I’ve got the new sail blues

Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 3, Number 4, July/August 2000.

Happiness is finding a sailmaker who understands

Talk about confused! I’ve never been offered so many contradictory opinions in answer to one question. All I wanted was a new sail.

The boat I purchased recently came with a brand new mainsail and three headsails of different shapes. One was about a 150-percent genoa, very long on the foot with a leech that swept up to the head in a long curve.

Next was an 80-percent working jib that was notable for its high-cut clew. Last was a really small Yankee of unknown age. All of the headsails were old and in need of washing and repair. The Yankee was mottled with numerous rust stains. Its sailmaker has been out of business for more than 20 years, so the sail was at least that old.

After flying all three sails, it was apparent that not one was really usable for everyday use. They were either too large or too small. What I needed was a good, roller furling 125-percent cross-cut genoa. I had come to rely on the Schaefer 1000 roller furling on my previous boat and wanted the same level of safety and ease of handling on this new, larger boat. Adding impetus to the project was my wife’s reaction to the 150 genoa the first time we flew it: “Get rid of it!

My wife’s a good sailor, but this sail, with its strange shape and long foot, was more than she wished to deal with. We decided to buy a new roller furling system and a new 125-percent genoa.

I called sail lofts. They supplied quotes based on their recommendation for sailcloth and weight. But here is where it gets complex.

Not so plain

Each loft uses a trade name and a weight for the cloth it proposes to use. We’re not talking about exotic cloth here, just plain Dacron. But it turns out not to be so plain after all.

All sailcloth in the U.S. is manufactured by one of five companies: Challenge Sailcloth, Contender Sailcloth, Dimension Sailcloth, Performance Textiles, and Bainbridge-Aquabatten. All except Performance Textiles and Dimension Sailcloth originated from a single parent, Howe and Bainbridge Company, of Boston, which was the biggest original purveyor of sailcloth. People left Howe and Bainbridge to form their own companies. Dimension has a Dutch connection and Performance Textiles a Spanish one.

There are other overseas companies making sailcloth, and it varies in quality and type. To limit my confusion, I stuck to the U.S. suppliers. Given the fixed dimension of my rig and my preference for a 125-percent genoa, the dimensions of the sail and its area were determined to be about 300 square feet, plus or minus 10 percent. After that, nothing was easy.

The sail lofts quoted Dacron cloth weights between 6.30 and 7.62 ounces with a 6.77 thrown in for good measure. Various cloths were offered: a 4800 Cruise from North, a Sails 5400 NorDac, a Challenge High Modulus, a Challenge High Aspect, a Marblehead and more. What is the difference and what does it all mean?

First, the weight of the sailcloth will vary, from lot to lot, as much as half an ounce, so you might be quoted a 7.3-ounce Challenge High Modulus and actually get a cloth that weighs 6.8 ounces. Half an ounce is about as close to the designed weight as the manufacturer can make it. Second, weight within a range is a relative factor. True, a 5.4-ounce Challenge High Modulus will be lighter than a 7.3-ounce Challenge High Modulus, but a 6.77-ounce Marblehead may serve as well or better for a particular sail than the 7.3 Challenge. It may also set better and feel softer.

More expensive

Recommended cloth weight
Boat length in feet
Cloth weight in ounces

High Modulus cloth is used for headsails and mains. High Aspect is used for mains, roller mains, and high aspect jibs. It’s more expensive than High Modulus but serves better in particular sail designs. Marblehead cloth is more expensive still, but it serves well for gaff mains and miter-cut genoas because it has a softer “hand.” To further confuse the issue, there are laminated cloths made for racing and performance cruising, but we will not consider them here.

Usually, a cruiser wants a durable, softer sail that will hold its shape and last a long time. The racer will want a faster sail with a smoother, harder surface even if it will not be long-lasting. The answer to sail life lies in material itself and the way the sail is designed and built.

Sailcloth may be woven as balanced or unbalanced. In balanced cloth, the yarn is close to the same denier (a measure of density or weight) in the lengthwise (warp) and crosswise (fill) width. The warp yarns run in the direction that the cloth runs through the loom. Because the yarns are so long (the length of the roll of cloth), it is more difficult to control the tension of the warp yarns, so warp strength is lower for a given yarn size. The fill yarns are shorter (only the width of the loom) thus it is easier to control their tension. It may seem confusing, but by using fewer heavier yarns in the warp, which is not generally as highly tensioned, it is possible to make unbalanced cloth that has more nearly equal strength properties in both directions.

To increase warp strength it is normal to decrease the count and increase the size of the warp yarns. This cloth is often used to take greater loads which radiate up from the clew along the leech, and it is often used for radial cuts. Cloth with opposite characteristics may be called high-aspect fabric. High-aspect jibs and mains need this strength. High-aspect cloth is often selected when the sails are of cross-cut design. The manner in which the sail is designed dictates the way in which the loads will be distributed within a sail. Sail lofts now use computers to design sails, but there is still a bit of art in knowing how to apply the computer results to building a good sail. The choice of sail cut and appropriate material is part of this process.

The standard cross-cut sail is the simplest and lowest cost sail to build. With the proper material selection it is a very satisfactory sail indeed. The miter-cut sail is really only a valid alternative when the buyer wants a certain “look” on older boats and replicas. The cut served a purpose once in the history of sail design and manufacture, but it is no longer an appropriate choice for best use of modern fabrics. The radial-cut sail is a more difficult sail to build, and when it is made from modern laminates, it may offer some performance advantages. It is argued by at least some sailmakers that the radial cut offers little advantage in cruising sails made from woven Dacron. Pick your expert, take your choice.

In detail

Miter cut

Miter Cut

Cross cut

Cross Cut

Radial cut

Radial Cut

What, then, does all this mean? It means you can purchase exactly the sail you need only if you communicate in detail with the sail lofts.

The first important question to answer is what use you wish to make of the sail. Is it for day-sailing, club racing, coastal cruising, or bluewater sailing? Approximate recommended sail weights for boat length are shown on the table as a guide to start a discussion with your sailmaker, but it is only a guide. The table is useful if you want a lightweight sail, and the sailmaker suggests a 9-ounce cloth for a 30-foot boat. You will be able to challenge his choice and maybe consider another sailmaker.

The value of the table is to allow you to talk sensibly to a loft. In my case, I am now able to say I’m seeking a 7-ounce genoa for bluewater sailing for my 31-foot boat.

The next question concerns my expectations for the sail. Is it long life, low price, speed, UV resistance, roller furling, and/or finally, size? Do I want a 150-percent genoa, a 125-percent genoa, a blade jib, a light air spinnaker, or drifter? My own requirements are for a long-lived, UV-resistant, roller furling, 125-percent genoa.

Once I had defined my needs and communicated them to the sail lofts, I asked them for quotes. It’s up to the sailmaker to make a recommendation to meet my requirements. The second table shows the wide variety of sails offered in response to my inquiry.

Price ranges

The prices ranged from $1,190 to $1,800, with an average price of $1,495. Out of eight lofts quoting, three were near the average price. If I excluded the highest and lowest price, the average price became $1,598 which left five lofts to consider (A, B, C, D, and F). I eliminated the lowest-priced sail based on the experience of a fellow sailor who had used the loft’s services in the past and was not pleased. I also eliminated the highest-priced sail based on price. It did not offer anything the others didn’t offer and was just plain expensive. The loft was full, I guess.

Now here’s the tough part. Of the five, one was quoted through a discount house and the actual loft building the sail was unknown (A); one sail was smaller than 125 percent (F); one was a miter-cut sail that I decided I did not want (D). This left B and C as finalists. Both offered 7.62 High Aspect cloth, cross cut with a foam luff and Sunbrella UV protection on the foot and leech. One loft was six hours away, and one was two hours away. In addition, the nearer loft spent considerable time on the phone discussing my requirements and explaining their approach to building a sail. A fellow sailor who does lots of offshore racing also recommended them. I placed my order with loft B.

Vendor Experiences
6.3-oz Dacron
3-4 wks
Unknown loft, foam luff, Sunbrella
7.62 HA
5-6 wks
Excellent discussion from the loft, foam luff, Sunbrella
7.62 HA
3-5 wks
Foam luff, Sunbrella
6.77 Marblehead
6 wks
Miter cut, foam luff, Sunbrella
4800 Cruise
3-4 wks
Cross cut, foam luff, Sunbrella
6.53 HM
3-5 wks
Hayward 7-oz English cloth
6-10 wks
Foam luff, Sunbrella

You may ask: “Why didn’t you just go to this loft in the first place?” I have greater confidence in my choice of sail. I know the price was fair, and the sailmaker understood my needs and will be available if I have a problem.

No discussion

The discount lofts were only a little cheaper than the selected loft, did not offer detailed discussions of my sail, and seemed to say, “Here – buy it.

An interesting note is that another of the unsuccessful lofts, even nearer to my home port, quoted a lower-grade cloth for a higher price with little or no discussion. It is a well-known loft, but I got the feeling my order was “small potatoes” and did not merit much effort.

Mine may not be the large order craved by a large loft, but my sail is very important to me. The selected loft treated me as if my sail was also very important to them.

I know I did not select the cheapest, fanciest, or most expensive. I selected the sail and the loft that best suited my requirements, and this gives me confidence that the finished sail will provide weeks and months of good service in the years to come. As I was writing this, I received a call from the selected sailmaker saying he will be near my marina this weekend and would like to stop by my boat to check all of my sails and answer any questions. This was an unsolicited, but welcome, call and reflects the level of service I expected but had not requested. I believe I’ll have a satisfactory relationship with this loft for all of my sail needs.

Yes, the time I invested to gather information and quotes on my new sail was worth it.

Bill Sandifer

Bill Sandifer is a marine surveyor/boatbuilder who’s been living, eating, and sleeping boats since he assisted at Pete Layton’s Boat Shop in the ’50s. He’s worked for Charlie Morgan (Heritage) and Don Arnow (Cigarette). And he’s owned a commercial fiberglass boatbuilding company (Tugboats).