Sail Covers Redux

26 Feb


I can’t explain it, but my sail covers have become too small over the years. Either they shrunk, or sails have become bulkier. (Do I sound like an aging man talking about his waistline?) It’s been a real stretch lately, and a ten minute job, to get the sail covers on, especially over my new-ish main, which is still stiff. They were also generally battered and had lots of rips to repair. I’ll say this much though: That Sunbrella is some tough stuff. Those sail covers date from long before I owned the boat, meaning they’ve stood up to at least twenty years in the sun. The stitching has given out and I’ve restitched them, but the fabric itself is still solid.

I had the good sense to first order a swatch from Sailrite, thus confirming my sail covers are made from Royal Blue Tweed. I then ordered several square yards of Royal Blue Tweed, the good UV thread, a square foot of reinforcing leather, and a bunch of twist-locks, and curled up for a night and a day with my wife’s sewing machine. I couldn’t procrastinate on this project because for every day I waited my precious sails were being exposed to the elements.

First of all, it’s a bit of a myth that you need some kind of special sewing machine for this kind of work. I’m sure it would be nice to have a proper sailmaker’s walking foot sewing machine, but I used this one, which cost about $100:
During my circumnavigation I used this old champ, which cost $120 in Panama. It’s the same sewing machine Singer has been manufacturing since 1789:
Neither of these sewing machines have a lot of power, but both could go through 3-5 layers of sailcloth, and even stitch leather. Lots of starts and stops and not the neatest work, but with sail work I find it’s the quantity of the stitches, rather than the quality. And if you’ve ever tried doing it by hand, any sewing machine will seem like a godsend.

I figured if I just split the sail covers down the middle, where they were due for restitching anyway, and added some extra fabric, I’d make ends meet. And so it was: I added twelve inches to the middle of the mainsail; eight to the the mizzen:

Again, the durability of the Sunbrella is amazing: After twenty years the old Sunbrella didn’t fade much compared to the brand new stuff.

While I was at it I replaced the long-gone leather reinforcements around the topping lifts:

And made proper, leather-reinforced exits for the lazy jacks, complete with twist-lock closures:
My first effort at lazy jack exits was with Velcro, and non-reinforced exits. The Velcro didn’t stick after a year or two, and the lazy jacks tore the cover. See how with the repair just forward of the lazy jack exit, I sewed an X over the patch? I don’t know why sailmakers always sew an X over a patch, but I did it too.

The lazy jack exits seem a lot of work, both to make, and to open and close. The alternative is an unaltered sail cover and removable lazy jacks, but then I think you’d have to put sail ties around your sail to keep it from unflaking once you removed the lazy jacks. So I’m sticking with the permanent lazy jacks, and my reinforced exits.

Anyway, total success with just over $100 in materials, plus a good eight hours of my time, but once I’d started I got carried away with lots of little repairs and reinforcements. I’m assuming brand new sail covers would cost considerably more. And they fit, very nicely, with no stretching or struggling.

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


  1. Clark Beek

    I think I read sunbrella is actually supposed to stretch a bit over time – as in you should build new cushion covers a bit tight – but these shrinking sail covers seem to be an epidemic! In my case I’ve gone with battened sails when the boat came battenless, plus I’ve probably moved up to thicker cloth over the years…and they’ve just got trashed.

  2. Behan - s/v Totem

    Nice fix- and way to go Sunbrella with the minimal fading over time! I am convinced we have an army of boat gremlins who have been responsible somehow for our ever-shrinking mainsail cover, which at this point can’t even be closed at the mast. Of course, we are like the cobblers kids without shoes, since Jamie is a sailmaker- and and it’s been flapping around for months! I applaud your effort and will confess we’ve decided get a stack pack instead of adapting the cover. Old racing sailors we avoided them for aesthetic reasons for years… kinda like dodgers… funny how cruising changes the perspective on what’s attractive!

  3. Amy Schaefer

    Oh, you have made me feel so guilty. Our mainsail cover is at its end. When we upgraded our track on the main, the new cars were taller than the old ones, so we had to add a section to the stackpack to take the new height into account. The battens make it too heavy, the lazyjacks need to be reconfigured – we hate the whole frankenmess.

    I even have a Sailrite aboard. If I could only find some Sunbrella for a reasonable price around here, then my last excuse would fall away…

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