Sails are one of the most essential boat components. Without them, your boat is, at best, an inefficient power boat. Yet in spite of their importance, sails don’t always get the attention they deserve. For 30 years, Quantum sailmaker Todd Basch has built and serviced sails for every size and type of boat. Here are his tips for taking care of your sails and showing them some love.
The Hard Life of Sails
Sails lead a hard life. Under sail, they are put on the torture rack of the rig, ropes, and hardware, all loading them with thousands of pounds in several directions. Sails are cooked in the sun, soaked in the rain, and forced to work in bad weather. They’re never left in peace. Settle in on one tack, and suddenly you smack the sail to the other side. And if your sails don’t hurry you along fast enough, you strike them down and put up others to endure the suffering. Even when not being used, they get folded, creased, dragged on decks, dragged on docks, stuffed in lockers, stuffed in trunks, stored in basements, stored in greasy garages, and put away wet. Merciless. Perhaps we could start showing our sails some love by simply affording them the respect we give a load of laundry—a chance to dry, the dignity of a nice fold (different crease each time), and storage in a clean bag.
I want you to get the maximum enjoyment out of the sails you have. So here are some things you can do to keep your sails flying for as long as possible.
A Love/Hate Relationship with the Sun
UV rays are a sail’s worst enemy. Sailors protect themselves from the sun, and they need to do the same for their sails. Make sure your roller-furled sails are rolled with the UV cover out (Seriously, if you’re not sure, ask.). Stow your furling main far enough in the mast or boom so that only the UV-protected corner shows. Similarly, make sure your mainsail cover fits and is on properly without any corners or edges peeking out. Don’t leave an exposed sail on deck longer than necessary—it is the mark of a good sailor to bag sails and have them ready to redeploy in the event of a quick change.
Your sailmaker will give your sails a onceover for UV damage during your annual inspection and help you catch damage before it’s too late. That’s just one of the reasons you should have your sails looked at by a professional regularly!
You’ve got to be your sails’ advocate. Keep an eye open to catch little problems before they’re catastrophic. Sailors spend a lot of time looking at sails, but what we’re looking at is often only part of the picture. We see shape, smoothness, luff tension, leech tension, foot tension, batten tension, depth, twist, sag, and telltales. But what about slides, bolt ropes, headboards, corner webs and rings, corner patching, sun covers, and stitching? Look at sails when they go up, when they go down, and when flaking. Scratch across stitching to see if it is brittle or loose. Are there permanent stretch marks on the cloth suggesting fatigue? Are the leech and luff ends of the batten pockets secure? Are all the slides and their reinforcements securely fastened to the sail? Stretched slide webs will change the luff curve of your sail. If you see something, say something.
Love Makes You a Better Sailor
Sail care is boat care. Keep your sail handling systems and hardware in good condition and your sails will thank you. If halyard sheave bearings screech, hoisting and dousing takes longer, is less smooth, causes more flog and wear, and leaves the boat vulnerable. Is your headsail extrusion lubricated? Mainsail track? Winches running smoothly? Smooth sheeting allows for better acceleration coming out of tacks and introduces on-the-weather loads without shocking the clew by bouncing it in.
Trimming is Caring
A well-trimmed sail is a well-cared-for sail. Over-trimming is one of the more common sailing mistakes and does nothing but slow you down and increase loads (Read: wear on your sail!) while heeling the boat more. Under-trimming and letting a leech flutter is slow, ugly, and adds fatigue to a sail. Keep an eye on leech lines for the same reason. Easing halyard tension a fraction for a fuller sail is an effective way to get a little more off-wind speed, but an eased halyard on the weather—from slip or stretch—will load slides or luff rope, distorting your luff. If you’re sheeting the foot of your headsail until it screams, consider changing instead of forcing it flat. A slow, flogging tack is not only an inefficient way to maneuver, but it also abuses the sail. Consistently clean, controlled tacks adds life. Sail abuse means a sail change sooner.
Sail Love, Longer Life
Everyone has experienced some kind of mishap with a sail, whether from error or age, and those troubles aren’t fun and can sometimes be dangerous. Respect your sails like you respect the water and you’ll sail better, save money, and keep your boat off its ear.