Horizon, Here We Come

Ganymede tugs at her dock lines with a new suit of sails.

Sail Making

Our sail loft was located under the big oak tree that shaded every other part of the boatbuilding project.Courtesy of Ben Zartman

My wife, Danielle, likes to know all the options and mull them over at length, so we shopped for sails at the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show in Oakland, California, years before we actually ordered them. We hadn't even decided then to put a gaff-headed sail on Ganymede, our partly-completed Cape George 31 cutter, but we knew roughly the square footage that we'd need no matter what rig we chose, and that was enough to begin with.

After we spoke with most of the sailmakers represented, we narrowed our search down to those in two categories: those we’d never be able to afford, and those who outsourced their work to Hong Kong. Luckily for us, the outsourcers actually knew what a gaff was, and they’d all built four-cornered sails before. Many of the domestic sailmakers hadn’t.

We skipped the following year’s boat show, not having yet installed all the things we’d bought at the first one, but I was sent to the next year’s show with a specific mission: Buy an outboard engine and order sails. Danielle sat this one out at home; Damaris, our third child, was only a few months old, and it would’ve been unkind to drag the entire family from one booth to another for a whole exhausting day.

Trying to ignore all the other displays of exciting things, and even passing up a chance to meet Cap’n Fatty Goodlander, which I normally wouldn’t have missed, I made beelines from one sailmaker to the next with my scale drawing, ready to deal. Most of the sailmakers I visited, again, had no way to do a price quote for a four-cornered sail—their fancy computer programs didn’t have an entry for peak length. So before long, I found myself back at the Lee Sails booth, from whom we’d suspected all along that we’d be buying our sails. They didn’t even have a computer, but their paper form had a space for gaff sails, and even a box to check for a flying jib.

After buying a brand-new Yamaha 8-horsepower high-thrust outboard, I only had enough money left to order a main and a staysail. Jibs would have to follow as funds allowed, but that was fine—we'd look for used ones further along, and I suspected that just about anything thrown out on the bowsprit end would pull Ganymede along. Besides, Danielle wanted to try her hand at sewing a genoa drifter, which wouldn't require cloth any heavier than our light-industrial Pfaff sewing machine could handle.

The only problem was where to loft 300 square feet of sail. There wasn’t a decent flat spot in our yard to lay it out on and baste the seams, so in the end, I chose a grassy portion of the hill next to my shop that seemed to camber the way a sail ought to anyway, and we laid it out there. Then I lugged the sewing machine and its table out of Danielle’s sewing room and set it up under the big oak that had shaded every other part of the boatbuilding project so far. I held the 4-ounce Dacron cloth while Danielle sewed the seams whenever she could get Damaris to fall asleep in her carrier. It only took a couple of days to sew, and then it was up to me to install the cringles and grommets and try to pick all the bits of dried grass out of the seams.

We hoisted Danielle's sail the next weekend while Ganymede was in her slip in Stockton, California, and it didn't look horribly homemade, as Danielle had feared. In fact, it complemented the factory sails from Lee Sails that had been promptly delivered. It was a shame that Ganymede is so surrounded by houseboats that I couldn't step back to look at all the crisp, new, white sails up and pulling the boat against her dock lines in the gentle west wind. But it was enough to know that they all fit in their measured places, and I'm sure they'll be splendid when we finally get around to doing our long-awaited sea trials.

Ben Zartman's family has grown and his bank account has shrunk during this backyard build, but they've managed to make their dream of cruising on Ganymede_ a reality._