Rags From Riches: common pitfalls with cruising sails

Sailing upwind in the Caribbean

Jamie periodically shares his expertise in a technical article: here he reviews typical problems cruisers experience with their sails, and how to address them. For more from the wells of this cruising sailmaker, see tagged posts on the topic.

Way, way back when I was designing sails for crazy people that sailed around the world in the Whitbread, BOC, and Vendee Globe races, the sail inventory budgets were dazzling! A maxi-boat (about 82’ long) mainsail in the 1989-90 Whitbread Race could be $35,000. Racing around the globe competitively required at least 4 mainsails. Add 25-ish headsails and even more spinnakers and you can imagine why sailmakers loved long distance races.

That boom went bust when the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread Round the World Race) organizers limited the entire sail inventory to just 17 sails. Millions of sailmakers weep for the loss. Porsche dealers and Rolex merchants report lackluster earnings because sailmakers stopped comin’ ‘round.

There is a glimmering benefit to all of this. More time for sailmakers and cruising sailors to make better cruising sails. Sailmakers will laugh. Woven Dacron sails shimmer like tin, not gold. Cruising sailors will either malign sailmakers for not listening to them and then delivering a product that’s unimproved in 50 years; or worship their sailmaker because by-golly they make ‘em like the good ‘ol days, with leather at the corners!

New cruising rags take riches that are too little for sailmakers and too much for cruising sailors. So, naturally, neither shares much quality time for the other. Cruising sails remain lackluster. Some are okay. Many are just lousy: poor quality or mismatched sailcloth, poorly sized headsail, junk hardware, and lame details. If you think my judgement harsh, it comes from many occasions that go something like this.

Sailor: I hear you’re a sailmaker. Can you look at my main? It has a small tear.

(10 minutes later)

Me: You’re right, it is a tear.

Sailor: Hey! Why are you tearing it further?

Me: Like tissue paper. Rotten sailcloth. You need a new sail.

Sailor: What? How can that be, my sails are only 3 years old?

Me: Oh, in that case we should also check your headsail for UV damage.

Sailor: WHAT!?!?

Sailmakers aren’t trained to gracefully deliver bad news. The emotional toll is terrible, even before Sailor stumbles onto the worst part. They’re at a remote paradise with bad sails and no way to replace them. Sailor weeps for the loss. I’ve had this scenario play out many times, including a mainsail that was just two years old. Moving forward, this cruising sailmaker presents common problems and solutions for better cruising sails meant to go the distance.

The dream… champagne sailing! The reality… repairs in exotic locations. Fixing a new friend’s sail in the Bahamas

(Note: sailcloth is a really big topic. Laminated sailcloth has a place on some cruising boats, but consequences like mildew and delamination make it a poor choice for many. Therefore, my focus is on woven cloth problems.)

Problem: High aspect sailcloth in sails bound for the tropics

Fibers make warp and fill yarns and woven to make sailcloth. High aspect sailcloth has many more fill direction fibers than the warp fibers. Logically the sail designer pairs high aspect cloth and high aspect sail (tall and narrow) to best manage sail loads. This is fine in temperate regions and seasonal sailing; it’s a serious flaw when cruising the tropics.

UV degrades tensile strength of exposed fibers. The outer fiber layer of a big yarn protects the inner fibers like sunscreen. High aspect warp yarns are tiny, and degrade entirely. This is how the cloth can fail in 2 to 4 years of active tropical sailing. Low aspect sailcloth is a better choice, even on a high aspect rig. Of course, always cover the sail when not in use.

Problem: Underbuilt sails

Sailcloth manufacturers provide recommendations to match cloth weight to sail size and type. Fixed calculations don’t account for context, like the type of sailing to be done, but that’s where the conflicted sailmaker comes in. Conflicted because when a situation warrants heavier Dacron or woven hybrid sailcloth, the cost goes up, followed by sail price that appears less competitive. Underbuilt sails stretch and distort easily, and are more susceptible to UV degradation. Stronger sails cost more, last longer with more reliability when going remote.

There are three ways to do this. One is simply higher weight sailcloth. A better method for boats over 40 feet, roughly, is adding a 2-ply leech. This puts more Dacron only along the leech of the sail where loads are highest. Last is woven hybrid cloth the combines Dacron and Dyneema/Spectra fibers, such as Dimension Polyant Hydranet. This is stronger, lower stretch, and lighter than conventional Dacron – with a premium price. Rags from riches.

Sailing wing and wing

Not underbuilt! Totem underway to Colombia

Problem: Low grade Dacron

Dacron is a Dupont brand name that has come to colloquially mean Polyester fiber woven sailcloth. A point murkier than bright white Dacron: Polyester fibers in sailcloth come in different grades. Quality brands such as Marblehead by Challenge Sailcloth and AP Blade by Dimension Polyant use high tenacity fibers that are stronger, lower stretch, and more expensive. Economy Dacron may suit casual sailing needs just fine, but come up short on long distance sails.

Problem: Headsail size

Multiple headsails sized for different conditions would be nice, but limited storage and more work with shorthanded sail changes makes them impractical. Instead, many full-time cruisers have one or two headsails, plus staysail or storm jib. The trick to this compromise is sizing the primary headsail well. Setting off to sail the world with a 135% or bigger genoa is probably not a good match. While it can be partially furled to reduce sail area, doing so creates a poorly shaped smaller sail with bias loading that can distort sailcloth. Consider conditions where you intend to sail and boat characteristics. I find that 100% to 120% range is enough without being too much for boats reaching out to multiple regions.

Problem: UV cover fail

Mainsail covers and UV covers on furling sails use materials resistant to UV degradation to protect sailcloth. They only work while securely sewn in place. Astoundingly, so many UV covers still get sewn on with thread that rots in the sun. UV resistant cloth and rot prone Polyester thread! Instead, Tenara thread does not rot and will last the life of the cover material.

Jamie repairs the UV strip for a friends headsail on the dock in Panama

Problem: Chafe

Chafe happens. Running with the main plastered into the rigging chafes at stitching and cloth. The pocket covering full length battens gets the worst of it. Rigid battens rubbing against shrouds and spreaders can cut through the pocket after only a few short passages. The solution is Polyester webbing sewn on top of the batten pockets. This provides many years of chafe protection, and help to dampen shock load to battens if they impact the shrouds after a gybe.

Problem: Survey says!

Having read many marine surveys, it’s fair to say that most marine surveyors don’t put much time or expertise into evaluating sails. Often sails get lumped together and reported as “good”. The transaction goes ahead and new owner brings sails into the local loft for inspection. A few days later a dispassionate sailmaker reports the mainsail is ready for the bin. The leech has serious UV damage from not being covered. The genoa may last another season or two if the UV cover gets replaced. New owner curses the surveyor. Sailmaker hands new owner a quote for new mainsail and genoa repair on the way out the door, mumbling something about being late for a regatta, before disappearing into an old reliable Volvo.

Wondering about your own sails? Jamie’s happy to share expertise one on one, just send us an email! Meanwhile, Totem is happily seeking out taco carts in La Paz, Mexico, and excited to sail north up Mexico’s Sea of Cortez this month.

Suddenly without steering in the Caribbean Sea

Jamie at the helm sailing by yacht M5

Losing steerage is stressful at the best of times. Losing it when hand-steering gnarly seas that threaten to broach the inattentive sailor, on day one of a four-day sail between countries where the sea state is likely to be worse before it’s better? Hectic! Here’s what happened when steering failed on our recent passage from Colombia to Panama.

The event

Motoring out of the protection in Santa Marta bay (with a small deviation from course to rubberneck the 185’ yacht, M5, pictured above), we quickly entered more boisterous conditions outside the protection of the bay. Steep waves were better managed with hand steering; Jamie worked the helm.  Just a few hours out of Santa Marta, Colombia, Totem lurched after a loud bang from the guts of the boat. “We have no steerage!” Jamie called out from the cockpit, instantly in motion.

He dove for the autopilot controls at the companionway: guessing, correctly, that the autopilot would still drive the rudder. Sure enough, it worked and Totem was under control again.

Braced in the nav station, I called to Utopia II over the VHF to let them know our situation. They were just a few miles away—we expected to remain in proximity to them for the duration, and knowing they would be nearby to render aid if necessary was comforting.

Niall worked the autopilot while Jamie set up our emergency tiller. Being ready for the next level of events can mean the difference between difficulty and crisis. Our concern was that heavy seas would overwork our old Raymarine and cause the autopilot to fail. It happened before: four years ago this month, we lost the autopilot, then the eye-bolt that secures steering cable to quadrant broke, THEN the engine overheated- trifecta!

The focus: limiting this event to a single problem. Driving Totem with the emergency tiller is hard work in calm conditions. With our bigger rudder, as Jamie says—using the tiller is like steering a loaded dump-truck without a wheel!

February 2014: steering with the emergency tiller in Thailand

The cause

With Totem under autopilot control, Jamie started troubleshooting. He began at the quadrant. Eye bolts and cable looked fine. Then followed the steering cable forward until it turns on a sheave upward to the binnacle. Bingo! One cable did not look like the other.

The cause was the weakest link, literally. The steering system is comprised of a length of chain that meshes with the sprocket fixed to the steering wheel. Each chain end has a link that secures to the swaged eye at the end of the steering cable. This last link is different than the others. It has a circlip that allows the link to open to lock the swage eye in place. The link broke under that circlip, due to stainless steel crevice corrosion. Jamie inspected the system just a year ago (with 7x magnifying glass), but as is often the case with stainless steel, you cannot see all of the surfaces where a sign of pending doom may lurk.

broken chain link

The weakest link

The fix

Conditions were tough: square-faced breaking seas of 3 to 5 meters. These were the steepest wave we’ve experienced. Using the autopilot with constant adjustments kept us well in control. We touched 13.2 knots a couple times without any dramas, but always ready to jump to the emergency tiller.

After 60 miles in those waves and wind from 25 to 40 knots, we anchored that evening at Puerto Velero, just west of Barranquilla. Nice relief to be in safe harbor, but the day was not over. With the miles and conditions ahead of us, we wanted steering back on line. Earlier in the day, while calling out “plus ten, now go minus ten” to help Niall work the autopilot for steering the waves, Jamie thought through possible solutions. We have spare steering cables, but no spare chain. The solution was one of his favorite materials – DYNEEMA!

Working on repairs by headlamp-light, he removed chain and cables. Then spliced 6mm single-braid Dyneema to the last chain pin to run in place of the wire cable. By 10 that night, the linkage was reinstalled and adjusted. There is chance the quadrant or sheaves may chafe the Dyneema; or the chain pin with Dyneema around it may distort or break. We’re monitoring it and is all good, three weeks and 326 nautical miles so far.

Splicing by headlamp-light

The evening was interrupted by a visit from Maritime Police, an event I’d sooner put in hindsight (details, this post). Happy to leave the harbor the next morning, we motored out behind the Aussie cat, Aseka, in the mellow light of dawn and continued to Panama.

Holiday gifts that cruisers want

Paddling in Guadeloupe

As avowed minimalists, this feels slightly awkward putting a post of holiday gifts together. But the reality is that there are useful needs to meet in a life afloat. This peek into what works hopefully aids those anticipating a similar path: a personal look what’s worked for us, and what’s on our wish list, as idea fodder for gifts to the the sailors in your life. It’s organized into four angles:

  1. Best additions to Totem this year
  2. Wish list: functional gifts
  3. Wish list: what the crew really wants!
  4. Especially for kidsThe Great Kayak Debacle of 2016. Weighing pros/cons, we picked the durability of a fixed board over a space-saving inflatable. A shorter (10’) Jimmy Styx model (year-end closeout!) is right-sized for our humans and has provided hours of fun and fitness. Siobhan paddles in front of Totem, photo at top.
  5. Underwater dome lens – talk about bang for the buck. Only $50 to get some of my favoritest pictures ever. Just fit the GoPro inside and swim! It’s so flippin’ cool to have split images with above/below water…like this one showing Totem  floating in crystal Bahamian water while a nurse shark dozes on the sand below.
  6. Pic made possible with a dome

    Pic made possible with a dome port lens over GoPro. Me on deck, Jamie in the water; Staniel Cay, Bahamas.

    • Winches – Jamie likes to fondle our new Andersen stainless steel winches. No, seriously. Aside from the fact they are incredibly sexy mirror-finish stainless, the engineering of these makes them a better mousetrap, starting with guts that require less maintenance. Ribs on the drum don’t need as many wraps for sufficient friction, and they’re kinder to lines than conventional drum texturing. Jamie is all the warm fuzzies from that ribbed drum. I kinda want to get a lascivious picture of him with one.
    • Mantus scuba– we used to wish for dive gear on Totem, but it never made sense; a mix of upfront cost, equipment x 5 crew, limited space, and just not being die-hard divers. But we do really like getting underwater…a lot! Adding a pair of Mantus tanks has been perfect. Good fun for more marine exploring beyond our freediving skills, plus peace of mind as added safety equipment (invaluable if an anchor fouled below freediving depth / hang time capability).
    Kids dive with Mantus scuba

    Kids dive with Mantus scuba. There’s that dome port lens again too!

    • ACR ResQLink+. This personal locater beacon (PLB) was added to our safety kit for taking off to the Bahamas and beyond. My worst nightmare is losing on-watch crew overboard; I still worry when Jamie’s on watch and I’m “sleeping” off watch – these help me actually relax, knowing he’s basically attached to an EPIRB.
    • Drone – we picked up a Phantom 3 pro during the post-holiday-sales last year. I know, have been lame about sharing the footage (will provide room & board on Totem for anyone who can train us up!) but – WOW. The images are amazing! I love the bird’s eye view it offers of our life afloat! New Years Resolution: learn editing and share some videos. I’m not kidding about hosting someone who can school us! (Aline are you reading?! 😊 )
    Dakity bay Culebra Puerto Rico anchorage

    Culebra, Puerto Rico

    • Dinghy. When our trusty Avon finally gave up (well, it was 19 years old) in Thailand, the Highfield we replaced it with was… suboptimal. Not big enough, didn’t ride as well. A dinghy is one of the most frequently used bits of gear on board so we felt the gap. The 10.5’ AB (aluminum, double floor, bow locker) we picked up at Tradewind Yachting Services in Nanny Cay in September is AWESOME.
    • TOTEM shirts! New earlier this year, we adore these super-soft, organic cotton shirts and LOVE seeing people wear them. If you order Totem gear (Ts, caps and a hemp market bag too), send us a picture!Show your (neutral, water-based) colors with a yummy soft Totem Tshirt!

      Show your (neutral, water-based) colors with a yummy soft Totem Tshirt!

II. Wish list: practical

The next set… well, they aren’t exactly sexy holiday gifts. But the way our family looks at the world is in more practical term (I just realized how crazy that probably sounds to a lot of readers- yes, chucking convention to live on a boat with no fixed address is very practical. Really!): these are the practical wish-list expenditures. Right now we’re saving all our pennies to transit the Panama Canal but; some of these we expect (chaps, shade) others are less likely.

  • Dinghy chaps. Fabric covers fitted to the hypalon tubes extend their life by preventing chafe and reducing UV exposure. These are labor intensive and custom made, haven’t rationalized this expense just yet.
  • Outboard. Dinghy theme lately? Our outboard has been struggling for over a year, something that dependably gets a full load on a plane would be sweet. This 15hp Yamaha would do us right.
  • Repaint Totem’s hull. It’s so beat up, the guys working in the shipyard in Grenada were laughing at us—all in good fun—and asking if they could give her a makeover! Hey, there’s a dugout canoe associated with almost every ding, those are good memories…OK yeah it would be nice to have a pretty boat again.
  • Cockpit shade. We have an AWESOME, pretty new (2016) bimini frame (thank you to the great guys at TurboXS!)…but it still lacks the whole fabric-shade-that-attaches-to-it part. It will be really nice to get the last mile of this addition completed.
  • Sailrite. We’ve gone back and forth on these durable sewing machines. Cons: machines need to be used to stay workable; they are heavy, and they take up a chunk of storage. But in the Pro column: Jamie could do a lot with one, like dinghy chaps and cockpit shade! He’s a sailmaker, used to be a hands-on in the pit guy and knows his way around a pro machine. Our M.O. to date: Jamie fixes other cruiser’s Sailrites that have stopped working after languishing in a locker by bartering for usage to get a project done.
Making our dodger soft sides in Jacksonville: thanks Patty!

Making our dodger soft sides in Jacksonville: thanks Patty!

  • Countertops. The formica installed in Thailand, unfortunately, is not good. It’s a long story. But the formica is nearly worn through, the trim wasn’t done right, and a bunch of other stuff. For the Someday files. Solid surfacing would be so dreamy!
  • Solid state external drives. The movable parts on hard drives, in computers and external drives, have shorter lifespans with the small constant motions of a boat. SSDs would be less prone to failure. The multiple of expense is unfortunate (and almost rationalized by failed drives!). The only downside: external SSDs are mostly small, so you’d need a bunch to accomodate all the photo and video files a family accumulates. Sample: this Samsung 2TB drive, ~$800.

III. Wish list: just for fun

What’s your heart’s desire? I asked everyone on board to contribute their “wish” gift idea for something they have zero need for, but a dose of desire. This turned out to be difficult: we are pretty good at being satisfied with what we have instead of craving what the boat next door has! But there are some great ways to be indulgent on board. The top five are our personal picks, the rest are from family brainstorming.

  1. Niall: PADI dive certification. (shhh: I think we figured out how to do this affordably enough in Bonaire next month! He doesn’t read the blog – don’t spill the beans anyone!!)
  2. Mairen: horseback riding. (still with the experiences. C’mon Mairen it’s about Stuff! She never got beyond “more art supplies then?”)
  3. Siobhan: a puppy. KIDDING. Except she wasn’t. Her BATNA wish is to have any book she wants for a year. Qualified with “you know I use the library mostly.” People, she reads a LOT. Thank goodness for ebook loans from our hometown library!
  4. Jamie: Code zero with a continuous line furler on a sprit. Because the sailmaker’s boat is a little bit like the cobblerss kids… often wanting. Here’s why Jamie thinks this is a winner sail for cruisers.
  5. Behan: fancypants freediving fins, and lessons to go with them. (As long as we’re daydreaming, I’d learn from supermama and freediving champion Ashley Chapman at Evolve Freediving, with a whole- family lesson!)

More Totem crew wish-list picks that may generate ideas for giftees on your list:

  • Water-friendly drone. We’re having so much fun with the ‘regular’ drone, imagine one that lands on the water, or follows behind the dinghy – saltwater spray be damned?! This very cool looking Splash Drone 3 lands on the water and floats. Whoa. Or the QuadH2O: double whoa.
  • Mini home theater projector. We watched movies outside on the Delos deck once upon a time; I harbor dreams of hosting anchorage movie nights with a film displayed on a sail “screen.” One that’s bright enough, not to big, and doesn’t draw too much power, decent speakers…or 3 out of 4. Like this maybe (and wow, that’s a good price!)?
  • New computer. OK, not family but Jamie. The Toughbook that is our navigation computer doubles as his personal machine, but doesn’t play well with Windows 10. Newer models do. Still a big fan of Toughbooks for their durability on board.
  • Camera equipment. Better underwater shots with an Olympus Tough: the GoPro is awesome for environmental shots, but fails on macro, and those are fun to take underwater. Above sea level, I traded in all my Nikon gear to migrate towards Sony’s mirrorless a7 series, and will always be drooling over lenses.
  • A dozen Luci lights. We have one and it’s fantastic: indulgent wish list version,- how cool would a strand of them be hung tiki-light style around the cockpit?!the masks they got from Divers Direct in Florida this year, and they’re very reasonably priced (holiday sale: $40?!).
  • Beach fun: boogie boards and beach bocce are our favorites.
  • Fishing kit. Get kids their own tackle box, handline, a net to grab stuff that goes overboard; even a Hawaiian sling spear if they can handle it.
  • Field guides. Not kid books, but GOOD field guides. Identification of underwater life was a big hit from the time we started cruising with littles. Region-specific matters, I believe: the Gottshall two-book set is amazing for Pacific Mexico; DeLoach guides rule for the Caribbean: one for Reef Fish, one for Coral, one for, well, everything else (Reef Creatures).
  • Scooters.  Bikes are impractical; kids like wheels and folding scooters fit. Utility varies by cruising grounds (not a lot of roads in some oceanic regions!), but these are great get-around fun.
  • Arts & crafts. I’m not very crafty, so packaged kits like Klutz are perfect for me. Getting good materials will serve you later: these watercolors are richly pigmented and last a long time. Oragami, beading, or whatever! There are lists for this in Voyaging with Kids.
  • Chocolate. Yes this was on their list. Clearly these are my children.
  • Board games, cards. Our current favorite is Dread Pirate (thank you Sallianne and Doug!). Try cooperative games! Family Pastimes games got us started… Pandemic is the classic. This post about games cruisers play lists a number of other favorites on board.
  • Legos. Our lego days are over, but the kids know these are huge for the younger set.
sailboats anchored rafted drone Caribbean

Totem and Utopia, rafted up for Thanksgiving last week: because 1) better with friends and 2) drones rock!

Want more ideas?

Here are the Christmas gift posts from the last few years. They’re all aimed at cruisers, but each with a slightly different take:

  • Gifts that give a little more (2016). Focusing on sourcing gifts that contribute in some way to a greater good than just the Thing.
  • Gifts under $50 for sailors (2015). Keeping the costs contained! OK, there was one item over $50.
  • Gifts for cruisers (2014). Tried & true: fun, functional gifts that cruisers can use.