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Sail Repairs at Sea

It's not often this dramatic, but knowing how to repair your sails at sea can be a crucial skill aboard any boat.

We all regard ourselves as prudent seamen when we check safety gear and inspect all on board systems before heading offshore. How many of us, however, really pay attention to the one critical component of our boats—that part of our gear that's so crucial to a safe passage that without it we might not make it to our next port? I am talking about sails. It's not how they look and how they set, but how we repair them if they blow out, rip, shred, or otherwise fail.

I have seen it happen before, indeed, it has happened to me that sails ripped apart with a lee shore not far away. Without those sturdy sails to power the boat away from danger, you could easily find yourself suddenly in trouble. I have had some spectacular sail failures in my time—yours might not be quite so catastrophic, but it's nonetheless wise to spend some time looking at ways to repair them in case you have a problem. Whatever the situation, a working knowledge and a little guidance will give you the ability to affect most repairs while underway. And, it's part of good seamanship.

The key to functional sail repairs is preparation and carrying good sail repair equipment with you. A sewing machine is nice, but not a must-have item. Your decision whether to carry one on board will be determined by the area where you are sailing because there are two ways to approach each repair, a quick fix to help you make the next port or a more elaborate job that will be as good as any sail loft could make. If you are cruising remote island chains, the chances of finding a sailmaker will be equally remote, and you should take a sewing machine on board and learn how to use it in that case. If you are hopping up the East Coast of the US, leave the machine behind and learn how to do quick patches so that you can make it to the next harbor safely.

Most repairs made at sea can be considered temporary. Once you're back in port, you can affect a more permanent fix.
Regardless of whether you have a machine on board, there are some basic techniques you should know. You'll need to have a flat (preferrably wooden) surface, sharp scissors, a helping hand (if possible), and the ability to assess the damage quickly. If the rip is in a high-load area of the sail, you will fix it differently than if it is in a low-load area. The edges, especially the leech and foot of the sail, will need careful attention. A rip in the middle of the sail can be slapped closed with a piece of sticky-back Dacron and left that way until you have time to do a proper job, or until you make port. I was once able to sail 300 miles with a hole in the middle of my spinnaker. The rip was far from any load area, and there was no danger of the hole enlarging, besides that, I had run out of sail repair material and so that's the way it stayed. If the rip had been near the luff or along the foot, I would have had to drop the sail and not use it.

Sticky-back Dacron is to the sailmaker what duct tape and epoxy are to a boat builder, an indispensable item. It comes in various weights, but the three-ounce weight is the most versatile and, for some reason, has the best adhesion. You can build up to the required weight by layering the Dacron, and the best part is that by layering you do not end up with a hard spot at the edge of the patch, which could become a hinge and form a weak spot in the sail.

Working on a a dry, flat surface and having the appropriate patching materials will help you keep your sails together at sea.
Before adding any sticky-back, make sure that the area to be patched is clean and dry. Wipe it clean with freshwater, or better still with alcohol (not your best gin, but an industrial type). It is important that there is no grime or grease on the sail. Sticky-back will adhere to damp sailcloth, but the bond will be much better if the sail is clean and dry, and better still if you are able to heat the patch once it is laid down. If you've got one available, use a hair dryer, or leave the sail in direct sunlight. The heat softens the adhesive and it becomes tacky, bonding more securely.

Use sticky-back for repairing all Dacron sails, and for a quick fix on spinnakers. You'll find that it does not work for a long-term repair on Nylon because Dacron and Nylon stretch characteristics are disimilar and the Dacron patch will form a hard spot in the Nylon sail, which will end up ripping after a while.

"The key to a good patch is to lay the ripped area out flat."

The key to good sail patching is to lay the ripped area out flat, piecing the edges together where you want them to be when the sail is repaired. Use the underside of one of your wooden floorboards for a flat surface and secure the fabric using sailmaker's awls, or if you prefer, regular pushpins. Trim off any frayed edges and pulled threads to allow the fabric to lay flat. In some cases it might be necessary to cut a square piece out to eliminate the ripped or chafed area if doing so will allow the rest of the fabric to lay flat. Then cut strips of sticky-back wide enough to cover the gap, and carefully place them over the torn area.

When using sticky back, it's important to work from the center of the sail out toward the edges so that if your repair does not match up exactly, you can trim off the excess fabric. If you work in toward the middle of the sail and end up with a pucker, you will not be able to trim the excess. Remember, it's important that the repair come out as smooth as possible, so pay careful attention when pinning the sail to the board. A hard spot will soon become a weak spot.

When repairing a Dacron sail, decide how many layers of sticky-back you will need to build up to the required fabric weight and layer them over your initial patch making each successive layer larger than the one before. Also, patch both sides of the sail. If you are repairing a rip in the middle of the sail, and you are able to clean and dry the sail before patching it, you will not need to sew the patch. Just lay an extra large patch over the area, allowing the adhesive to hold it all together. The adhesive working in sheer is better than holes poked in Dacron and cinched with waxed thread.

Most cruisers don't have a sewing machine on board, and it's really not necessary to keep your sails together if they tear at sea. But you will need the appropriate hand tools.
If your repair is near the edge of the sail (especially the high-load leech or foot), you will need to sew the patch, and you might want to lay a piece of smaller, regular Dacron sailcloth under the sticky-back to add strength to the repair. For hand-sewing a simple patch using a straight stitch, keep each stitch no longer than a half-inch and that should work fine. Sew both sides of the repair with parallel rows of stitches.

If you are sewing through an area of heavy material, you might want to bang holes in the fabric with a hammer and an awl before sewing. For some repairs, it helps to snap the sharp end off your needle and sand that to a blunt point. Doing this will allow the needle to follow the hole that you made with the awl rather than attempting to make a new one.

When it comes to patching a spinnaker, some preplanning is necessary. Because most spinnaker blowouts cover a large area and the space you have on board for repairing them is relatively small, you need to sketch the repair on a pad before starting. This will give you an idea of how the patch will look and allow you to start your repair work from the center of the sail. As previously noted, sticky-back Dacron works well as a temporary repair on a Nylon sail. Here again, make extra wide patches for tears near the leeches, and sew the leech tape back on, either with a sewing machine or by hand.

If you are planning on doing a proper, more permanent repair on a Nylon sail, start with a temporary patch made of sticky back. This temporary patch will hold the repair together while you make the final patch with Nylon. The Nylon patch will have to be wider than the temporary patch that you made. Once the temporary patch is supporting the lightweight Nylon to its original shape, turn the sail over and patch it properly with strips of nylon cut from the same weight fabric. Cut pieces that change direction at each seam so that the threads of the patch line up with the threads of the sail. Then lay double-stick tape down the edges of each permanent patch.

Remove the backing on the double-stick tape and lay the fabric down smoothly, sweeping it with gentle, outward strokes, and then sew these Nylon patches with your sewing machine. Once the Nylon patches are sewn down, turn the sail over and snip away the temporary patch with scissors. Cut along the edge of the stitching on the permanent patch, removing the damaged original spinnaker cloth and sticky-back temporary patch at the same time. When the old cloth and patch are removed, sew a row of stitching down the seams and across the new patch to hold it all together and aid the transition of the patch into the sail.

If you run out of sticky-back and double-stick tape, you'll find that spray adhesives work quite well to hold the fabric in place. However, you will have to sew the patches down since the spray glue does not have a strong enough bond.

If a corner ring pulls out of one of your sails, you can replace it with a spare ring. Eyeball the position of the ring and lay strips of two-inch nylon webbing through the ring and onto the sail. Use double-stick tape to hold the webbing in place, and stagger the ends of the webbing so that their transition into the sail is gradual. Then hold the entire repair together with a layer of sticky-back Dacron, since it will be easier to sew the webbing if everything is held in place. Follow the same procedure of banging holes in the webbing with an awl and sewing with blunt needles. Do a few rows of zigzag stitch, being careful to pull each stitch as tight as you can.

"Another kind of repair is needed when battens chafe through the sail."

Another kind of sail repair is necessary when battens chafe through the pocket of a sail. If this happens, you will have to lift the material that makes up the batten pocket and peel it back as far as the chafed area. Once the hole is exposed, patch it as you would any Dacron sail, adding extra layers of fabric for future wear, and then lay the batten pocket back down over the repair. You probably will not need to sew the patch, but you will need to sew the pocket back down.

When repairing the forward end of a batten pocket, pay careful attention to the area where it can snag on a halyard and lift off the sail again. A simple, straight stitch hand-sewn along the edges of the pocket will be sufficient.

It is possible to affect a temporary repair to a sail, especially a Dacron sail, using just a needle and thread. Follow the same procedure for cleaning up the tear, removing frayed edges and snagged threads, and then suture the tear closed. Don't attempt to get each stitch the right tension wait until you have finished sewing before laying the sail flat and pinning it with your pushpins. Working down the row of stitches, tension each one until the patch is evenly tensioned. Over-tensioning or under-tensioning a stitch can result in a hard spot, and just like on a regular patch, it will become a weak spot in the repair.

Like any other aspect of sailing, practice will help, along with a little delicate handling of the fabric to get it to lie down smoothly. Remember to use layering in order to transition the repair, and don't allow hard spots to develop. Keep your fabric clean and hand-sew the areas near the edges of the sail, and the repair should allow you to make your next port of call safely.

The Onboard Sail Repair Kit

What you'll need in the way of an onboard sail repair kit should be tailored to suit your voyaging needs and your vessel. It's important to store the bulk of the items in a suitable bag or container in a dry, convenient place, and have a smaller bag containing items that you need more often in a more accessible place. The smaller bag should include scissors, wax thread, needles, whipping twine, and a roll of sticky-back Dacron. Keep the needles in an enclosed container, wrapped in a cloth that has been lightly soaked in sewing machine oil. Also wrap your scissors in an oiled cloth, because even if they're stainless steel, they'll rust if not protected. Roll the pieces of nylon, sticky-back, and regular Dacron tightly, and put them in a waterproof container like a chart storage tube.

A basic sail-repair kit will include the following items. The amount of each will vary depending upon the size of your boat and the length of the trip you are planning. The amounts noted here would be suitable for a 40-foot boat planning a transatlantic passage:

  • One pair stainless steel scissors
  • One pair regular scissors as a backup
  • One knife dedicated to sail repair
  • Staple gun and staples
  • Six awls to secure the sail while patching
  • Two dozen pushpins
  • One adjustable palm for hand-sewing sails
  • Three seam rippers
  • Selection of needles, size No. 14 and No. 15
  • One roll prewaxed hand-sewing thread
  • Lump of wax
  • One roll of five-inch sticky back Dacron tape
  • 10 feet of sticky back Dacron 54 inches wide
  • Five rolls of double-stick tape
  • Two cans of spray adhesive
  • Three-quarter-inch tubular Nylon webbing
  • Two-inch Nylon webbing
  • Two stainless steel rings with bar
  • 10 feet of Velcro
  • Assorted pieces of Dacron and Nylon

A more comprehensive kit would also include:

  • Spare set of battens
  • Spare hanks
  • Spare luff tape the length of your longest headsail
  • Leech-line cord twice the length of your mast 
  • Entire corner patch of one of your spinnakers
  • Hot knife
  • Nicopress tool and sleeves
  • Hole cutter and assorted rings
  • 20 feet of seizing wire

Brian Hancock is offline  
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