December 20, 2012

New sails, old materials

THIS IS THE SEASON when sailmakers hope you will bring in your sails for a little tender care. It’s also the season when a lot of us start wondering if we need new sails, and if so, whether we should go the whole hog and order laminated sails made of exotic materials.

In Sven Donaldson’s excellent book Understanding the New Sailing Technology the author points out that the majority of today’s sails are still being made from woven sailcloths that are, at best, only marginally improved over the materials in use during the 1970s.

Although Donaldson’s book was published in 1990, his statement still holds good. The new technology of molded and laminated sails is going strong, of course, but comparatively few sailboats are using sails of Spectra, Kevlar, Mylar and other exotic materials because of their higher cost and reduced life.

Dedicated racing boats are the major customers for high-tech sails because of their greater efficiency. But if you don’t mind dropping behind by a few seconds a mile, cheaper nylon and polyester (Dacron, Terylene) sails will do just fine, accept more knocks, and last longer.

While improvements are being made all the time to the fibers, weave, design, and construction of “ordinary” sails, especially with the help of computers, it’s likely that laminated sails and glued panels will point the way to the future for all sailboats.

But don’t rush things. The future isn’t here yet. Sailors are ultra-conservative, and for very good reasons.

And here’s a final thought to chew on: One-design racing has shown that laminated sails aren’t consistently faster than new sails made from firm-finished Dacron sailcloth.

Today’s Thought
All progress is based upon a universal innate desire on the part of every organism to live beyond its income.
— Samuel Butler, Notebooks

Little Mary woke at 2 a.m., called for a glass of water, and demanded to be told a fairy story.
“Hush, sweetheart,” said her mother, “your father will be home soon and he’ll tell us both one.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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