Basic Sail Care for the Boat Owner
by Dan Dickison
Almost every sailboat owner understands the vital need to care for and maintain his or her boat and its attendant gear. And most know that maintenance can be broken down into three general areas. Those tasks that must be regularly attended to throughout the year, those tasks that need to be addressed on a seasonal basis, and those that arise out of unexpected, often emergency situations. The care of sails can fall into either of these areas, but if a boat owner doesnít heed areas No. 1 and No. 2, he or she will likely suffer the fate of No. 3, which will almost certainly be more costly, and can often be dangerous.
With most sails, putting them away properly after theyíve been used is all thatís required in terms of regular maintenance. That means hosing them down with fresh water and allowing them to dry thoroughly if theyíve been saturated with salt spray. (Salt crystals are abrasive and corrosive to the sail cloth, and if left in the sail, they tend to absorb water, which can foster the growth of mildew.) Any veteran sailmaker will tell you, keeping your sails clean is a lot easier than getting them clean once theyíre soiled.
When stowing sails, itís always better to roll a sail rather than to fold it with heavy creases because those creases can damage the fibers that make up the cloth. Putting sails away properly also means getting them out of damaging UV sunlight by way of a sail bag or a cover, or taking them off the boat and storing them indoors. If you do this, the use of some kind of sail bag is always preferable because that way you can ensure that animals or insects will not nest inside the sail while itís stowed. (One caution here, if you live in a hot climate, donít store your sails where theyíre apt to get hot during the day as the heat itself can damage the sail cloth over time. Temperatures of 160 or more will cause Dacron to deform. While itís unlikely that most storage areas will get that hot, the underside of a metal roof on a hot day in the deep south can get pretty close.)
Of course, youíll want to examine your sails from time to time to make sure that things like the hanks, battens, stitching, reinforcement patches, and attachment hardware arenít worn or suffering from corrosion. That task should be conducted on a schedule derived from how often you use the boat. If you sail every weekend, youíll want to examine the sailsóparticularly those youíve had for a longer timeóabout three or four times a year. That doesnít mean that you shouldnít give your sails a quick look every time you hoist or unfurl them. By all means do this.
The seasonal care of sails can be as involved as taking your sails to a facility expressly designed to wash and dry them, or as simple as airing them out and inspecting them for wear and tear yourself. Some of the steps you take in maintaining your sails on a seasonal basis will depend on what the sails are made of. Say youíve got a Dacron mainsail with full battens. Youíd want to start this process by removing the battens and examining them, as well as the batten pockets and boxes along with the retaining and tensioning hardware (if the sail has any). Are the batten ends worn? Are there cracks or splits in the battens? If the answer is yes, youíll want to replace the battens. Now is the time to get this done, not when youíre out for a daysail with friends, or worse yet, heading up the coast on your first offshore jaunt of the season.
Also, look at the batten pockets. Are they worn? On most sails, these tend to chafe where they contact the shrouds. If thatís the case, youíll most likely want to have them replaced. If your boat has partial length battens, these are usually built with elastic in the forward part of the pocket. Youíll want to check the condition of the elastic by inserting something longer than the batten that lives in that pocket. If the elastic doesnít resist very well, you know it also needs replacing, and thatís something youíll have to get a sailmaker to do.
As you continue your examination, look carefully at the stitching in the seams, leech, and luff, and reinforcement patches; and examine the bolt ropes (or slides); and the hardware at the three corners. If your sails have bolt ropes or luff tapes that are hoisted through luff grooves, itís likely that the top of the bolt rope or luff tape will experience damage. Look closely at this area during your periodic inspections. Some of the problems you find youíll be able to repair yourself, but for any that need the attention of a sailmaker, mark them with masking tape so that youíll be able to find them more easily when you take the sail in for repairs.
Lastly, most sails can benefit from periodic washing. You can do this yourself, but itís important to treat the sailcloth gently so that you donít damage it. Avoid using caustic cleaning agents, particularly chlorine bleach if youíre cleaning sails made of nylon, or sails that have been built using laminated construction, because these agents can damage the cloth quickly. Simply lay the sail out on a clean, dry, preferably smooth surface, and use water and mild soap, like Woolite, along with a scrub brush with soft, pliable bristles to remove the stains and dirt from the sail. For those sails with windows, use a soft cloth instead of the brush so that you donít scratch the vinyl or polycarbonate surface. When youíre finished, itís best to hang the sail until itís dried, but not if itís windy.
If itís mildew youíre trying to clean, you can try several approaches. On Dacron sails, some sailmakers advise using a solution of household bleach diluted heavily with water (say 3 to 5% bleach). You can also try diluting water with hydrogen peroxide. Just be sure to get the sail thoroughly dry after the treatment or youíll be inviting more mildew down the road.
The other alternative is to take or ship your sail(s) to a facility that specializes in this kind of cleaning and reconditioning. There are several around the country that have good reputations, including Hathway Reiser and Raymond in Stamford, CT, and Pope Sails in Rockland, ME, Port Townsend Sails in Port Townsend, WA, and The Sail Cleaners in Ft. Lauderdale, FL among them.
Proper sail care requires a little effort on an ongoing basis, but itís time and energy well spent. The better you care for your sails, the longer they should last, and thatís good news for your wallet.
About the Author: Dan Dickison is known throughout the sailing community for his in-depth articles on a variety of sailing topics. His resume includes stints as a staff editor at Sailing World, Editorial Director of SailNet, and Editor of Practical Sailor. In those capacities he has written principally about racing, sail handling, and maintenance. He has also written over 50 freelance articles that have appeared in major sailing publications around the world.