Take Care of Your Sails and They’ll Take Care of You


Every year, I invariably have the same discussion with a few customers about the value of sail maintenance. Every year my answer is the same: “You can’t afford not to take care of your sails.”

If you race, your sail inventory is the biggest investment next to the boat itself but even for cruisers or day sailors, sails are “big money” and it makes economic sense for you to take care of them. Moreover, Murphy’s Law dictates that if you are going to suffer a sail failure, it will happen at the least opportune time.



A good example of this is the failure of webbing straps at the clew blocks of furling mainsails. This webbing (and the stitching holding it) is exposed to the sun all the time. It also takes the entire load generated by the mainsail when sailing; a load that increases with the square of apparent wind velocity.

You’re out sailing with some friends one day and suddenly the wind jumps from 8 or 10 knots up to 25. A squall is coming! The non-sailors aboard start to get nervous. “No problem,” you say. “All we have to do is round this point and we’re in the harbor.” Then you get hit with a puff and “Bang!,” the clew block and mainsail part company. Instead of a nice quiet finish to your sail, you’re faced with a minor crisis with your boat accompanied by a major panic in your crew. If you’re lucky, you get the main furled before more damage occurs. If you’re not lucky, your sail ends up like the one in the cartoon.


The founder of UK Sailmakers, Butch Ulmer is a sailmaking legend and racing rules guru. A Past Commodore of the Storm Trysail Club, he has played a huge role in the ongoing success of the Storm Trysail Foundation’s Intercollegiate Offshore Regatta.

Does this sound familiar? It does to me. I hear it, or a close rendition of it, four or five times a year and the end results are often missed sailing time and a larger than necessary repair bill. All this can all be easily avoided by taking the following steps:

First, as your season is drawing to a close, take some time to look at your sails in action. When sails are up on a rig, small imperfections, tears, cuts, etc. are easily seen. Look carefully at the corners, the slide attachments, the leech and foot cords, etc. Make a note of anything you see.

Now consider the aerodynamic shape of your sails. What’s that? In my opinion, sails have two lives. 

First and most obvious is how long is it going
to stay in one piece? While not a very good criteria, it’s the most common measurement scale sailors use. If it’s in one piece, it’s OK. 

Second is its life as a decent sail, meaning how long will it retain a good sailing shape? Considering the fact that it is this sailing shape that makes your boat perform, this is a far more important criteria to consider when evaluating a sail’s longevity.

So, how do you know if your sail still has a decent shape? One way is to coerce your sailmaker into taking a short sail with you. Most sailmakers have a pretty good eye for blown out sails and can point out problems quickly and easily. Another way is to do exactly what your sailmaker will probably do, and that is to take some pictures of sail’s shape in use and then analyze the photos. While not foolproof, this method is much more objective and helps quantify things. In fact, many sailors shoot “shape shots” of their sails on a regular basis. A comparison of these photos over time is not unlike viewing photos of your children as they grow up. Only when you hold one photo next to the other can you see the change that’s taken place! UK Sailmakers offers a free download of the Accumeasure program and a brochure on how to use it. Just call or email us [718-885-2028;newyork@uksailmakers.com] and we’ll be happy to send it to you.

Now, when your season is over, take the sails off your boat and bring them to your sailmaker for inspection, repairs and cleaning. The whole process will go faster and better if you come armed with shape shots of them and a list of items that you’ve noted as problems or potential problems. You’ll save money and time, and you’ll have the assurance that you’ll be all set for the start of the next sailing season.

Like your doctor or your automobile mechanic, experienced sailmakers know where to look for trouble on your sails. They know where the heaviest loads occur, what worn stitching looks like, and the difference between sailcloth that’s just dirty and sailcloth that has been rotted by the sun. Repairs, even minor repairs, not only fix a damaged area but they prevent that damage from spreading into something bigger – an all too common occurrence. Never was the saying about “an ounce of prevention” more appropriate.

Do not succumb to the temptation to leave the sails aboard your boat. The atmosphere in the interior of your boat gets cold and humid over the course of the winter, and salty sails attract moisture which can eventually lead to the formation of mildew. Sails are best stored in a heated room with corresponding low humidity. If you don’t have such a space, leave them at the sail loft for the winter. Even worse than leaving them below in your boat is leaving them furled on your rig or in your mast. Here’s a shot of what can happen when a sail comes unfurled when a boat is on land. This owner now has a lot more to worry about than just replacing his sail.

So if you haven’t already done it, make a date at your local loft and bring your sails in for a winter vacation. After a little R&R, they’ll behave much better next spring.


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