Sails Deserve a Little T.L.C.

If your season’s done, a washing, inspection, and any needed repairs will ensure that your sails are ready to go next season. "Hands-On Sailor" from our November 2010 issue

sail maintenance

Be sure to check all grommets and any other cringles for signs of chaffe. Marianne Lee

Engines are handy, and electronics are helpful, but without sails, your sailboat, well, just can’t be a sailboat. So after a season in which your sails have taken you to memorable harbors and provided hours of enjoyment, do them a favor and put them away correctly.

No matter where you sail—the frozen North, the muggy South, the rainy Pacific Northwest, or the sun-bathed Caribbean—if you’re planning to be away from your boat for any length of time, take the sails down and pack them up. Treating them right will ensure that you’ll get to enjoy both their full working lifespan and a full return on your sizeable investment in them.

That’s particularly true, say the sailmakers with whom I spoke, for seasonal sailors who store their boat for the winter, either on the hard or in the water.
“The biggest thing you’ve got to do is get them off the boat for the wintertime. Never, never leave a sailed furled or on the mast,” says UK Halsey Sailmakers‘ Adam Loory.


When sails are left furled for long periods of time, water can find its way into them, and they won’t dry. Where there’s water, mildew soon follows, and eventually it gets into the laminates, where it can do serious damage and even cause the laminates to separate. Not to mention that winter gales can turn a mainsail cover to rags or find a way to unfurl even a tightly wrapped headsail.

Once your sailing’s done, strip off the sails as soon as you can, advises Chris Pitts at North Atlantic Sails, in Newport, Rhode Island. “You’ve got to get the salt out of the sails. A freshwater rinse and getting them thoroughly dry is the biggest first step.” If sails are left unwashed, salt acts as an abrasive and can damage the fabric when it’s folded and chafes against itself. Salt also holds moisture, which means that the sail can’t fully dry, and you remember what moisture breeds: mildew. Both he and Loory recommend that sails be stored in a dry place in which the temperature is relatively constant. A dry basement is ideal. Don’t leave them in the boat, they say, where it’s hot during the day, cold at night, and damp. In very cold climes, notes Pitts, the windows in a headsail can crack if the mercury dips too low.

To prepare sails for storage, Pitts says, choose a sunny day and stretch the them out on the dock or on a grassy patch, then hose both sides down; leave them out to dry thoroughly before you pack them up. Or you can even do it right on the boat on a calm day. Drop the sails to the deck, then slowly raise them again, hosing them off as they go up. Let them dry before you bring them down and fold them.


“Calm” is the key word here. Along with salt and exposure to ultraviolet radiation, needless flogging will take its toll on a sail.

If your sails are stained or dirty, don’t be afraid to stretch them out and take a brush to them, says Paul Lockwood of Omar Sailmakers, in Beaufort, North Carolina. Oil and grease can be removed with acetone and a rag. For other stains, a mild detergent like Woolite or OxiClean works well, he says, and won’t damage the sailcloth. The key is to rinse the sail well. Avoid strong detergents or any products that are very acidic or very basic; either can damage the cloth. Mildew, adds Loory, can be cleaned up using a mild solution of bleach and water, but again, remember that a thorough rinsing is key.

Before your sails go into the bags, spend some time going over them to see if a trip to a sail loft is in order. A typical sail should have a life expectancy of eight to 12 years or 45,000 to 55,000 miles, says Carol Hasse of Hasse & Company Port Townsend Sails. But over those years and miles, you have to expect some wear and tear, and catching it early and making repairs is critical to keeping a sail in good working order.


In her Pacific Northwest home waters, where people tend to sail year-round, she advises owners to take the time to inspect their sails regularly, and certainly before they head offshore. And if you’re leaving the boat for any length of time, flake the sails and store them in their bags. She adds that if sails are left on year-round, it’s best to keep headsail sheets led aft to their winches, with the slack taken up, rather than coiled and hung at the bow. The furler line should also be tensioned so that over time, the headsail doesn’t rotate and loosen its wrap.

Along the Mid-Atlantic coast and farther south, Lockwood notes, boat owners tend to sail all year, as well, but they are likely to strip their sails if a hurricane comes along. That’s a good time to make a quick check for any wear.

D.I.Y. Advice
If you plan to wash and pack your sails yourself, here’s what to look for, according to the experts:


On headsails, inspect the stitching along the seams and also along the sun cover that runs along the leech. Though the cover may be resistant to ultraviolet radiation, the thread used to sew it on probably isn’t. Give the cloth a good tug to make sure the seams are solid.

Look for chafe. If you sail closehauled a lot and tend to have the jib cranked in, look for damage where the sail may have contact with the spreaders. Even if you don’t set your sail that tight, inspect the leech, since every time you tack, it can come in contact with the spreader or mast-mounted radar.

Inspect the webbing at the tack, head, and clew. All of these points are exposed to harmful ultraviolet rays, both when the sail is furled and set. Notes Hasse: If it’s visible to the human eye, then it’s visible to the sun. She advises that the webbing be covered with a protective material.

Examine the leech of the main and all batten pockets for wear. In-mast furling mains should be checked around the clew to make sure that the sun cover there remains intact and that the stitching is good; also inspect along the leech, because sunlight filters in through the opening of the mast. In-boom furling sails are prone to wear at the front of the batten pockets and along the luff tape that slides up the mast. Hasse says her experience indicates that under normal usage, the tape has a lifespan of five years or less.

Check all sail slides and the webbing holding them carefully; both are subject to ultraviolet damage. The slides near the head, tack, and clew see the largest loads.

Eyeball cringles and grommets for any signs of corrosion or wear, especially on storm sails, which tend to live on deck for long periods in a wet bag and are seldom dry when put away.

Not surprisingly, all of the sailmakers recommended that sails should be brought in occasionally to the loft, and not just because it bolsters their business. First off, the sails can be sent off and washed professionally. Sails are soaked in a large tub with cleaning agents that can kill any mildew or algae.

And often a sailmaker will spot chafe or damage to the laminates that might go undetected. They may also notice wear that can be prevented either by adding chafe guards or by identifying the cause of the wear, perhaps a sharp point on a spreader or a rough spot on a radar dome.

Mark Pillsbury is the editor of Cruising World.