Off Season Sail Care
by Dan Dickison
Itís late August and summer is winding to a close. Schools around the country have resumed, and in some locations, boatyard managers are making plans to start hauling boats. In a matter of weeks, a good 40% of the sailboats in the U.S. will be on dry land or otherwise put away for the winter season.
Most boat owners know to winterize their engines, send messenger lines up the rig to keep their halyards out of the elements, and generally batten things down for the off season. But fewer are aware of the important steps required for properly storing sails. Too often, mainsails are left on the boom, and roller-furling headsails left wrapped around the headstay for the duration of the winter. This kind of exposure to mother nature will ultimately lessen the lifespan of those sails.
Most sailors know the damage that continuous exposure to ultra-violet radiation can do to sails. But keep in mind that the heat from the sun can also be damaging, and itís difficult to gauge. The ambient temperature might be 95 degrees in the boatyard, but itís not uncommon for the surface temperature on an objectósay a mainsail under its cover on a boomóto be 115 degrees. The cumulative effect of days spent in that kind of heat will be structural damage.
So what are the best ways of storing your sails for the offseason? Getting those sails off the boat and out of the elements is ordinarily the best bet. Still, some sailors prefer the convenience of leaving their sails on board, but well covered. If you take this tack, just be sure to ease the halyards on roller-furling sails and loosen any battens that are under tension so that the sail cloth or the reinforcement points donít remain loaded during all that time at rest. Also, seal up the sails as well as possible so that you wonít later have to deal with birdís or hornetís nests a few months down the road. And, if itís your practice to store your mainsail by flaking it on the boom, you really should consider rolling the sail instead. The object here is to avoid creasing or wrinkling the sail cloth for a prolonged period of time. (To effectively roll any working sail, start at the head and roll the sail toward the foot, taking care to keep the rolls relatively tight, but again, not so tight that the cloth is stressed.)
Depending on what kind of sails you own, most sailmakers recommend a seasonal cleaning of the sails. There are various firms around the U.S. that specialize in this business, and they have machines built expressly to do this, but be sure to ask beforehand what kind of wear and tear that process will contribute to the sail.
Some of this work you can do this on your own. At the very least, if youíre going to be taking your sails off the boat for an extended off-seasonóand I recommend thatórinse the sails with fresh water and allow them to dry thoroughly. In fact, regularly rinsing your sails with fresh water can be very beneficial, as long as the sail is allowed to dry thoroughly before it is put away. When you rinse a sail, you remove salt/grit that may have accumulated on the sail. And, an additional benefit is that going through these steps will allow you the opportunity to inspect your sails more closely than you probably did while they were on the boat. This is your opportunity to discover any wear and tear that ought to be attended to as well.
If you do clean the sails yourself, use only a mild detergent (like diluted Ivory soap) and a soft brush, or better yet a rag. And never use chlorine bleach on sails built with Kevlar or Nylon. Then, rinse the sail thoroughly and allow it to dry completely. If a sail is put away for the off season while itís still damp, you can be certain that mildew will set in. Mildew doesnít affect the structure of a sail, but itís unsightly and is nearly impossible to remove completely if left unattended too long.
Where you store your sails is also important. You want to find a cool, dry location, especially in hot, humid climates like Florida. Make sure that the bags covering your sails seal well enough to keep out mice or rats as they have been known to gnaw away at Dacron.
All of this may sound like a lot of bother, but sails are expensive and theyíre an undeniably critical element for any boat. Having them in good shape when youíre ready to begin using your boat again after the off-season is truly worth that effort.
About the Author: Dan Dickison is known throughout the sailing community for his in-depth articles on a variety of sailing topics. His resume includes stints as a staff editor at Sailing World, Editorial Director of SailNet, and Editor of Practical Sailor. In those capacities he has written principally about racing, sail handling, and maintenance. He has also written over 50 freelance articles that have appeared in major sailing publications around the world.