloth manufacturer. The type of yarn used for scrim plays a role in determining the strength of the sail. Some scrim is thicker and stronger than others, and more UV-resistant.

To increase durability and provide protection against chafe, a woven taffeta fabric often is used on the outside of laminated sails. Steve Haarstick, founder and president of Rochester, N.Y.-based Haarstick Sails (, says taffeta can provide a protective backing, but at a price.

“We made one taffeta-backed Kevlar cruising sail, but since it was protected by cloth on both sides, the sail didn’t save anything on weight,” he says.

Radial or crosscut

In the most basic terms, sails come in two cuts: radial and crosscut. With radial sails, numerous pieces of sailcloth radiate out from the stress points, like the tack or clew. It gives the sail a sunburst pattern and makes it stronger. Sewing radial sails requires more labor, which means additional expense. That’s why some sailmakers send customers’ specs to foreign sail lofts, where labor is cheaper.

Crosscut sails comprise just three or four panels stitched together to form the triangle of the sail. Some sailmakers, however, sew radial patches to stress points on crosscut sails for additional strength.

In general, radial panels are cut from fabric that is strong in the warp direction (along the length of the roll of fabric), and crosscut panels from fabric that is strongest in the fill direction (along the width of the roll).

Some of the ability to cut a sail by computer command dates back to the 1970s, when Haarstick was designing cutting machines that could be run by computer. In those days the cutting instructions were put on punch cards and carried by hand to the cutting machine.

“We really prayed the guys wouldn’t drop the box of punch cards on the way to the cutter,” says Haarstick, an avid Star Class, who says he owns the oldest sail-cutting machine in America.

Cruising laminates

Despite their higher cost, shorter life span, tendency to shrink and susceptibility to UV degradation, laminates are finding their way aboard cruising boats. That’s not to say they are the best choice for all cruisers.

“It’s dangerous to make generalizations about what a cruising sailor is,” says Dan Neri, manager of the design staff at North Sails ( in Portsmouth, R.I. “There’s a huge range of ability and boat types, and besides that, the word cruising means different things to different people.”

Neri says an identical set of sails might not work the same for evening cocktail cruisers, those who sail with the kids from Boston to the ElizabethIslands for the weekend, or the couple contemplating an extended trip to the Caribbean.

“The kind of sails you buy really depends on what you are doing,” says Neri. “Take the traditional 30-foot Alberg fiberglass sloop with aluminum rig, and not looking for something too far out of range. If the cruiser wants to get 10 years out of his next sails then he’ll probably want to go for Dacron again.”

He says sailors who sail the least amount per year often are most interested in durability because they don’t want to be spending a lot of money on equipment. “Experienced sailors who want to cover the most mileage are most interested in cruising performance sails, so that customer is more apt to go for a fabric that stretches less,” he says. “And there’s a direct relationship between how much a sail stretches and how long it lasts.”

Dacron can survive a multitude of abuses, but it also stretches more than a laminate, which means the sail will change shape over time. That can be a problem for the cruising sailor. It means having to reef earlier in lower winds, and that can make the boat heel improperly. “If the sail gets out of shape, the motion of the boat is worse because it’ll pound in a different way,” says Neri. “With Dacron, you trade off performance for durability.”

North Sails has attempted to resolve that dilemma with its high-performance 3DL Marathon laminated sail. “It just plain doesn’t change shape, especially when reefed,” says Neri. “It stays just as flat when reefed, whereas if you reef a Dacron sail, it’ll stretch in the area where it’s reefed and become permanently deformed, little by little.”

Neri says the 3DL Marathon is made on a mold with continuous yarns, producing a laminated sail with polyester taffeta skins. The price is about 60 percent higher than an equivalent-size Dacron sail.

John Savage and Tom Anderson — owners of Hathaway, Reiser and Raymond ( in Stamford, Conn., the nation’s second-oldest sail loft — have come up with another solution for cruisers seeking more performance from their sails: the D4. Savage, who runs the loft, explains that seams on a D4 cruising sail run horizontally, like a crosscut sail, with the yarns following course.

“With D4 technology the fibers are laid out into the Mylar by computer for that particular sail, and the sailcloth is manufactured at the same time,” he says, noting that sailcloth manufacturer Dimension-Polyant ( provides the rough product.

Dimension, a German company with a factory in Connecticut, is one of four major sailcloth manufacturers that supply U.S. sailmakers. The others are Challenge Sailcloth (Connecticut, www.challenge, and Bainbridge International and Contender (Massachusetts,,, all of which also have operations overseas.

“We have the [D4] sail made in a common size range,” says Savage. “It’s shipped in one piece from Australia. We cut five seams into it, and put it back together like a crosscut sail.”

Savage says most of his customers don’t buy sails very frequently, and they’re mostly coastal cruisers looking more for value than performance. “So in that sense Dacron is still the fabric of choice,” he says. “But there’s a subcategory of sailor who is looking for higher performance or the next-greatest thing, and though they don’t intend to race except for a weekend club match, they want more. That’s why we build the tri-radial carbon membrane sails. The boats will be used primarily for cruising, but the graphite will afford some longevity, making them somewhat of a better value.”

As a compromise Hathaway offers a Dacron tri-radial genoa that is durable with some performance characteristics. “That might help the cruiser who occasionally races,” says Savage. “It represents 85 percent of the cruising genoas we do and is by far our most popular. But for the customer who really wants to race with his buddies, he might have a high-tech Kevlar or carbon No. 1 genoa in his arsenal. We recommend the carbon.”

For those sailors hankering for something high-tech, be prepared to pay 40 to 50 percent more than Dacron for a carbon laminate, and 25 to 30 percent more than a carbon laminate for a sail cut from D4 cloth.

Full battens, furling mainsails

Traditionally, cruising sail design has followed the racing circuit, which is partly why fully battened sails are becoming the default choice of cruising sailors.

“That really trickled down from multihull racing,” says Neri, who also is author of “The Complete Guide to Sail Care and Repair” (Beowulf Press, 2002). “The critical part of a full-batten system is the joint between the batten and the mast track. There has to be a car with a universal joint, and for a small boat that can typically cause problems because you can’t put full battens on an old-fashioned luff track.”

That’s a problem I’ve run into. The main on my Bristol 27 has plastic slides that slip into an aluminum mast track. Releasing the main halyard doesn’t exactly send the sail rushing downward. Most times it requires coaxing while keeping the boat into the wind.

In the 37 years since my Bristol was launched there have been vast improvements in tracks and sail-handling hardware on smaller boats, although it generally isn’t feasible to install an in-boom or in-mast furling system on a vessel smaller than 30 feet, according to Neri.

“With smaller boats, you’re still looking at a full-batten sail that you drop down, put onto the boom and under a cover,” he says, noting that North Sails produces a Quick Cover to make the task of putting away a sail less laborious.

As for the headsail, most sloops — even those smaller than 30 feet — are equipped with roller furling systems made by such companies as Pro Furl, Schaeffer and Cruising Design.

Dashew on laminates

Steve Dashew, author and veteran cruiser, says most sailmakers offer competitive prices on efficient sails within a given market. “This leads to using lighter sailcloth, smaller reinforcement points and construction details than are required for maximum sail longevity,” he says. “Sailmakers should be asking themselves what they can do to improve the longevity of the sail. A 10- to 15-percent increase in cost and a small increase in weight will translate to a large increase in longevity.”

Such factors shouldn’t make much difference to cruisers who occasionally overnight and cruise for a week once or twice a year. As Dashew put it, “It’s up to the sailor to explain his needs to the sailmaker.”

As for laminates, Dashew says their distinct advantages aboard larger boats lay in controlling sail shape and keeping weight down aloft. “These advantages can be enormous, even aboard a midsize full-keel cruising boat,” he says.

Dashew says “old-fashioned” boats like the Alberg 30 could benefit from laminates or from Dacron mainsails that extend abaft the backstay. “That’s a great advantage because it causes less weather helm, less heel, and makes the boat go way faster,” he says. “Sails have the biggest impact on how a boat handles.”

That’s why it’s important to get the shape right, according to Dashew. “People will buy fancy foul-weather gear and all sorts of electronics, then use whatever money is left over to buy their sails,” he says. “Realistically, sails should be the first thing you buy, not the last.”

Kerry Klinger, vice president of UK Sailmakers in New York (, says about half the company’s cruising customers are adopting laminate sails, particularly aboard boats larger than 35 feet that are sailed by couples or short-handed crews.

“Laminate sails tend to be lighter, more flexible, and easier to hoist and drop,” says Klinger. “And unlike Kevlar, the carbon doesn’t break down from UV, so it’ll be not only lighter and stronger than Dacron ever could be, but hold its shape longer.”

UK uses Aramid, a cloth made by Dimension, to produce some of its most popular sails. “It’s easy to handle,” says Klinger, adding that UK also makes crosscut sails with radial patches for strength.

“Imagine you’re sailing a Swan 46 or J/44,” he says. “The Dacron main is a bear for a husband and wife to hoist, but a carbon-Spectra main can be one-third to one-half lighter. Guys who work on boats don’t even want to deal with Dacron.”

Still, Klinger acknowledges that a Dacron sail typically will last longer than a laminate, even one with UV protection. But for those customers who want something high-tech, UK uses a production process that bonds carbon tape onto sail seams for strength.

Choosing a UK laminate means paying about 30 percent more than the same sail made from Dacron. For example, a 135-percent genoa for a J/35 cruising boat with roller furling would cost about $3,170, while the laminate would up the price to $4,170, according to Klinger.

Dacron best for mom and pop

Cruising sailors who decide Dacron is the right choice should know that not all Dacron-like polyester materials are the same. “Dacron is looked on like Xerox,” says Scott Loomis, head of sales at Doyle Sailmakers ( in Marblehead, Mass. “In this case, DuPont made a product called Dacron, and everybody else calls their similar product Dacron, but it’s actually different kinds of polyester yarns.”

Loomis says there are thousands of varieties of polyester yarn, but only three or four are used to manufacture sailcloth, and all are referred to as Dacron. “That fiber is still the backbone of cruising inventories,” says Loomis, who last year slid into the top sales seat at Doyle following the retirement of noted sail designer Norm Cressy. “There is no other fabric that we’re able to weave like Dacron. Sure, we have carbon and Kevlar and other exotic fibers, and you can attempt to weave them, but they don’t stay together like Dacron does.”

Loomis acknowledges that some laminates, like Dimension’s D4 fabric that Doyle cuts into cruising sails, have attracted a faithful following. “By and large, Mylar began as a racing fabric, and it has become the platform on which to lay other exotic fibers. Some of those laminates have been beefed up enough so that they do apply to the cruising person, but most of the time it’s the cruising folks who do a little racing on the side.”

He says these sailors might own a J/42 and do the Marion-Bermuda Race. “Or if they don’t race but have slightly bigger cruising boats and can afford them, they go for the laminates,” he says.

While the life span of laminate sails is getting longer, it still can’t compare to Dacron. “Laminates last two-thirds as long as Dacron,” says Loomis, adding that just about any sail can last 20 years if it’s properly cared for and isn’t pushed to the limit.

“If you sail out of Plymouth [Mass.] with a 30-foot sloop and your brother sails out of Mattapoisett [Mass.] an identical boat, whose sails are going to last longer? Yours are because it blows like stink in Buzzards Bay. So if you sail in San FranciscoBay, your sails are not going to last as long as they would if you sailed from Portland, Maine.”

No racing hardware

“If cruisers ever looked at the standing rigging on racing boats, they’d get off the boat,” says Loomis. “On a Catalina 36, the standing rigging is seven to eight times overbuilt because it’s bad to have a mast fall down, but on the big sleds, they don’t [care].”

Loomis says race engineering pushes technology to the edge by using materials with the minimum amount of weight, while cruising boats get built to the max. “Mom and dad spend half a million dollars on a boat and have the mast come down, now that’s a very bad advertisement,” he says. “So that sort of keeps innovations down in cruising.

If there are innovations aboard cruising boats, it’s in the electronics packages and things like bow thrusters. “With these systems, mom and dad can handle a bigger cruising boat,” he says. “And with the kids gone to college, they can now get that Sabre 386 and sell the Bristol 27.”

Haarstick, too, points out the drawbacks of racing sails and hardware on a cruising boat. “Polyester is durable. Nylon is the worst because it’s highly degradable when exposed to UV,” Haarstick says. “Spectra is pretty resistant, but Kevlar isn’t at all. That’s why Kevlar turns brown. As far as I’m concerned, Kevlar is out as a cruising sail. I don’t trust it.”

Haarstick says his company made racing sails in the late-1980s using 2-ounce yarn that was three times as strong as traditional sails, but the laminates shrank.

“That’s what you get with laminates, and if you have partial battens on laminate sails, it beats the crap out of them,” he says. “The battens beat the bejesus out of the sail. Reef patches do the same thing. A big main with heavy reef patches looks like somebody dropped a cannon ball on the sail. And on laminates, the sails break at the patch corners.”

Then there’s the issue of swept-back spreaders. “Tapered, swept-back spreaders on big cruising boats are a problem,” says Haarstick. “With full-battens, you’re better off with straight-out spreaders, like you find on the older-style Catalinas. With swept-back spreaders, you can’t go downwind as well. It puts tremendous stress on the sail, and if you crash jibe, you break the spreader and rip the sail.”

Haarstick says it’s up to the sailmaker to test the fabric, which is why he advocates flutter-testing. In other words, Haarstick beats up a piece of sailcloth to make certain the specific batch will hold up to his exacting standards.

“The structural properties of the cloth is what’s important,” he says. “With Dacron, there can be extreme variations from one batch to another. That’s why for the past 30 years we’ve used impact flutter testing. The quality of Dacron has improved over the years but not as much as some people think. Laminates tend to be less variable.”

How to decide

Knowing how and where you sail your boat and how often, create a budget and talk to the sailmaker about the bells and whistles. The time-tested cross-cut design is going to be less expensive than a shape-holding radial. Hanked-on sails cost less than furling, though they are a bit rare these days. One row of reef points will save money over two, but the latter is standard.

Want a leech line, telltales, a window for the genoa, full battens with stitched and taped batten pockets? How about anti-chafe patches so the spreaders won’t rub through the sailcloth? A reinforced mainsail head patch, or slides on the foot instead of a bolt rope?

A sailmaker also can usually add an insignia or stripe, and padding on the luff. Don’t forget a quality sail cover to ward off damaging UV rays.

These are the questions you and the sailmaker must address together. Once agreed upon, the sailmaker can decide whether the sail should be made in the Untied States or abroad, mostly due to labor costs, not materials.

One thing is certain: If your sails look like mine, it’s time to order a new suit, whether plain vanilla or something exotic.

* * * * *

Sail maintenance is the key to longevity

Sometimes the simplest fixes can have the biggest impact, especially when it comes to prolonging the life of your sails. Veteran cruiser Steve Dashew found that out in the Caribbean after examining his sails for UV damage. It was immediately clear that parts of the sail protected only by the dark sail cover faired worse than parts also shrouded by boom hardware.

“The Spectra was fine, but the polyester scrim used to hold the fibers together had bad UV damage,” he says. “And it was only on certain areas of the sailcloth, where the sun had gotten to it.”

Dashew wasn’t alone on this. The meticulous owner of a Swan who recently returned north from a cruise in the tropics had a similar experience because the sail cover wasn’t thick enough. Since all sail covers have UV ratings, this led to a plausible assumption: double the thickness of the cover where necessary, at least along the top, to ensure longer sail life.

Experts recommend buying a sail cover made of high-quality fabric, like Sunbrella. It’ll pay off in the long run. Here’s a host of other tips for making your sails last longer.

Tape the ends of your battens, especially if they weren’t rounded off at the loft. It’ll help keep the batten pockets from ripping.

When winter arrives, inspect sails for damage. Check the batten pockets and the perimeter of the chafe patches for wear. Examine the sail corners where stress loads are highest, and the areas where the spreaders come into contact with the sailcloth.

Store sails in a cool, dry place, not a damp cellar. Scott Loomis, head of sales at Doyle Sails in Marblehead, Mass., recalls one customer who brought in a sail that was literally crawling with ants. “The loft floor was black with ants crawling out of the genoa,” he says. “We had to grab the brooms.” There was a lesson in that: “Don’t store sails in the carriage house, where mice might chew on them or chipmunks can poop on them,” he says. Or ants can find a home.

When it comes to folding or rolling, most sailmakers agree sails should be flaked or, if small enough, rolled, but never stuffed into a bag. Loomis says stuffing a sail into a bag shortens its performance lifetime by breaking down the finish on the cloth.

Sailmaker Steve Haarstick, founder and president of Haarstick Sails in Rochester, N.Y., agrees. “Roll them if you can, don’t fold them,” he says. “If you do, especially with a racing sail, you’ll end up with a crease and you’ll eventually break the sail.”

Sails used to come with longer warranties, but because design and cutting processes have become more sophisticated and dependable, such coverage is less comprehensive. “We don’t make as many mistakes as we did when sails were hand done,” says Loomis. “There are far fewer screw-ups.”

Nonetheless, sailors should have sails professionally inspected every two years, and tell the loft if there seems to be a problem area. “The customer is the best judge of whether anything needs to be done,” says Loomis. “The customer knows how many times the genoa sheet was released during a tack and the sail was laid against the spreaders, which beats up the cloth.”

Washing sails with cleansers and abrasives is a no-no. “If you use harsh chemicals, you remove the finish,” says Haarstick. “Most woven sails use Melanine, which is a filler that gets into the weave.”

Sailmakers recommend hanging sails at the end of the season and hosing them down with fresh water to remove grime and salt. “Don’t put them down on the concrete for a scrubbing,” says Haarstick. “That’ll beat them up and shorten the life span for sure.”

And while white sails look beautiful, don’t ever use bleach on them. It’s a killer, as one sailor found out after methodically using a hypodermic needle to inject the seams of his mainsail with Clorox to remove stains. Just live with the wear marks and think of them as character.



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