Part of managing a sailing program of any kind, cruising or racing, is learning how to get the most out of your equipment. From deck hardware and bottom paint to rigging and sails, something always seems to need replacing or fixing. Luckily, when it comes to sails there are a few inexpensive things you can do to help you extend the sail life a little longer — and reduce the environmental impact of disposing of old sails, too! Alan Woodyard, Loft Service Manager at Quantum Sails Gulf Coast, shares some of his tips for keeping your sails ready season after season.
1. Get your sails inspected
Sail inspections can bring to light not only torn stitches or tired webbing, but also underlying issues that may be causing more damage to your sail. For example, broken stitching on the luff of the sail could indicate too much halyard tension. Dimples in your spinnaker could be the result of the crew pulling it down by grasping the middle of the sail, instead of using the tapes. Adjusting for these common issues can prevent further damage to the sail and extend its usefulness.
Annual inspections should be part of every program with the goal of maximizing the life of the sail. Catching and fixing a few small problems (especially if the sail is older) can also prevent catastrophic failure on the water. Oftentimes, repairs will extend the life of your sails, and save you money over time.
To start, get in touch with your local Quantum Sails Loft and their service department. You can schedule an on-the-boat inspection, or you can remove the sails yourself and schedule a time to drop them off at the loft. Once your sails are inspected, a service team member will reach out with any repairs that are recommended, as well as an estimate of the cost of these repairs or improvements. Our recommendations will also take into consideration other factors, like if you are planning to go offshore soon, if the racing season is around the corner, or if the boat is going into storage for a while.
2. Recut your sails every few years
All sails stretch and lose shape over time and through use. If you’re experiencing the tell-tale signs of stretched sails — an inability to point, difficulty steering, or lack of power under sail — it doesn’t necessarily mean you need new sails. Many sailors don’t realize sails can be recut to bring back up to 90 percent of their original shape and extend their life at a fraction of the cost of new ones — and without the waste of disposing of fixable cloth. Typically, one or two recuts can be done over the life of a sail. Recutting sails has been a common practice in professional programs for years, some programs will even adjust and recut sails between race days!
You’ll want a handful of good sail shape photos to take to the loft along with your sail. Check out our How to Photograph Sail Shape article to learn how to get the best shots and start your recordkeeping — bonus points if you take photos of your sails on an annual basis! If you’re curious about the recut process and benefits, this article outlines what you need to know.
3. Have your sails professionally repaired
You might have saved the day with your quick-fix when the spinnaker caught on a turnbuckle and started to rip, but did you remember to take it to the loft for a proper repair afterward? Onboard sail repairs are great when you need to fix the sail and get back to the dock safely, but they’re not meant to be permanent. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget you have a few strips of duct tape holding part of your sail together when it’s packed out of sight, and out of mind. As you can guess, ignoring damage will not end well for the sail, or for your budget. Repair for real, and possibly avoid replacing.
4. Check your rig tune
If your rig tune is out of whack, it can significantly affect sail performance. Before you throw in the towel with your current sails, check to make sure the issue isn’t your rig. Have an expert sail with you to see what adjustments might remedy the problem. This is especially important for cruisers who don’t regularly tune their rigs for conditions the way a race program might.
5. Consider sail add-ons
There are a number of sail add-ons and updates that can help improve functionality and extend their lifespan.
UV covers on all your sails provide an important, and money-saving barrier from the damages caused by the sun. “Almost all of the sail degradation we see in our loft is from extended UV exposure — even if the sail blows because of a different structural issue, oftentimes the problem was originally caused by sun exposure,” says Alan. Think beyond a mainsail cover — your headsail and downwind sails need protection, too.
Reefing points are a great add-on, especially if you often find yourself sailing in conditions that require a reef or two. Have a talk with your sailmaker and discuss what types of conditions you’re sailing in, and they can make a recommendation for any additions of reefing points so that when the wind kicks up and you need to batten down, you’re not flogging your sails until they’re damaged. Spreader patches can also reduce friction between the leech of your headsail and your standing rigging during tacks. When placed correctly, they can help extend the life of the sail by protecting one of the more vulnerable spots.
Torsional furlers are a less budget-friendly option up front, but over time will save you quite a bit of wear and tear on your downwind sail(s). They work in the same way your conventional headsail roller furling system works, except that instead of aluminum foils wrapped around a fixed stay, a torsional rope is used, and the tack is fixed to the drum at the bottom. This way, when the breeze comes up you can crank down on the furling line instead of fighting and pulling against a ballooning sail. As a bonus, once the downwind sail is furled, you can take the whole furler down, and it too can be protected from the elements over time.
6. Store Out of the Elements
Any time you can remove your sails is time you can save them from UV, moisture, and temperature exposure. If you’re going out of town for three months and can put the sails into climate control, that will equate to at least three more months added to the sails’ total lifespan. Quantum Sail Lofts offer climate-controlled storage, and while they’re here, they can also be inspected if desired.
Optimal storage will be out of the sun, and have both temperature and humidity control. If you’re storing your sails below deck, but with no air conditioning or dehumidifier to keep the conditions safe for the sails, it’s hardly better than being outside exposed directly to the elements. When possible, make sure they’re stored correctly.
7. LOOK BEYOND THE SAIL
It is important to look at the health and setup of your boat’s entire system in order to get the most out of your sails. Not all systems are created equally, and having the right sail handling system for your needs will help reduce stress on the sails. Roller furlers are great for easily and smoothly using your headsail, especially if you have a novice crew or sail short-handed. Mainsail handling systems, such as the Dutchman and an in-mast or boom furling system, can also come in handy and help to reduce wear-and-tear on your sail. Anything that can improve the ease of handling, especially when you are sailing short-handed, will over time reduce the strain on the sail and extend its life.
Of course, the right system needs to be in good shape. If the sail handling system is failing, you’re at risk of damaging your sail. Similarly, sun-rotted lines or finicky winches pose threats to sails under load, as do sticky tracks and tired blocks. Invite your sailmaker or local rep to your boat for help identifying problem areas or to discuss options for improving your sail handling systems.
You shouldn’t give up on your trusty sails just because you’re starting to experience performance issues or they’re getting older. Call your sailmaker and explore a few of these ideas when you're evaluating your inventory for the season. If you decide a new set of sails is the right solution, use this information and the expertise of your sailmaker to ensure your sails are set up properly and you're using best practices and sail care services to maximize their lifespan and protect your investment.