Sails Are Like Tires by Greg Rutkai

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    Sails Are Like Tires by Greg Rutkai

    When shopping for a used sailboat, the purchaser commonly asks the seller "How are the sails?"

    The answers can be all over the place depending on the seller's sailing experience.

    "The sails are like new." "The sails are serviceable." "The boat comes with 12 bags of sails." "The sails are blown out, but still look good." "The sails look bad, but still have good shape." "The sails are Mylar (or Kevlar or Dacron)."

    Often the answer is of little value, but can, nonetheless tell you a lot:

    A brief inspection of the sails will tell the basic story. The age, material and brand of the sails is probably the best indicator of condition. Don't expect a seller to take you out under varied conditions to show you the sails.

    You can, however, sometimes read between the lines. If the seller is a competent sailor with some racing experience, then more can be learned from these kind of descriptions. If the seller is a weekend warrior and a recreational sailor, then the answers may be inadvertently misleading.

    Since a new main and genoa for a 25-footer can range from $2,000 to $5,000, it is nice to know approximately what you are getting.

    Here are some basic tips for the novice boat buyer to help you understand what to expect:

    New sails are great! If the sails have just been replaced then that boat is worth more than a boat with old sails, BUT ... SAILS ARE LIKE TIRES.

    Some tire stores advertise tires starting at $100 for a set, and some drivers spend $400 per tire. Both types of tires roll, but this is where the similarity ends. The same holds for sails.

    You can buy used sails that are like new for half the price of new sails - might work well or might not.

    You can order off brand sails for very low prices, and they will make the boat go and look nice. New cheap sails are like new cheap tires. They generally do not last as long, have poor performance and fewer features such as good headboards, reefs and light stitching work. They are, nonetheless, often fine for just knocking around.

    You can have a reputable sailmaker like North Sails or Quantum make you a set of sails to your specs. These will make your boat sail like you cannot believe! You will feel like you have a new boat.

    Here is the reason why: When buying used sails, folks sometimes go by dimensions. Just because a sail is the same size on the measurements doesn't mean they were designed for your type of rig. Good sails are cut flat or full depending on the mast and rig.

    A fractional rig (headstay does not go to the top of the mast) mainsail will be cut with more fullness because these rigs can bend quite a bit by applying back stay tension. This allows the skipper to adjust the fullness of the main with mast bend. Backstay off gives a full powerful main, backstay tight will flatten the sail and reduce power.

    A mast head rigged boat has a limited amount of mast bend, so a main designed for a fractional rig will be tough to flatten and will make the boat heel excessively even in moderate winds.

    A good set of name-brand sails has several other important advantages:

    Most big sailmakers with multiple lofts share information between lofts. What this means for the buyer, for example, is that if the company loft in Rhode Island has built several sets of sails for a Merit 25, they have some feedback and can make really good sails for that particular boat. Even if your local Texas loft, for example, has seldom built sails for a Merit 25, they can tap into the information from the Rhode Island loft.

    These sails are more expensive, but they are better built, last longer and provide noticeable improvement in sailing performance. This is not only important in racing. A properly trimmed, good sail will provide better forward propulsion with limited heel and leeway. A poorly designed sail will not.

    OK - back to some of those other comments:

    Twelve bags of sails are not better than two if they are mostly good only for drop cloths when you paint your living room. Consider these your "spare" tires, if you must keep them.

    Older and stained sails can still have excellent shape, particularly if they are made of heavy cloth from a quality sailmaker.

    Blown out sails can be re-cut, but this can be expensive and may not make a major improvement. Clean sails can still be blown out. If you cannot make a sail look fairly foil-shaped with the max draft even a little forward of the center, then they may be done. They may still last for a long time, but they will have lost their edge and will be hard to win a race with.

    Some of the best buys in used sails are used racing sails. A racer will replace a perfectly good cruising sail, because a slightly stretched sail means a few seconds a mile and the difference between winning and losing.

    In my opinion, Dacron sails are the best all around choice for most weekenders and cruisers.

    Mylar and Kevlar sails are almost a must these days to win on the race course. These sails are lighter with less stretch and have great shape. These are nice if you can afford them. They also look cool! These are your high performance racing tires!


    Please let Frank know what you think about this new section of Sailing Texas. We need feed back!
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    If you would like to add your thoughts on this or on any sailing topics, please Email Alison at and I will post your sailing experiences on this website.

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