October 16, 2014

Thank goodness for Dacron

I DON’T SUPPOSE one sailor in 100 ever gives any thanks to the persons who invented Dacron and nylon, the materials from which most modern-day sails are made. That’s because most of us take our sails for granted, little suspecting the time and trouble it took to maintain sails in the old days, and to preserve their shape for efficient propulsion.
Ernest Ratsey, one of the great names of sailmaking, described the materials from which sails were made in the 1930s in an article in The Rudder magazine.

“There are two kinds of canvas basically,” he explained, “a Southern-grown American cotton which is white and an Egyptian-grown cotton which is called brown Egyptian because of its reddish tint. The difference is really very marked.

“This brown Egyptian is getting lighter in color every year and the only feasible explanation I have heard for this change is that in the olden days the River Nile overflowed its banks when it had too much water in it and irrigated the fields, sending with the water a lot of silt, which in itself is a reddish-brown color.

“Now, since the Assouan Dam has been built, nature no longer floods the fields but it is done by man instead and scarcely any silt goes with the water as most of it has settled to the bottom.

“Don’t confuse brown Egyptian with tanned canvas. This is a dye which I believe comes from India. This tanned canvas is used quite a good deal by the fishing boats and trawlers working off the Brittany coast and in the North Sea. This dye is supposed to preserve the canvas and, of course, it doesn’t show the dirt or the mildew.

“In the old days flax was used a great deal for canvas. It is of a very soft nature and even when wet it remains that way but, of course. sails made from flax do not hold their shape owing to its softness, that is why it has been superseded by cotton. Egyptian cotton has a longer staple than Southern-grown American cotton and it makes a stronger sail which seems to hold its shape better.

“You hear a lot about ordering sails in the winter time and you probably think that this is a lot of sales talk. In a way I suppose it is, but the real reason is that during the winter months when the steam heat is on and the loft is kept at an even temperature, the canvas as it goes through the various stages of manufacturing into a sail does not vary very much and in the end should turn out to be a smoother sail; whereas in the summer you may start a sail on a nice sunny day, have it blowing northeast with rain on the second day and get a dry nor’wester the third.

“This is really most disconcerting to the sailmaker because the canvas reacts very differently on each of these days, so you can see that it is much simpler and should be a safer proposition making sails during the wintertime.”

Today’s Thought
Oh, what a blamed uncertain thing
This pesky weather is!
It blew and snew and then it thew
And now, by jing, it’s friz!
— Philander Johnson, Shooting Stars

Twinkle, twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are
(Up above the footlights’ sheen);
Forty-nine or seventeen?

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


Unknown said...

It's interesting to think, John, how we've come full circle in some ways.

Consider how much care and maintenance a modern, cutting edge racing sail needs, and how frequently it must be replaced. Mylar-laminated carbon sailcloth is, in at least this one way, not much different from the cotton or hemp of an old square-rigger.

John Vigor said...

Good point, Matt, and the modern racing sailcloth is probably proportionately much more expensive.

John V.