Being fairly traditional sailors, although fascinated by all things innovative, we are always interested to meet expert sail-makers. One thing has become very clear to us: nothing, according to those with their fingers
on the pulse, has yet been marketed to beat Dacron for cruising sails.
Racers can take advantage of the qualities of other materials because they use them over such limited periods, however hard they may be pressing them. Those of us whose sails must endure frequent ultra-violet exposure, rain, time and repeated usage, are better off with a cloth which can take it.
Most sail-makers will make you a suit of sails out of almost any material you insist
upon. Only you know what your pocket will allow and your plans make logical. It is rare to find a sail-maker who refuses to make you a sail out of a material he wouldn't in fact choose for his own boat - they have to make a living and the customer is always right, however mistaken he may be - but, unless racing is your intention or money no object, it makes sense to choose a cloth, a design and a sail-maker that will give you the maximum value for money and the minimum of disappointment.
On several occasions over the last few months we have been shown sails made from some of the modern synthetics, which although less than a year old are disintegrating rapidly due to exposure to ultra-violet.
In each case, the owner, or skipper of the vessel, who had commissioned the sails, had been influenced by advice from people engaged in an entirely different type of sailing activity or by articles in magazines which they had taken out of context. In each case, the sail-maker had either been ignored or had not been consulted as to material in the first place.
In our own not inconsiderable experience, Dacron has always done us proud. When you consider how long it usually takes for a new sail to settle in and get its shape, it makes sense to acquire sails that are going to last a while.
We have spent more than enough money over the years on seemingly brilliant innovations, such as computer-designed sails which did not, and never would have set properly, in spite of the fact that we invited experienced, race-winning, circumnavigating, household-name sailors to show us where we must be going wrong.
These days, when a new sail, or suit of sails is required, we ask for exact replicas of the ones we're replacing - minus the patches, rips and other blemishes a ten-year-old sail is entitled to display, some 40,000 miles down the line, having been denied sail-covers for several weeks at a time in tropical ultra-violet-rich areas where fear of a sudden 'hooley' ripping the anchor out prevents one from deploying them, in case having to remove them costs precious minutes on a lee shore... This makes sense to us, since we already know the sail we are replacing could do the job were it not for ageing and wear, so why re-invent the wheel? We make sure we find an excellent sail-maker, of the 'old school' and we have a quality sail built to last.
Speaking of first class sail-makers, we met Robbie of Sint Maarten Sails, a couple of days before we set off across the Atlantic, bound for the Azores, in July 2000. He was apprenticed as a sail-maker upon leaving school and has been in the industry ever since. When the company he worked with sent him to Sint Maarten, in the Netherlands Antilles, twenty years before, he thought he would be staying around five years! His sail loft is opposite Island Water World in Cole Bay and his reputation stretches out across the oceans of the world. He, too, re-iterated the advice to stick with Dacron if you're cruising your boat.
We had, just that evening, acquired a second-hand mainsail, (Dacron, of course) probably intended for a boat of about 40 to 45 feet, with the right sized sliders on the luff to fit the track on our masts. Ours is a 71 foot schooner with 61.5 feet at the waterline and weighing around 38 tons. Originally we had seen the 'new' sail in terms of a useful spare staysail or even, at a pinch, a slightly undersized emergency mainsail. After looking at the sail for a short while, however, the captain decided that he would like to conduct an experiment (we never stop trying out ideas to improve performance, comfort and economy, in every sense of the word) with our new acquisition.
We have a 'gollywobbler', otherwise known as a 'fisherman', which is a large quadrilateral sail with the narrow end uppermost and which goes up the rear of the foremast, having the far end of the head area raised on a forward halyard from the main. It fills the space between the masts and takes advantage of any air near the top of the mast, to help with light air situations. The 'golly' is very large and quite hard to put up, subsequently making the boat very tender and requiring continual steering, although it is better than flopping about in light airs, giving perhaps four knots as opposed to one and a half or absolutely nothing. He decided that this bargain sail could be flown upside-down, running the sliders up the track on the back of the foremast and securing the head of the sail at the foot of the mast, drawing the sail up on a foremast and a mainmast halyard together, just like a fisherman, but it ought to be easier to raise and easier to control.
We asked Robbie the sail-maker whether he could think of any reason why we should not do this and he could think of none whatsoever. As we set out to cross the Atlantic, a couple of days later, there was very little breeze and, as soon as we had 'found our sea-legs', on the third day out, the captain put the new 'demi-golly' up.
The main was already up, as were both the staysail and the new inner staysail (beautifully made, in Chaguaramas, by Michel at Ocean Sails International, a perfect copy of the old one) and our deck-sweeping headsail, intended only for airs up to 20 knots or perhaps a steady 30 going dead downwind. There were about 12 knots of breeze blowing steadily, not really enough to get the old girl going - this was the sort of circumstance in which the 'golly' would have been heaved up. The boat's response was immediate and most surprising. Not only did she take off like a rocket (relatively speaking) and produce a steady five knots plus, but she was, for the first time since the captain took her on, some eleven years ago, willing to go to windward, balancing beautifully and steering herself for longer at a time than ever before.
We use no auto-pilot but she steers herself, in most steady airs, for twenty minutes at a stretch, so it isn't strenuous to be on watch - a quick tweak and she's off again - now she was balancing and steering herself for, literally, hours at a time, and virtually to windward what is more!
Incidentally, you can contact Robbie on email@example.com
Unfortunately, the weather around the Azores is not
particularly sail-friendly in the off-season and the sail locker was rapidly
filling up with bags marked 'For Repair' when we put the aforementioned sail up
as a temporary main, in October 2000. The seams were not up to the battering the
poor sail took and we arrived with a handsome amount of work for the local sail
repairer Ralph Holzender to deal with. He re-stitched all the seams on
all our sails, as a precaution, repaired all our breakages, re-built sails for
us and cut down a large sail he had been lumbered with for some time as a strong
headsail for us, all at phenomenally good prices, all within the time frame
quoted and all beautifully done. Ask around in the marina on arrival at Horta on
Faial. Anyone will tell you how to get hold of him. You are welcome to tell him
we recommended him on the basis of the work he did for us.
Our thanks to UK Sailmakers for allowing us to take the following material from their website:
The last few years have seen an explosion in the development of new sail fabrics, largely as a result of the evolution of suitable synthetic films. Today's fabrics include not only the familiar woven dacrons and nylons in various weights and finishes, but also woven products using these in combination with Kevlar or Spectra
A bewildering array of laminates is also available in which woven fabrics are bonded with polyester (Mylar) or nylon films. The woven fabrics, called substrates, can be of widely varying densities from very open scrims to tightly woven broadcloth. The laminates can also include films bonded to yarns which are not woven, but simply laid up or inserted into the assembly. Finally, the finished fabrics can vary as to the number, thickness and composition of layers.
Fortunately, these many different fabrics fall into a much smaller number of groups.
First are the traditional dacrons, which are used for mains and jibs, and nylons which are used for spinnakers.
Actually Dacron is a trade name of the Dupont company for its polyester yarn. It is probably more correct to refer to that fabric as polyester, unless you mean to speak exclusively of Dupont's product, but few people are that precise.
Specific specimens of both polyester and nylon are commonly named by weight, such as "3/4 oz. nylon" or "6 oz. dacron". It should be understood that these designations are names and not necessarily actual weights.
There is a considerable variation, both up and down, between the actual weight and the named weight assigned to a particular fabric by the manufacturer. This variation is inherent in the manufacturing process, and is not an attempt at deception. Nevertheless, with these fabrics, the actual weight is a reasonably reliable guide as to both its strength and its cost.
Woven cloth has threads running in two directions. Fill threads run across the width of the cloth and Warp threads are along the length of the cloth. The Bias is any direction off the warp or fill. A warp-oriented cloth has stronger threads running in the long direction than in the fill. An extreme warp-oriented laminate has thread running in only the warp direction. These cloths are called warp sheets or warp inserted laminates. Extreme warp-oriented fabrics rely on the Mylar portion of the laminate for strength in all other directions (the bias and the fill).
The unit of weight in the United States is ounces per "sailmaker's yard," which is 36 inches by 28.5 inches. The British use ounces per square yard, and Continental Europe uses grams per square meter. Thus 1 oz. American equals 1.26 oz. British and 42.8 grams per square meter.
A second fabric group consists of a woven polyester bonded to polyester film. The woven polyester can vary from a wide open weave having very few threads to the inch to a very dense one. It can also vary from a balanced weave with about the same strength in both warp and fill directions to an unbalanced one whose strength is concentrated in one or the other of those directions.
The film can vary in thickness from fractions of one mil to three or even four mils. In these, as in all the laminates, the yarns provide strength in the directions where they are placed, and the film makes the finished fabric impermeable and adds strength in all directions, including the bias. This group can include fabrics with more than two layers. Sandwiches of Mylar-dacron-Mylar or dacron-Mylar-dacron are both available.
A third group contains the Kevlar/Mylar laminates and other exotics, such as Spectra. The densely woven Kevlars are unbalanced weaves, because the Kevlar can be used only in one direction, either warp or fill. The yarn used in the other direction is polyester. All of the densely woven sail fabrics must be heat set if the weave is to be acceptably tight. Kevlar, however, does not respond to heat setting, so if the Kevlar yarns were used in both directions, the finished weave could not be acceptably tightened.
Kevlar scrim laminates do not have this problem because of the openness of the weave. Therefore, the Kevlar scrims can be balanced, with Kevlar threads running in both directions.
A final group is composed of more complex laminates, consisting not only of a densely woven polyester substrate, but also of additional layers of Mylar and non-woven, or "inserted" Kevlar yarns, of various weights and thicknesses. These are special purpose fabrics which are often, but not exclusively, used in the corners of radially constructed sails. They have tremendous strength in the direction of the inserted yarns.
Once again, our thanks to UK Sailmakers. For more information about sails , why not visit their website at:
Our thanks also to Chris Price, our Steel
Boat Editor for helping to edit this page.
Have you a comment to make or a story to tell? We'd love to hear about it! E-mail us and feel free to include photographs or drawings. Whether you're a sail-maker or a sailor or a combination of both, we're looking forwards to hearing from you.
If you are interested in reading books on relevant topics, you may like to visit the
Marine Bookshelves in our Library