Sailmaking is not, and never has been, immune from the downward price pressure that the expansion of online shopping has generated. We all know the drill. Search sailmakers, click half a dozen different ones, fill out the request a quote form, and depending on the company, you might get a computer generated quote back before the next sip of the beer or an email the next day, or week. Well, that is great if you want something that is white with three corners and might fit your boat more or less. That is a way to buy a sail (or anything) based on price. It is not a way to ensure value, especially over time.
A couple of sails for a 35 to 40 footer might be as much as a new engine or generator. Good sails will often outlast the engine. Great sails will definitely outlast the engine. If you want value in your sails, I recommend you take advantage of the biggest resource any sailmaker has: the person at the end of the phone.
Depending on which sailmaker you are calling, the voice at the other end of the phone has a plethora of experience on boats of all shapes and sizes. AND this is one area where being older pays off. A young man recently graduated from college may be an All-American dinghy racer, but unless he has had to get up out of a warm bunk at 0230, pull on wet slickers, harness up, go on deck to 35-45 knots of wind and large, confused breaking sea to deal with some failure of equipment or sail, he (and we are universally male. I know of no female sail saleswomen although there are certainly many offshore experienced women sailors) just has not had the experiences to discuss finer details of sails intended to go on a boat especially one that might go only as far as Bermuda and sometimes a lot farther.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from a fellow who wanted advice, specs and pricing on sails so he and his teenage daughter might sail from New York to New Zealand. Well, those sails are not something you just whip up and ship off to New York, at least if you want to sleep at night. I am the kind of guy that when I put sails on a boat and push him off for the edge of the horizon, I want to have him come back in a year, two or three and have absolutely nothing to say about the sails. Until I ask him and he says “oh yeah they have been really great…”
When the father-daughter duo sets off on this New York to New Zealand trip, they’ll head south and through the Panama Canal. When they exit the Canal, their next leg is Balboa (at the Pacific End of the Panama Canal) to the Marquesas’, which is about 4,200 miles, so roughly as long as a transatlantic from New York to Marseilles and the track is a LOT less populated. A week out of Balboa, the boat is truly in its own little world and the equipment had damn well better work, especially the sails. A 38-foot sail boat cannot possible carry the fuel to motor anywhere a thousand miles out into this part of the world, regardless of how many yellow jugs are lashed on the life lines. Much better to put the money up front into understanding what is required to have sails that will get you where you want to go with many miles left over.
Close to 10 years ago, we completed the third fleet inventory for the Chay Blythe Global Challenge, the race around the world, upwind, in stages. We took a phone call one morning from Dee Caffari, the winning skipper in that race, as she was gearing up for a new project. Dee’s sponsor had funded her for an assault on the east to west, circumnavigation, solo, non-stop record. OUT came the files for the past three events with 12 boats each, 36 boats all with multi stop circumnavigations. We had a pretty good idea of what was needed. But, this was a 72 or so foot, maybe 80,000 lb steel boat designed, built and outfit for a crew of 12. We were charged with designing, ENGINEERING and building sails for a 150 lb. woman, sailing alone. We put a lot of thinking into every detail on these sails. Redundancy for certain things, like leech lines, movable chafe resistance on the battens and so on. This set of sails alone ran to 2 one-inch binders. Upshot? Dee completed the passage, broke the record, only 6 months at sea, alone…and she reported no problems with the sails.
Going back to the father-daughter duo going to New Zealand. We spoke for perhaps 50 minutes, and did not get anywhere near the price.
How long have you been sailing?
Many years, but only dinghies.
How long on this boat?
Dad and I sailed it up from Florida and hauled it out to do work.
What sails does it have now?
An old main and a big genoa and a small sail with an orange corner….
Trysail? Heavy weather jib? Inside staysail set up? What kind of reefing system on the main, what kind of furler? What is your plan for sails for use in 30 knots? Are you willing to go to the bow to change sails, or the mast to reef? How athletic do you consider yourself? I kid you not, being on even a 38-foot boat at sea trying to do things even in 20-25 knots of wind is a work out. Just hanging on can be the equivalent of your 20-minute daily allowance of cardio. It is just not possible for the college sailor, or frankly someone who spends their time on “racing” boats to really come to grips with this without having experienced it.
The take away?
If you want your sails to work for you, in all wind AND sea conditions, upwind and down, when your unskilled mate who is steering for a minute while you check the course gybes all standing and breaks a couple of battens, when the furling line chafes through in 30 knots and the headsail unwinds but the line gets caught with turns still on the furler so you can neither roll the sail nor furl it…
Make sure you have been talking to a guy who has been there and done that. It will be worth every penny of the 10-15% premium you paid for the sails because you are not paying for X square feet of sailcloth but for long hard years of experience.
And you will pay for it one way or another.