How We Buy Sails

Hallett sails in action: Wednesday night beercan racing on Casco Bay. The red boat is Richard’s, built to his design

Why do we give so much thought to our sails? Well, first, as we talked about in this post, good sails equal good speed and good speed equals more fun. Speed also contributes to safety because you are vulnerable to bad weather for less time. Finally, if your sails are slow in normal weather, they will be doubly slow in heavy weather, particularly as your desired course gets closer to the wind direction.

But wait, there’s more: With sails for a voyaging boat, the devil really is in the details. Just one example: take something as seemingly trivial as batten pockets and particularly those for full length battens like we have on Morgan’s Cloud. If the inboard (at mast) end of a batten pocket fails, the batten will protrude very quickly and if that batten pocket is above a spreader you will not be able lower or reef the mainsail until you climb the mast and deal with it. Add the fact that this will inevitably happen in the dark in a rising gale and you can see that a few corners cut in the sail loft can result in a world of hurt for us offshore sailors. It is surprising how often the failure of a critical sail offshore is the start of a chain of events that lead to someone getting hurt, or even abandonment of the boat.

For these reasons, we regard our sails as one of the most important sets of gear on our boat. This is how we go about buying them:

  1. We Buy From a Real Sailmaker: A lot, perhaps a majority, of the people that call themselves sailmakers are not, they are salespeople. The actual sailmakers are at a different location, and sometimes even in another country. We like to do business with the person that will design and hands-on supervise the construction of our sails. Further, when something needs tweaking with our new sail, which is almost inevitable since we are really picky, we want to talk to the actual person that will fix it.
  2. We Buy From a Racing Sailmaker Who Voyages Too: Richard, our sailmaker, has successfully raced for decades using sails and even boats that he designed and built himself; he knows what makes for a fast sail. But he has also raced and cruised across oceans and, I suspect, been the guy up the mast at 3:00am wrestling with a sail-caused screw up. I don’t have to explain to Richard why the batten pockets have to be right; he already knows why.
  3. We Buy From a Sailmaker With Computerized Design and Cutting Capability: One of the drawbacks of buying from smaller local sailmaking firms is that many of them do not have the volume to buy a computer driven cutting table or the experience and training to use it properly, even if they had one. As an ex-sailmaker who was involved in the very early days of mathematical sail shape design, I can tell you that this now mature technology makes a huge difference in how good new sails are.
  4. We Buy Sails from Laminated Sailcloth That Are Radial Cut: It is true that a simple cross cut sail from woven Dacron will be cheaper, probably a lot cheaper, than one with a sophisticated radial cut made out of a laminated material. It might even last longer before ripping too. But we, like most voyaging sailors that value the performance of our boats, don’t wait for a sail to fail catastrophically before we retire it. Instead our sails hit the store room—why can’t I bring myself to actually throw them away?—when their poor shape starts to result in substantially reduced performance. Using this criteria, the sophisticated, more expensive, sail has a longer useful life and is actually more cost effective than the cheaper option. Our last set from Richard went about 35,000 miles before replacement.

They start sailing early in the Hallett family. If Merle, Richard’s father, had been in the shot (he was driving the photo boat) it would have made four generations. The boat is appropriately named The Family Wagon

This is how we buy sails and it has worked well for us for fifteen years and tens of thousands of offshore miles. Is it the best way for everyone? I don’t know. There is no question that the big outfits that have their lofts in developing world countries where labour is cheaper can and do make fine sails for offshore boats. However, I would suggest that the next time you are in the market for a new sail you give a smaller loft like Hallett Canvas and Sails a chance and carefully evaluate the real value they are delivering. Personal service, particularly when something goes wrong or doesn’t fit, can be worth a lot. Better still, give Richard a call and tell him I sent you. I love holding a favor over his head. It’s almost as much fun as reminding him of the Bermuda Race we whupped his butt in using sails he designed and built for us!

Disclosure:

Our long time sailmaker, Richard Hallett, and his family are personal friends of ours of nearly 20 years standing. Further, Richard is one of our voyage sponsors, having given us a reduced price on a staysail in return for a small advertisement in the left column of this site.

Other than that, we have paid full price for all the other sails, covers and upholstery that Richard has made for us over the years. Though much of this post is a blatant plug for a friend’s business, there is no way we would compromise the quality of our boat’s sails just to give our friend our business. We buy from Richard because we sincerely believe that he provides us with the best sails and value available.

Further Disclosure:

Well, hopefully because some of you contacted Richard based on the above post, he gave us a discount on our last sail exam and repair…without us even asking! What a guy!

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

18 comments… add one
  • Alex F Mar 19, 2012, 1:48 pm

    Hi John, would you happen to know of a sailmaker with similar characteristics on the West coast?
    Best regards
    Alex

    • John Mar 20, 2012, 12:21 pm

      Hi Alex,

      I’m sorry I don’t. We will only recommend products and services that we have actually used.

      You might try Richard, I’m sure he would work with you from Maine and if the project was big enough he might even travel to your location, particularly if it was in his slow season.

  • Nate Sep 23, 2014, 11:33 pm

    I know this is a very old thread, but for those looking for similar quality on the west coast, please investigate Port Townsend sailmakers in Washington State. I can attest that they cut no corners, right down to carefully reviewing the test reports for each individual sub-lot of cloth that they purchase. First-rate sailmakers that have years of experience. Carol Hasse, the owner, shares many of Richard’s traits mentioned by John above.
    I’m in a unique position to have met hundreds and hundreds of sailmakers and viewed lofts all over the world. People like Carol and Richard are the exception, not the rule. Their knowledge and attention to detail will be invaluable to someone heading away from civilization by wind power.

    Cheers,
    Nate

    • John Sep 25, 2014, 4:02 pm

      Hi Nate,

      Thanks for the endorsement. I too have heard good things about Port Townsend Sailmakers.

  • Stuart Finlayson Feb 3, 2015, 3:05 pm

    Hi John, would you know of, or heard of, a good sailmaker in the UK.

  • Marc Dacey Feb 3, 2015, 10:03 pm

    Not to barge in, but Dave Rogers, the RYA instructor of Sailing School Brittany (http://www.sailingschoolbrittany.com/), seems so fond of Jeckell Sails (http://www.jeckells.co.uk/) that he has his Bavaria 36’s sails shipped to and from France for service and repair. This is someone who is sailing in all weathers, five days a week for about 11 months of the year. No personal connection, myself, but this particular yachtmaster doesn’t impress me as the type to accept poor work.

  • David Popken Aug 10, 2015, 3:32 pm

    Hi John,

    I know this is an old thread, but I’m curious what particular cruising laminate and what cloth weight that Richard uses for your radial cut sails? I am in Texas, so using him seems a bit of a geographical stretch, but if got 35k miles out your sails, the material has to have a lot to do with it. I guess this is also a test to see if you see a current comment from an old thread.

  • John Aug 11, 2015, 7:55 am

    Hi David,

    The first set were all Spectra, made back when that material was attainable price wise.

    The current set are made from Hydra Net® and we are very happy with the material. Great handling, low stretch, and seem to be holding up well.

    • Dick Stevenson Nov 12, 2017, 1:08 pm

      Hi John,
      This may be better placed elsewhere, But for now…
      Hydra-Net Radial practice repair
      Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
      Alchemy128@gmail.com 12 Nov. 2017
      I have been very happy with the sails made of Hydra-Net Radial sailcloth, with the one caveat that I worried about the day I would need to do a repair as the material is incredibly slippery (leach mainsail streamers even needed to be sewed on). To date, all my on-board sail repairs (previous sails) have been accomplished solely by adhesives or made far easier to sew by sticky-back sail cloth. I have kept my eyes open for possibilities for Hydra-Net repair, and recently came across DR SAILS. Surprisingly, perhaps pleasingly, sail-makers I talked to had little or no experience with HN repairs and I came across no reports of field experience repairs from cruisers.
      The manufacturer of Hydra-Net, Dimension-Polyant, Inc., and the well-known, well-thought-of marine equipment designer/manufacturer, Harken, recommend DR SAILS and both provided me with sample single use packets (D-P also provided sample cloth).
      The following how I did my repair test: please comeback with questions/comments/thoughts.

      Repair test with DR SAILS:
      1. Promises (of the manufacturer)/comments (by me)
      a. No mixing/ (it is 2 part so, of course, there is mixing. They do make a small amount (single use pouches) less messy to mix than some other epoxies.
      b. 8 minute working life: (the single use packages say, in contradiction, “handling time 4 minutes”) might be a little less if you massage the single use pouches to establish a good mix too longer than necessary. I found it hard to judge when I had a good mix. For small areas the handling time seemed short but adequate. For larger areas, larger quantities of epoxy, I would want extra hands to spread the glue)
      c. 22 minute tack free cure: this felt roughly accurate: Unclear whether this “tack free cure” means that this is “fully cured”.
      d. Remains flexible: affirmed.
      e. Works wet/underwater: untested (but likely true and a benefit if repair is under adverse conditions underway)
      f. 36 month shelf life: not very long for an item kept on board for emergency sail repair. (likely longer is my experience with epoxies)
      g. Epoxy works for wide range of products, similar to the promises of other epoxy manufacturers. In my estimation, it works just like other epoxies I have worked with, the difference being that this epoxy remains flexible, which makes it better adapted to sail repair. Note, other epoxy manufacturers promise flexibility, but none I know have been tested for sail repair, especially with Hydra-Net.
      2. Did 4 practice repairs
      a. I used the directions/comments that came with the samples and common-sense experience with other epoxies. There are instructional tutorials on the internet (at drsails.com), but I figured that one might not have internet access when doing an emergency repair. That said, looking at the videos and taking notes for on-board access would probably be wise.
      b. Used a brand-new sample of Hydra-Net, HN343, sent to me by maker
      c. I cut the cloth into squares with the area epoxied equaling 2×2 inch and with tabs for handling (and for pulling on the repair when cured).
      d. Two repairs I put pressure on with a medium weight book and two were just massaged with occasional finger pressure. This reflect my experience that working with sails on a field repair is always hard to manage and awkward to administer pressure etc.
      3. Practice repair
      a. Used single use DR SAILS pouch that mixes internally after massaging the 2 parts through a membrane which breaks allowing mixing.
      b. Prepared the sail cloth by light sanding and then cleaning with acetone (DR SAILS sells a cleaner that comes as pre-packed wipes.)
      c. Mixing entailed massaging the pouches till a connecting membrane breaks allowing the 2 parts to mix. They are of (slightly) different colors that allow some idea of when properly mixed.
      d. There are different amounts one can buy and for them, I suspect, different methods of mixing and judging a 50/50 mix.
      e. A squeegee with a saw-blade edge and a flat edge for spreading the epoxy was provided.
      4. I found:
      a. The epoxy was quite sticky and a challenge to spread from the get- go: not impossible, just a challenge.
      b. I could adjust the position of the two sail pieces after 7 minutes with moderate pressure. I did not have the sense that this minor re-positioning interfered with the strength of the repair and I only adjusted one repair.
      c. It was still very slightly tacky after 20 minutes.
      d. After 25 minutes, the repair resisted moderate pressure by a fairly strong adult male (and may have tolerated full strength pulling pressure). After 1 hour, the repair resisted full strength efforts to pull these 2×2 inch pieces apart.
      e. I found no difference between samples cured under the book’s pressure and the ones massaged together with just finger pressure.
      f. After 3 hours, with effort I could peel back a corner, but the peeling apart became too difficult when I was pulling apart just less than 1 inch of epoxied cloth.
      g. After a few hours the repair was still flexible (stiffer for sure, but this is 2 pieces of cloth glued together so it is bound to be less flexible) and looked and felt fully cured. I suspect the flexibility will remain the case.
      h. I expected that any repair with this epoxy would still require stitching because of the incredible slipperiness of this material. Now I am not so sure. With a high load repair (seam or luff) sewing as back up might make sense, but with a low load repair (spreader chafe) I would likely just epoxy a new piece of cloth over the chafe with adequate overlap.
      i. One single use pouch was able to cover the 4, 2×2 inch square, repairs adequately with a very little epoxy remaining.

      • Marc Dacey Nov 12, 2017, 9:37 pm

        Great report, Dick. Thanks, even though I sport old-school Dacron.

        • Dick Stevenson Nov 13, 2017, 7:27 am

          Hi Marc,
          DR SAILS would likely be an occasionally valuable addition to the repair kit on any boat for sails and otherwise, although for Dacron sails, one would likely turn to the sticky back Dacron for repair for its ease of use. Dick

          • Marc Dacey Nov 13, 2017, 1:29 pm

            Thanks for the heads-up. Sticky-back Dacron I consider adequate for keeping certain tears from getting worse, i.e. a temp fix until proper patch sewing can happen. But if DR SAILS works as you say on Dacron or composite (yes, I have a couple in bags), it might be worth throwing in my sail repair box for a one-step fix.

      • John Nov 13, 2017, 7:47 am

        Hi Dick,

        As it happens, I have Dr. Sails on my spare parts order list for this winter, so good to know it works and the tradeoffs, thanks.

        By the way, Practical Sailor has a piece on sail repair adhesives, including Dr. Sails, in one of the recent issues.

        • Dick Stevenson Nov 18, 2017, 11:41 am

          Hi all,
          I sent my notes on HydraNet repair to friends who had sails in this material and to the sailmaker who made my sails and received interesting enough responses that I thought I would share.
          The sailmaker wrote:

          “Interesting little experiment, as you say, I expect in really high load areas you’ll need some sewing

          You might not believe this & it does sound staggering given the number of HydraNet sails we have supplied, but as I type this reply I cannot think of us having to repair a HydraNet sail!!”

          And a friend with 7 years with HydraNet sails wrote that he believed that HN was a well-kept secret to ensure that sailmakers had enough work. He went on to report that in his 7 years (he is an active cruiser with lots of miles under his keel) he has only repaired some stitching that had chafed/UVed away.

          If this longevity/resistance to damage is accurate, one might argue that the higher initial cost is eminently worth it in the longer run.

          My best Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

          • John Nov 19, 2017, 8:44 am

            Hi Dick,

            That has certainly been our experience with HydraNet too. I’m a huge fan of the stuff.

  • David Popken Aug 11, 2015, 10:25 am

    Thanks John,

    I get what you are saying when you suggest a local loft is better than a salesman with a factory in China. I’m referring to Far East Sails, a company that I bought sails from in 2013 for our previous boat. I was extremely happy with the results. When we sold it last year, the sails were still in very good shape, and had served us well for cruising and club racing, where I turned a beamy old production boat (1978 Hunter) into a consistent performer on the race course. Some credit has to go to the sails. Our current boat, a 1987 Sabre 38 can also be classified as a production boat, albeit a much higher quality production boat than the 70’s Hunters were. If I were to use Far East again, I would be sacrificing the option of having the sailmaker sail with me after purchasing new sails, and any minor adjustments would have to be done locally, a potential extra cost. But considering that the design parameters for our boat’s sails are well established, it seems like a low risk proposition. I am currently soliciting quotes from Far East, Hallett (why not?) and two local sailmakers. I have come round to your position on tri-radials and cruising laminates though. Sailing fast is always better than the alternative.

  • Ronnie Ricca Apr 17, 2017, 11:45 pm

    John or any other posters,
    Our yankee is not original to our boat, it was short on the luff minimum of 5ft and it is very short from luff to clear. So much so that the yankee and staysail don’t match well even trying various sheet angles. That said, do you have any idea of a good sailmaker in the Gulf Coast or lower east coast? I always hear good things about Mack Sails in Stuart, FL. I have a local loft here that I can go to, he’s big in our areas race scene, but not sure of his cutter experience. I thought of getting a new main now and limping with the staysail to FL if I can find a loft. I still need to chat with my local guy first too.

    We’d love to visit Richard but the logistics of him getting good measurements from me at such a long distance doesn’t seem like a wise move. Does he frequent New Orleans any, perhaps? (:

    Regards,
    Ronnie

    • John Apr 18, 2017, 8:07 am

      Hi Ronnie,

      I’m sorry I don’t know any sailmakers in the south of the US. That said, any decent sailmaker should be able to do this. The key test, as I say in my cutter posts, is whether or not they are open to, and appreciative of, cutters. If they are, everything should be fine. If they blow cutters off without listening, just move on to the next one.

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