(published April 2012)
Buying a sail is a lot like buying a car—there are different makes and models from different manufacturers in different price ranges. The process can get confusing, and often overwhelming, especially when trying to compare “apples to apples.” Just like a car, all sails will hopefully get you from point A to point B, but there are definite differences in construction, options and cloth.
For the purpose of this article, we will stick to paneled Dacron sails. Without a doubt for most cruisers around the world, woven Dacron sails are the overwhelming choice for the longest lasting, most durable sail. There are limitations and benefits to certain types of Dacron sails, but most sailors, especially cruisers, can find a happy compromise between shape holding, durability and cost. There are other options in terms of cloth and construction techniques, but my goal for this column is to educate without overwhelming.
THE BASICS: DACRON SAILCLOTH
Despite what you see in ads and magazines, most sails in today’s marketplace—especially for cruisers—are made from Dacron, or woven polyester sailcloth. Dacron is a trademark of the DuPont Corporation and has become synonymous with woven, high tenacity polyester sailcloth much in the same way Kleenex and Ziploc have with their respective products—despite the fact that no sailcloth has used the DuPont fibers in years. Dacron sailcloth comes in a number of different price ranges depending on construction, fibers and weave, but basically fits into three categories: performance (racing), premium and cruising.
Performance Dacrons generally have a firm to very firm coated finish designed to promote shape holding; unfortunately, this makes the cloth and sails fairly difficult to handle, especially in a cruising application where the sail will be reefed and folded rather than rolled. Most performance Dacrons are used in racing classes where woven sailcloth is mandated, or by cruisers wishing to race their boats in local or offshore events.
• Excellent for shape retention
• Difficult to handle
• Firm to very firm finish
Premium Dacrons are often the first choice for cruising boats. They generally have a medium to medium-firm finish. Due to its extremely tight weave and relatively small yard size, premium Dacron has an excellent balance between shape retention and ease of handling. A proper premium cloth relies more on its tight weave set for performance than it does on the finish applied to the cloth. Premium Dacron comes in both high and low aspect constructions for different sail aspect ratios.
• Very good shape retention
• Excellent durability
• Moderate expense
• Ease of handling
• Medium finish
Cruising Dacrons are the preferred choice of budget conscious cruisers. They are often woven from larger yarns, with constructions that are not as tight as premium Dacrons. This creates a cloth that is faster to weave, but relies more on the finish of the cloth than the base weave of the fabric. The result is a very durable cloth, but the draft of the sail will be more dynamic throughout the life of the sail.
• Moderate shape retention
• Very good durability
• Ease of handling
• Cost efficient
• Medium finish
To stick with the car analogies, sailcloth is a lot like tires. There are different levels, and constructions applicable to different styles of sailing. A racecar tire has little application to a family wagon, but the technology derived from the manufacturer can almost certainly improve the life, durability and performance down the cost spectrum. Sailcloth is similar in this regard. You wouldn’t want to manufacture an offshore cruiser mainsail out of the same cloth as an America’s Cup mainsail (before they were hard wings), but hopefully the designers of both the sail and the cloth have learned from the upper level of technology to produce a better, more durable, higher performance product.
SELECTING YOUR SAILS
Now comes the issue of what to buy. Like everything in life, there are compromises that must be made depending on what you plan to do with the sail. When thinking about a sail, a simple list of expectations and compromises will help you evaluate the different options from various manufacturers.
• What type of sailing are you planning to do? A sail designed to cross the Pacific is certainly going to require different attributes than one that is day sailing in Long Island Sound for two months in the summer.
• What other sails are in your inventory? This is more applicable for headsails than mainsails, but you should certainly think about your other options. If you buy a 150% headsail, how will your boat perform in 30 knots? Are you comfortable reefing a furling headsail?
• What are the most important specifications? Think about shape retention, ease of handling, cost and longevity.
• Where do you want your sail and sailcloth to be manufactured?
How long do you plan on owning the sail or boat?
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Once you have taken the above factors into consideration, the next step is visiting your local sailmaker. Due to the high labor content of the average sail, many sail manufacturers have moved production offshore to lower cost facilities. Some sailmakers own their own facilities, while some contract with sole suppliers, and still others use multiple sources depending on scheduling and price.
There are, however, a few hearty companies who are dedicated to manufacturing sails in the U.S. with U.S.- or European-produced goods. These are generally not the lowest priced options for new sails, but many sailors believe that keeping the craft alive in the U.S. is worth a small percentage increase for the service and attention to specific details that local lofts offer.
In contrast, due to our current economical environment, “sailmakers” who do not own a loft facility or even a building where they can service your sail or make an adjustment to a luff curve have popped up. Most of these businesses rely on offshore production with sometimes substandard components. One of the best ways to save money in new sail construction in an offshore facility (where labor is already very low) is to cut the cost of the sailcloth. Unfortunately, manufacturing high-quality sailcloth in U.S. or European facilities is expensive, but the end consumer is unable to positively know exactly what cloth from which supplier was used. The end result is a sail that does not perform as it should. These are often the lowest-priced options for new sails, and as with most things in life, “you get what you pay for.”
When purchasing a new Dacron sail, it is best to educate yourself as much as possible about the benefits of different options, manufacturers, designers and construction techniques. There are thousands of industry professionals who are more than willing to direct you to the product that best fits your needs. Sailing is more than a hobby for most of us—it is a passion, and we all want the most out of our limited free time. Good luck, enjoy the process, and don’t be afraid to ask questions to become a more educated consumer and sailor.
Sam has been a licensed USCG 100-ton captain for 17 years and has worked extensively in the sailcloth and sailmaking industry. He has sailed and raced throughout the US, Caribbean, Canada, Europe and Australia, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org