Ben Meakins tries out some useful temporary sail repair methods that will tide you over until you can get to a sailmaker
Most of us spend much more time servicing our engines than we do our sails, which is a shame, given that the sails are the main motive power for most sailing boats. They have a hard life, being flogged, flapped and dragged around obstacles every time they go up. It’s surprising that they last as well as they do!
Day and weekend sailors don’t experience sail damage so often, with most sails spending most of their lives under sail covers: but talk to anyone who has undertaken a longer passage and you’ll find many a tale of tearing sailcloth and days on end spent stitching in a repair to a relatively new sail while running down the trade wind routes to the Caribbean and Pacific cruising grounds.
Modern sailcloth materials are impressive, with better strength and longevity, resistance to tearing and UV damage than traditional sails – but they still tear and chafe. If your sails are damaged during a day-sail, cruise or longer passage, you need to be able to fix them – or make a repair strong enough to get you home and to a sailmaker.
This article will focus on the kit and some basic techniques that will allow you to get home with all canvas flying – but it’s a good idea to get the sail to a sailmaker as soon as you get home for a proper repair to be carried out.
To push needles through sailcloth without damaging
A selection of sailmaker’s needles in various sizes
To stitch up any sails – and also useful for whipping lines
To patch tears and holes
Fully featured sail repair kit
A selection of sailmaker’s needles in various sizes
A well-fitting, good quality palm will make things much easier
For making holes, an awl – along with a chopping board – is ideal
For quick and easy undoing of old stitching – and undoing any mistakes!
As much of this stuff as you can carry will make repairs more effective
Spinnaker repair tape
Ideally in all the colours of the spinnakers you have on board
A good-quality double-sided tape will help to repair seams and other areas by holding two bits of cloth together while you sew it
Leech tape (folded)
A length of leech tape will let you cover frayed or damaged edges of sails for repair and cover the sticky Dacron
To pull needles through sailcloth when a palm won’t do the job
Candle stub to wax needles
Either candle wax or silicone spray will help get the needle through, especially if you’re using double-sided tape to
hold the seam together
Useful for polishing and de-rusting needles
Some sort of waxed twine will make your repairs much easier – it glides through holes
A useful standby when nothing else is available
The best-quality scissors you can fit in will make life much easier
Although difficult to store, acetone does the job like nothing else when you’re trying to decontaminate an area of a sail prior to sticking
Length of webbing
Webbing is useful for repairing leeches and chafed areas
Dacron Sails: Mending seams
Seams are liable to come apart when the stitching has become degraded by UV light and breaks up. This often happens where the seam has also been rubbing against a shroud or line. It’s easiest to repair before it breaks, so a regular inspection for loose and rotten threads is worth your while, but if you don’t catch it in time…
Dacron Sails: Holes and tears
Tears in the fabric of the sail, as opposed to failed seams, are harder to repair. Here, sail repair cloth is essential. Unfortunately, you’ll need the sail to be dry for it to stick.
Modern laminate sails
Laminate sails are similar to repair to Dacron – except that they generally don’t respond well to stitching, especially when they reach a certain age. That means you’ll need some serious
tapes – and the sail will need to be dry for them to stick. Recently, new products have been introduced which offer some serious adhesive power. One of these is Dr Sails, a two-component
epoxy base adhesive designed for use on sailcloth, which cures in 30 minutes. It’s worth patching laminate sails as soon as you start to notice any degradation or tears in the weave to avoid the laminate breaking down.
Eight tips for effective repairs
There are some things you can do to keep your sails in a condition where they won’t tear.
Remove them when not using them
Take your sails down off the furler and put the sail covers on as soon as you get in to avoid unnecessary UV damage.
Adding chafe patches to high-wear areas of your sails can pay dividends. Adding webbing reinforcement to headboards that chafe on the backstay, or leather patches to areas where sails chafe on stanchions or shrouds, can prolong their life and reduce the chance of having to make a repair.
Boats heading off on downwind ocean passages often tape pipe lagging to their spreaders to avoid chafe on the mainsail.
Regular checks for rotten stitching are a good way to ensure your sail’s seams will stay intact.
UV strips – designed to be replaceable
If your UV strip is degrading, don’t worry – they can be discarded. Drop the sail off at the sailmaker for a new one to be fitted before it starts to fray or tear.