With good winter care, keeping sails sound is a breeze


January 10, 1993|By NANCY NOYES

Sailors commonly use the slang term "rags" for those big pieces of fabric on their boats, but no sailor wants to have rags on his boat when he's ready to go sailing.

Modern sails are strong and durable, but they are also some of the most delicate parts of a boat. They require a certain amount of care in winter to maximize longevity and performance, particularly over wet and chilly Chesapeake Bay winters.

"At the very least the sails should come off the boat and be folded neatly, then stored in a warm, dry place," said Annapolis Hood sailmaker Rob Emmet. "If they were my sails, I wouldn't even put them in the garage; I'd put them under the bed."

Emmet explained that during weather like that we've had since Friday, when conditions are rainy and then freezing, moisture can soak into the weave of sailcloth, where it will expand as it freezes, and actually can damage the weave.

Scott Sailmakers' Jim Scott agreed that sails should not be left where they could be subjected to repeated changes in temperature and humidity -- including a garage, where temperature changes can produce condensation. He said most basements are stable enough for winter storage, provided sails are not stored near the furnace or on the floor, where a leak or other accident could damage them.

Removing roller-furling sails for winter service and storage also provides an opportunity to check the furling system and maintain it against winter damage. It's one of the only chances each year to rinse and clean the halyard swivel at the top, for example.

Most newer systems make it easy to remove sails, because they use regular halyards like a non-rolling system, but others, particularly older models that use a halyard inside of a separate headfoil, can be tougher.

"I tell people it's self-explanatory," Emmet said. "If they can't figure out how to get the sail down and off, they should get professional help."

In any event, Emmet said, removing a roller-furling sail should only be attempted on a calm, windless day.

"Generally the sails haven't been down all year," he said, "and in case you have a problem you don't want to be stuck with the sail halfway down in the wind."

Sailmakers generally agree that winter removal of sails provides an ideal opportunity for inspection and minor servicing.

"It saves down time in the summer," Scott said, "and it's a good time to look at the shape of the sail or see if it needs any repairs."

Emmet agreed, saying, "It's easy to overlook broken stitching or some other thing which is a minor problem, but can become a big problem if a sail blows out."

In addition, most sailmakers have more time for inspections and minor maintenance work at this time of year than they will in the spring. Some offer winter specials on recuts and repairs, and many package inexpensive or even free winter storage in their lofts with a service package.

As for washing sails before storage, much depends on the type of sail and fabric.

One of the best all-purpose do-it-yourself washings, provided the weather is mild, dry and calm, is to raise the sails on the boat, rinsing them with fresh water as they go up, then letting them dry before taking them down to fold and store, Emmet said.

Both sailmakers agreed that it's bad to spread sails on a lawn or driveway for rinsing -- or worse, scrubbing -- because the sails are likely to pick up more dirt, and the cloth easily can be abraded in the process.

Emmet said that Hood does not recommend machine washing for sails, because the crumpling that results during the wash cycle can break down the resins in the fabric and shorten the life of the sail.

Instead, sails should be spread out on a smooth concrete floor with a drain and given a light scrub with a mild soap solution and a soft brush to remove loose dirt and salt.

Scott agreed that Mylars or heavily resinated fabrics should be hand-washed, but, he added, "Most modest cruising sails are OK in a machine, and with spinnakers, it can actually make the sail lighter by getting out all of the salt."

Scott said that for most racing sails, which have a useful life expectancy of only two or three years, washing won't prolong sail life. Although general rinsing to remove loose dirt and salt is a good idea for any sail, stain removal can be a different matter.

"There are some stains, like oxidation from a furling system, that are just impossible," Scott said.

Emmet said that the amount of labor involved in professional stain removal is often not cost effective, and added that the effort of removing many stains risks damaging the fabric and resins in the process.

Hood has a stain-removal guide for customers who want to do it themselves, however. It covers stains from mildew, rust, oil, grease and tar, and miscellaneous sources, specifically tuned to various fabric types.

The guide stresses that bleach should not be used to remove mildew from nylon or Mylar and laminates, and is a last resort for Dacron. The guide also indicates that rust eradicators should be the last resort for nylon, Mylar, and laminates as a last resort, and then used with great care.

Particularly with high-tech sails, it's probably best to check with your own sailmaker before trying any stain removal.

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