Sailmaking for the impatient sailor

May 18, 2011

Sailmaking is one of the great and ancient mariner arts. It conjures images of crusty old sailors sitting on barrels surround by yards of cotton canvas and pipe smoke as miles of thread are worked through fabric.

Unfortunately, my approach to sailmaking is considerably less romantic.

The completed sail. My son is keeping it from flying away in the wind while I stand on the roof of my workshop to take this photo.

First a little background. My research over the past two years suggested three possible routes to the acquisition of sails for my Pocket Cruiser. First, I could purchase ready-made sails for about $600. So many Stevenson boats are built that several companies (including the boat’s designer) offer sails that are just right for my boat. That’s the fastest and most expensive route. I just place my order and wait by the mailbox.

Secondly, I could buy some Dacron sailcloth and sew my own sails. It sounds intimidating, but it is doable. Boat designer Jim Michalak has a detailed discussion of  sailmaking in his novice-friendly book Boatbuilding for Beginners and Beyond. For anyone who knows how to use a sewing machine (and I do), this is a worthy option. The downside is that even inexpensive sailcloth costs real money and I assume that a serious time commitment is involved.

Finally, there is the quick and cheap option. A growing number of backyard boat builders get  on the water without delay by cutting a workable set of sails out of large plastic tarps—the kind used to cover outdoor furniture in winter or protect a woodpile from rain. They come in surprisingly large sizes and advocates say they are nearly as durable as Dacron—at least for a while. Instead of thread to sew their sails, these guys use guy materials—duck tape for the seams and grommets for the lashing. In an afternoon, I learned, it’s possible to turn a very large sheet of polytarp into a fully finished sail.

Polytarp sails are not perfect. While reasonably sturdy, they don’t last nearly as long as real sails, I am told. Pete Stevenson, my boat’s designer, admitted that they are generally good for a “season or two.” He and others recommend against their use on long voyages. This leaves me wondering how they will fail. Do they degrade and rip? Do the grommets pull out? My suspicion is that the duck-taped seams will peel and shred. But in either case, the consensus is that they are a functional but short term solution.

On the other hand, they are cheap–and that tipped the balance. I purchased a large 16’ x 19’ polytarp from an online supplier for about  $70 last fall (sailmakers are not limited to green or blue tarps found in home centers; I chose a plain white material). For taping the edges, a single small role of duck tape is enough. The grommet kit is also economical.

The actual work is really just a matter of drawing several long lines and cutting out a very large triangle-ish shape. But the work is not without its small challenges. First is the problem of workspace. I discovered that I do not have a flat surface anywhere on my property that is 16 feet wide and 19 feet long. My garage is large, but all available floor space is now occupied by my boats. Outside, my bumpy, sloping yard was entirely unhelpful. My driveway is gravel, and not suitable for careful measurement and cutting.

In hindsight, it would have made sense to cut my sail two years ago when I could roll the tarp out on my not-yet-cluttered garage floor. That’s actually Jim Michalak’s recommendation. Sails take up about as much space as the boat, he argues, so use your floor space to make the sail when you still have the space available. It’s sound advice, although I don’t know if I would have followed his recommendation even if I had read his book two years ago. I was too eager to start cutting wood.

My imperfect solution was to roll out part of the tarp in the garage, draw a couple of lines, and then roll out the other side and draw the rest. It took a long time and made me worry about inaccurate measurements, especially since there are no right angles. The bottom edge of the sail (the part tied to the boom) is 83 degrees to the side tied to the mast, for example. This required measurements with a laughably small and primitive protractor. Even a small twist in the fabric would send the lines off course. To double check my work, I took the tarp outside and opened the whole thing  on the driveway.  I fixed a couple of wobbly lines and then set to work with my pocket knife.

Two edges were wrapped in duck tape: the bottom edge, which will be tied to the boom, and the angled top edge, which will be lashed to the gaff. Making grommets was the most time consuming work, and a new experience for me. I was entertained (at least for the first few grommets) by the task to punching out holes with simple metal die, inserting two parts of the grommet and then tapping them together with a mallet and specially made metal punch. After about a dozen holes, the novelty wore off and I was ready to be done.  The result can be seen in the photo.

I also need to make the jib, but that’s a smaller and simpler project. Now that I know how to process works, I can get that ready in an  hour or two. On to the next step.