Sail Check: How to Determine Whether You Need Sail Repair

When was the last time that you took a serious look at your sails? Sails are a big part of the total investment in a sailboat and it’s surprising how little attention is often given to that which powers or drives a boat.

It’s important to check your sails regularly, but it’s essential to know what you’re looking for. Here’s a little routine that will help keep your sails in tip-top condition and ready to do their job.

Let’s start with the head of the main and the headboard plate.

  • Is it good and secure?
  • Are all the grommets or rivets secure?
  • Is the stitching intact?
  • Is the shackle hole OK, not worn out?

From there work your way down the luff.

  • Look for areas where the bolt rope was worn through the sail.
  • Feel for any separations in the bolt rope or one that is separated from the body of the sail.
  • Look for grommets that have pulled out or gotten out of shape.
  • Check all the shackles or webbing that go through the grommets or are attached to the bolt rope which in turn are attached to a slide of some sort that in turn goes up and down the mast.

Are your luffs crooked?

It’s a simple thing to cut a straight edge or a gentle curve in the leading edge of the sail when building it, but when it comes time to attach this to a bolt rope flap, funny things happen. The next thing you know you have a slightly out-of-plumb or crooked luff. This can lead to distortion, strange wrinkles, a sail that’s hard to trim, etc. It can also make it hard to raise or lower a sail. All the above items are things that you can take care of.

Reef and Cunningham grommets, tack grommet

Continue on down the luff checking the reef and Cunningham grommets and on down to the tack grommet. All of these from time to time can be loaded up under great pressure and strain. Look for early signs of failure in the overlays that are built into these areas.

Work your way across the foot.

If you have grommets and slides or just a bolt rope five it the same treatment as the luff. At the back end of the sail we find one of the must abused parts of the mainsail, the outhaul or clew. At some point someone tightens the outhaul and then leaves it forever – but why? It’s like turning on your windshield wipers and never turning them off. You only need windshield wipers when its raining. You need only tighten the outhaul when you are going hard to weather. Off the wind you need to relax the outhaul. At the very least relax it when you are done sailing. After long periods of outhaul stretch it will have an adverse effect on the lower half of your sail and its shape.

Next we take a look at the leech of the sail.

Hopefully you have a leech line in the fold of the sail and its intact and has an easy method of securing it if you put tension on the line. You should never try to flatten the sail by just tightening up the mainsheet. Once you reach a point, use the leech line or if you have it use a flattening reef grommet to tighten the leech of the sail along with the leech line.

As you go over the leech of the sail, check out the batten pockets.

A batten should have a reasonable amount of tension placed on it by the elastic at the bottom of the pocket. What usually happens is the elastic goes bad and to compensate for bad elastic we put a longer batten into the pocket. Bad Idea! Again it distorts the sail and overrides the sail makers design. Tapered battens are good, and the lighter the better. When they are snug in the pocket, one option is to sew the pocket closed. If you have a sewing machine and are handy, you might attempt lifting the leading edge of the batten pocket and replacing the elastic, then stitching the pocket back down.

Finish by checking all the seams.

Don’t be afraid to pull on a seam and try to tear it apart – better for it to separate in your hands on the dock than while hard on the wind trying to claw your way off a rocky shore or while trying to make the next mark in one tack and get the jump on the rest of the fleet.

How about checking a sail for rot?

If your inspection has come up with an area that looks frail or weak and you wonder if it’s rotten, try this. Take a sail maker’s needle and try pushing it through the area in question. If it passes through with little effort and meets with little resistance, then try creasing the area sharply and try tearing through the crease. You will know if it’s rotten.

An occasional fresh water rinse is good for sails.

  • Make sure you let them dry thoroughly before folding them and putting them away.
  • Never, never, put dacron/polyester sails into a swimming pool to clean them! It will make the sails brittle, turn them yellow, and but their usable life by two thirds.
  • A very mild washing with a mild dishwashing liquid that has no chlorine bleach can remove some of the surface dirt.
  • Use cold water only. Hot water can increase the intensity of the liquid cleaner and weaken or damage the resin that protects the sailcloth. Also, use only a sponge, not a brush.

Follow the same procedure for the job or genoa or any other sails.

A trip to your local sail maker on a regular basis can add years to the life of your sail but be careful if he starts talking about replacement. If you have looked you sail over, you know what kind of shape it’s in.

If your sail has lost some of its zest, has some stains like rust, grease, blood, etc., needs some repairs or modifications, consider contacting us at SailCare.

We have been cleaning, repairing, and restoring old sails to as near as new as is possible for over 18 years. Each year 3,500 sailors send us their sails from all over the world. We’d like to see your sails next!

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