Out of Whole Cloth: Sailcloth 101
Sails: When upgrading your sail inventory, understanding the basics of cloths, laminates and construction will keep the wool from being pulled over your eyes.
One of the largest expenditures a cruising sailor will ever face is upgrading the yacht’s power plant. Not the one under the companionway—the ones set off the mast. As a former sail consultant for Hood Sails, I know that when it comes to new sails, cost is a primary concern for many sailors. The cheapest sails, however, aren’t always the best value.
Sailmakers and cloth manufacturers understand the importance of knowing how the customer’s boat and sails will be used. In addition to price, other criteria sailors should consider are durability, over time or miles; ease of handling when flaking; in some instances, the sail’s weight (can the owner, if necessary, move it around on deck?); and, in the case of an overlapping headsail, its chafe resistance. And, of course, a new suit of sails should be able to withstand the occasional “Uh-oh” moment and have the ability to be regularly reefed and still retain proper shape, which is imperative.
If you’re in the market for a new sail, you need to understand the various options available, both in material and in sail design, so you can pose the right questions to your sailmaker and understand their recommendations before purchasing.
Since the 1950s, the default material for cruising sails has been Dacron. But as boats got larger and more performance oriented—and their sails became highly loaded— sailmakers and cloth manufacturers developed and used fabrics that could better retain their shape. Today, sailors have essentially two material options, Dacron or laminates, the latter of which are built using a variety of specialized fibers.
In the United States and abroad, four major suppliers of sailcloth—Dimension Polyant, Bainbridge International, Challenge Sailcloth, and Contender Sailcloth—provide sailmakers with Dacron and laminate cloths and related materials to build strong, state-of-the-art headsails and mainsails.