Chapter 10 – Sail inventories – Part 2

13 Apr

Chapter 10 deals with sail inventories. In Part 2 we look at the different categories of sailors. It’s important that you define where you are as a sailor. If you race an occasional weekend you might not need the very latest (read super expensive) membrane sail. Something more durable might be a better option.


Categories of Sailors
To help you to figure out where you fit in, let’s begin by dividing sailing into a number of categories and then look at the fibers and fabric types that might be most appropriate for each category.

Grand Prix Racing
Grand prix racing like that found in the America’s Cup, the Transpac, the Farr 40 circuit, TP 52 and other super-hot, one-design classes is the exclusive domain of those who seek performance above all else. For them durability, longevity, and cost are not a consideration. In previous blogs we looked at how an investment in fabric and engineering up front pays dividends down the road and concluded that if you measure the usefulness of a sail by how long it looks good and holds its shape, then paying for the best fabric for the job and giving serious consideration to the engineering is usually a wise investment. For the racing sailor this can be taken a step further. Since racing sailors care only about how long their sails will perform at a top level, they generally only consider what a sail is made of and measure its usefulness in three ways:

  • Its shape.
  • Its ability to hold its shape over a broad range of wind conditions.
  • Its weight.


As stated earlier, you can always build a sail that has a good shape and holds its shape through a wide range of conditions. But if that sail weighs too much, the performance edge will be lost. An overabundance of material not only adds weight aloft when the sail is flying, but weight when stowed, which makes sail handling more difficult as well. With a number of sails on board it’s critical to keep the weight/performance ratio in balance. Light sails set more easily, minimize pitching and heeling when the boat is sailing to windward, and are generally easier to stow and drag around the boat. On the other hand, concentrating only on weight at the expense of shape is not a wise move.

Grand prix sailing can be further subdivided into inshore racing and offshore racing. The principal objectives are the same, but some of the finer details differ. With shape the  primary  consideration,  the  grand  prix  sailor will begin the process of choosing the fabric by looking at all available fibers and their durability in terms of a specific sailing environment. For example, sails designed for offshore may have more in the way of UV-resistant taffetas than those designed for inshore work, since they will be exposed to wind and water for  days or  even weeks  at a  stretch. The  taffetas certainly  add weight, but they give a sailor the degree of confidence in the durability of the fabric that he needs, knowing as he does that if the sail fails he will not be able to repair it. By the same token, even those offshore sailors who choose to leave the taffetas off will over-engineer the sail to handle the tougher conditions found at sea. This over-engineering will be in the form of larger corner reinforcement patches and slightly heavier denier fabric along the leech and foot of the sail.

Weekend Warrior
A step down from the lunatic spending fringe are those sailors who compete on weekends and in regional and national championships. They are also looking for performance, but not at any cost. Indeed, in many classes, exotic fibers are specifically banned in an effort to keep costs down. These classes will even restrict the number of sails that can be purchased so it won’t become a battle of the bank accounts. Of course, when racing one-design, the dimension of the sails will be predetermined, and in many cases different members of a fleet will even buy their sails en masse from a single manufacturer in order to get a price break. Sailors who are competing under a rating rule will probably be on their own since their boat may be the only one of its kind in a fleet. But still they are seeking the same basic thing: shape retention through a wide wind range, while trading off variables like light weight and longevity. In many respects weekend warriors are like grand prix offshore sailors who will accept taffetas and higher yarn count in return for a slightly heavier sail, but one that lasts longer. These racers can expect their sails to last two to three seasons, possibly four with some recutting.

Where allowed, weekend warriors will turn to film-on-film construction for their light sails if weight is important to get the sail to set properly. Otherwise, they will look for something more durable for the heavier sails like two woven fabrics sandwiching a film. On bigger boats the fabric may be a woven/film/scrim/film/woven. The fiber of choice is still Kevlar or high modulus Twaron.

Radial sails for this weekend warrior

Club Racers
Most racing sailors fall into this category. Club racers are those sailors who like to mix it up on weekends and Wednesday evenings, but rarely venture out of state to race. They are looking for performance, but in the long run durability and cost are just as important, if not more so. These sailors still like to have the performance edge that a laminated sail gives them, but they are not willing to have sails built from delicate yarns like Twaron and Kevlar. Instead, Pentex and in some cases polyester are good choices, either woven or in the form of scrims laminated to a film. Diagonal yarns can be added for off-threadline stability and to make the sails more durable.

Club racers also like to use their boats for cruising, in which case adding light taffetas to the fabric not only extends the range of sails (who likes to change sails when they are cruising?), but also adds a measure of durability. Club racers often have a separate 130-percent Dacron headsail that they use for cruising.

Performance Cruisers

Like that of grand prix sailors, this category can be divided into two camps: those who sail coastal and those who head for blue water. Again, because of the conditions found offshore, the sails will have to be more durable and rely more heavily on woven laminates and taffetas where applicable. Cruisers who choose to remain close to land might consider the performance advantage of an inserted scrim, but nothing quite beats the strength and durability of a heavy, woven fabric for offshore passagemaking. Depending on the size of the boat, performance cruisers might choose polyester or Pentex at the lower end of the range, and Spectra or Vectran for larger boats where the added strength and stretch resistance of a high- performance fiber is needed. The lay-up of these fabrics will depend on the size of the boat, and you will likely see woven/film/scrim/film/woven type construction or occasionally woven/scrim/woven.

More increasingly cruisers are turning to membrane sails. Part of this is because the cost of membrane sails has come down a lot and also because there are some real benefits to having membrane sails the most important of which is that membrane sails are lighter and hold their shape through a broader range of wind conditions.  Lighter sail means less weight aloft and that in turn results in less heeling and pitching.

Traditional Sailors
For this type of sailor, high-performance Dacron is one possibility, though laminated fabrics are also attractive since they’ve become reliable, durable, and more affordable. Certainly for small-boat owners Dacron is still the fabric of choice, and for club racers it can definitely be a competitive fabric, although the bigger the boat and the more competitive the arena, the more need there is for a laminated sail from a higher modulus fiber.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog. I invite you to subscribe so that you will not miss a blog post. You will get a great free gift, a pdf copy of my book Maximum Sail Power and regular blogs about sails and sailmaking. Click the pic to subscribe and if you are in need of new sails please contact us for a no obligation quote.

Brian Hancock – Owner Great Circle Sails

This article was syndicated from Maximum Sail Power Blog

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