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I swear I won't neglect my new mainsail

I had a traumatic experience in early June when a large panel of my UV-degraded reefed mainsail split from leech to luff while homeward-bound. The sail had to come off for a quickie temporary repair that I learned would cost some $300, a replacement panel for about $600 or a new sail for $1,000-plus. I visited a few sail lofts, even Bacon’s Used Sails, in desperation for almost anything that would fit and not interrupt my summer pleasures on the water.

Bill Birmingham, of UK/Scott Allan Sailmakers, helped get the Bay Tripper back on the water.

It was heartbreaking to hear that rip and look up as the main split wider. Nothing to do but drop it and remove it the next morning for emergency surgery that, at most, might take a day or two — or so I thought. Waiting the usual four to five weeks for a new main while sailing under jib alone was out of the question, but there was no sense in pouring money into a sun-rotted, mistreated main that might well tear in another place. In the past I have only sailed under reduced canvas and with the main furled when high winds and 3-foot Chesapeake rollers have forced me to be kind to myself and my old vessel.

As the season opened, I realized I simply could not handle not sailing, and for the first time I was out under jib alone with the wind blowing an ideal 8 to 12 knots. I was pleasantly surprised at how beautifully my Sailmaster 22C handled in such fair weather, with no seas to confront, but I also felt a little embarrassed — as if small whitecaps had chickened out the old man. I hoped that perhaps my bare boom signaled an explanation to anyone getting the wrong impression. But as pleasant as the experience was, this kind of sailing simply could not drag on for a whole month or more.

At first I sort of enjoyed this jib-alone style, a mode of sailing one sees a lot on the Bay in fair winds. When a mild gust hit, there was no need to spill the unwanted air out of the main or bother with throwing in a deep reef. My one-line reefing system is handled in the cockpit anyway. From lowering the main to pulling in the reefing line to gather and tuck away the sail within a lazyjack rig usually takes less than 30 seconds.

With the wind piping up to 18 on a close reach, I sat on the high windward side in relaxed comfort as the boat chugged right along under me with the rail down and very little effort, it seemed. Weather helm on the tiller was almost neutral and the boat performed quite happily without being overburdened by an overburdened main. Sailing in this manner in 5 knots of wind, however, was an entirely different experience for this boat and me.

Scott Allan, of UK/Scott Allan Sailmakers in Annapolis (, heard my plea and promised a custom 6.5-ounce mainsail in one week for $1,300. It was my fault that my older UK sail did not age gracefully because I was either too tired or too lazy to rig the sail cover at the end of the day. Lesson learned: I will always rig the protective Sunbrella cover when docked, anchored or motoring in zero wind conditions.

Because UK’s 6,500-square-foot loft is just down the street from my cubbyhole “office” in Eastport, I thought it would be instructive to visit my new sail as it was being created — panel by panel, reinforcing patch by patch, thread by thread, seam by seam. Maybe I’d learn something, to actually appreciate this product being put together from scratch with so much care, effort and attention to detail. Usually sailors only see the finished product and have little understanding of what went into it, including most of the work that is still done by hand.

Dave Gross, UK’s sail designer and production manager, started with a Sailmaster 22 mainsail program stored on his computer, patterned on the cut of my previous sail, which fit perfectly. I had thought about a full-battened mainsail this time around, but decided to keep only the top two battens full and the one deep reef for my one-line slab reefing rig. A lot of force is generated when gybing my 11-foot boom (half the length of the boat) when the breeze is up and I have a load to handle alone, even when the maneuver is under full control.

Gross rolled out the high-quality Challenge Dacron 6.68 cloth on a digital cutting table 5 feet wide by 60 feet long. The CNC (computer numerical control) cutter/plotter zipped through the programmed assignment in less than 15 minutes, and the job was soon handed over to seamstress Wendy Dietz. She performs her stitching magic and such in a sewing-machine pit below floor level, following the guidelines of seams that Gross temporarily taped together.

Two rows of “triple-throw” seam stitches in blue polyester thread secure the precut panels together following a zigzag pattern, with three needle penetrations per zig and zag, Gross pointed out. UK uses radial, not slab, patches in high-stress areas where the thread line follows the direction of the loads on the cloth. They fan out from their respective corner like sharp spears to maintain the thread line throughout the patch.

The sail then moved on to service manager Bill Birmingham, who installed the hardware, grommets, rings, webs, sail slugs and anodized aluminum headboard. Working with a mallet and wearing a leather palm, he plunged a long needle into webbed areas and sewed them tightly with waxed polyester thread, sealing the ends with a hot knife.

After four battens were installed, the finished product was rolled up and carried to my car. It took three hours to rig the sail and get everything back in order again. It’s heavier than before, but it hoisted without any mishaps and I was delighted to find that it fit perfectly. As I trimmed sails, this new one was decidedly flatter than the old blown-out sail and could be a bit harder to reef because it is stiffer.

I kept staring at it in wonder because I had made daily visits to the loft to watch its progress and felt as if I knew it from its birth. (UK/Allan Sailmakers welcomes such visits and I received no special treatment.) I knew what work Dave, Wendy and Bill put into it and felt obligated to focus on the entirety of my grand white display and not just concentrate on the red telltale ribbons flying straight from the leech. I call it my $13,000 mainsail because this was a major investment for me and I am determined to treat it accordingly, with lots of TLC.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.