It is not uncommon for sail customers to still have in their mind’s eye the classic image of an elderly man in check shirt & overalls sitting on a stool, palm in hand sewing a sail together looking like a Norman Rockwell illustration titled  “The Sailmaker”. After talking with customers for while either over the phone, or not infrequently, escorting them on a tour through the Middletown Loft they are, almost universally, astounded by the level of sophistication and technology used in sail making today.

Handwork is still by hand, but as with all manufacturing of semi-custom capital products, a lot of the work goes in at the front end. Like any human endeavor, a keen eye for the finer details of the project, invariably won by hard experience over the years, is an advantage in order to capture all the nuances of the boat and rig. A sail must not only work as a driving force on the boat, but it must physically fit on the boat and do that which it is called upon to do. Accurate details are more important today then in “the old days” because the machines are dumb. They will do what you tell them to do. The more precise one can be, the nicer the product will that emerge.

Any discussion over new sails almost always includes of course, which sail, what percentage LP required for a Headsail, racing or not, the material, the number of reefs, full length battens or not if it is a Mainsail and if going offshore, some detail regarding chafe protection and of course the price. Never in my years in the sail trade has there been any discussion concerning the other 20 or so details that sail reps, sail designers and sail makers need in order to actually fabricate the sail and have a reasonable chance of it fitting on the boat from day one.

The mainsail alone has several important items apart from the obvious like length of luff, leech and foot, but also what type AND size of slider at the luff. Flat or round and what width and if flat, how thick? These are just a few of the options. Fortunately for Sailmakers, and so customers, the manufacturers of slides usually have them ID’d so they are easy for the sails rep to put on the spec sheet that goes to the designers. I, and my brethren, carry a small bag with samples of slides, luff tapes for both genoa furlers AND mainsail boltrope tunnels, if the sail is to be so equipped.

Another detail we look at is how big is the masthead crane, how long is it? On newer boats say after 1990 (I never thought that 25 years would be newer…) it is not unusual for the crane to be longer than on say some of the 1960’s boats. In those days boats were changing from wooden to aluminum spars but the rigging fittings used still came from wooden spar thinking. If you have such an older boat, you probably have a very small masthead crane, maybe only 1 or 2 inches long. On a modern boat it might be 4,5 or 6 inches long. This detail has an impact on both the hoist of the sail and the size of the headboard used on the sail. With such a short crane IF the sail has a normal headboard, then the sail needs to stop some distance down from the actual top of the track. If not the headboard will foul the backstay. So if your new mainsail arrives for say an older Pearson 35, and you pull it up and it looks like it is 18-20 inches short, take a deep breath before you call the Sailmaker and look the masthead crane. It is quite possible the sail is built to the boats “P” yet not be “full hoist” in order to not foul the backstay.

Another detail has to do with the reefing arrangements. Unless the sales rep has a full understanding of how you reef the boat, it is not hard to have the reefs in the sail positioned so as to not work as well as they could. NOT so much the height up and down but rather something simple, like how far aft of the mast the reefing blocks on the boom are. If, say, the blocks are 12 feet aft of the mast but the girth (fore and aft distance from the luff to the leech AT the reef point) reef is 12-6”, then when the reef is pulled down it is impossible to get the reef tight on the boom. And such a mistake is not difficult to do. For instance say you wanted a larger sail, one with more roach/girth in general and this question about the position of the reef blocks did not come up or was not measured because maybe the sales rep. was focusing on the girth question and missed where the reef blocks are. The reverse is also true, the sail shows up, you hoist it and it does not look any bigger than the old one it might be due to the position of the reef blocks.

The other end of the reefing systems at the tack needs some scrutiny too. There are a number of variations on several basic types of securing the reef tack. For instance is there a pair of J hooks at the gooseneck? These are inverted J shape fittings commonly made from round stainless steel and attached to the gooseneck near the tack fitting. The idea is that the reef is pulled down and the reef cringle is fit over this hook. If you have such an arrangement and do NOT have what we call floppy rings, then you find that reefing-getting the reef cringle over this hook is a royal pain in the steering post. With the floppy rings, when the sail is down, it is much easier to fit this ring onto the J hook.

These are just a few of the things sailmakers and their reps have to think about in order to provide the sort of sails we all want to. I will cover some more of these details on the next edition of Under the Hood.

This is one variation on reefing, the single line style. The block is to minimize the friction that the reefing line experience going thru all the turns required to be a single line reefing system.


MITCHELL REEF HOOK TACK HOOKSmitchell reef hook tack
This arrangement using snap shackles is a variation on the J hooks idea. This version allows the reef rings to be positively secured so that they will not slide off the J hook while you run back aft to tension the halyard. This method is superior of the halyard aft AND if you sail solo or double-handed. It allows you to put a reef in without waking your mate to deal with the halyard.


reef tack j hooks


Here is a clean view of very basic J hooks on a Selden spar. This arrangement is much easier to use if the mainsail has “floppy rings” in the luff reef cringles.




REEF END ISSUEreef end issue

This image shows the problem with the position of the reef lines on the boom. In this case, the reef lines
exit the boom at the aft end of the spar, very common today. BUT, since this was the first time this new owner had rigged up the main, his assumption of where to tie of the bitter end was off by a bit, so it is a good picture to demonstrate the point. We moved the end of the reef line that tied around the boom, so that it was aft of the block on the sail so that both parts of the line were pulling aft.


This is another view of the issues of reef girth related to the position of the reefing gear on the boom. You can see the reef line is pretty snug, but the sail is not tensioned across the sail’s girth. This was an easy fix in that the reef line was removed from this totally inadequate eye strap and tied around the boom in the same manner as the image above.