Sail Care

Life of a sail


Your sails are an investment—and with proper care, you can easily extend their life and get the most out of them. Read on for answers to some of the most common questions regarding sail care. 

Here in the loft we actually don't refer to the life of a sail in years but rather in seasons. For example, the main sailing season in Annapolis can begin in the early spring and extend late into the fall, but we would consider that a season of life for your sail. Now, if those same sails that have spent the sailing season furled on your headstay or in your mast or boom are left to endure the frigid months of winter in the sun, rain and snow, then you have "spent" another season of that sail’s life.

Another thing to consider in this equation is downtime during the sailing season; if you know that your sails are going to be left sitting idle on the boat in a marina for at least a month during a sailing season, why not try to save that month of the sail’s life by taking the sails off of your boat and stowing them?

If this seems like too big of a job or if you realize that this is the case only after driving the couple of hours home, our service department would be glad to go to your yacht, take the sails off, and bring them back for an inspection or storage here at the loft.
Tape up your turnbuckle—and anything else on your boat that could threaten your sails. Even something seemingly blunt (like a spreader) can damage expensive sails on a tack, so take a look around and see what can or should be covered up. Even a well-protected spreader tip or navigation light can wear on a sail, tack after tack; for these areas a spreader patch (or navigation light patch, etc.) might be the answer.

At the loft we have several materials that we typically use for these abrasion-resistant patches, ranging from pressure-sensitive, adhesive-backed Kevlar for a racing genoa to Sunbrella for cruising sails. For smaller spots, like the turnbuckle, rigging tape, self-fusing silicone tape, leather and other protective coverings are a relatively inexpensive way to provide protection.
This may be just a matter of furling the sail if it is a roller-furling headsail or an in-mast or in-boom furling mainsail, but for a non-furling mainsail, this means using a sturdy and functional cover or stowing the sail somewhere below-decks or elsewhere out of those harmful UV rays when not in use.

For a hank-on staysail or jib, this means that when the sail is not in use the sail should at least be bagged on-deck and if the sail is not going to be in use for a longer time (or until the next trip out) the sail should be bagged and taken below.
Many sails have UV-covers sewn-on, but this does not mean that the sail can be left in the harsh elements without any maintenance and be expected to last forever. Sunbrella is a great protection for cruising sails, but it can become damaged from flogging if the stitching is left to degrade past its useful life in the harmful UV rays. The best way to avoid this is to have the cover re-stitched approximately every three years.

Medium-weight covers such as WeatherMax also provide protection and need essentially the same maintenance as a Sunbrella cover; if you take care of that stitching it will take care of your (much more valuable) sail.

Lightweight options such as UV-treated Dacron are great for racer-cruisers and some racing sails like furling code zeros, but these materials are not inherently UV resistant.

Depending on where the boat is located and how much of the time a sail with a UV-treated Dacron cover is left out in the sun, these covers may have a lifespan of only a couple of seasons—once the UV treatment has worn off or worn out, the cover is no longer effective and should be replaced. All of these covers should also be repaired if they get damaged; if you can see the sailcloth below the cover, so can the sun.
There’s a good reason that new sails come with a sturdy bag—it’s not because the company wanted another place to put a big logo. That bag is a much-cheaper sacrificial covering than the not-so-sacrificial sail inside of it. Take a look at an old sail bag that’s scuffed and torn up—those scuffs and tears would be a lot more of an eyesore if they were scattered around the sail itself. So yes, keep track of your sail bags and use them regularly—they can really earn their keep.
A lot of catastrophic sail failures can be traced back to a small repair that was never made. This is why regular inspections are so important.

First, don’t wait to have something minor repaired—if you notice a little hole or chafe, address the problem while it is still small. (We have heard more than a few people come into the loft with a shredded sail talking about how they “had been meaning to get that spot patched.”)

Second, do an overall inspection of your sails once a year. If you feel confident in your ability to, say, detect a webbing that could use some re-stitching, and other things of that nature, then this inspection can be carried out wherever you can find a proper space.

If you would prefer to have your sails looked over by a professional, contact your local loft. Having your sails inspected at our loft means they will be spread out on the loft floor in good lighting and looked at by someone who sees these same problems on a variety of sails every day. He or she can even advise preventative steps to avoid any failure while on the water. If a trip to the loft doesn’t fit your schedule, then we can come pick those sails up for you.
After sunlight, the second-worst enemy of any sail is salt—but other types of dirt and debris can be just as damaging. There is no specific recommendation for how often a sail should be washed, but there is one general common-sense rule: Namely, that a sail that has been exposed to saltwater should be washed sooner rather than later. All other varying degrees of dirt or grime should also be removed when possible. For example, a genoa or staysail probably needs a wash or at least a rinse more frequently than a mainsail that is stowed under a cover on the boom or furled when not in use. Not sure if your sails are salty? Run a finger along the foot and have a taste—you’ll know right away.