Basic Advice for the Pre-Purchase Process
by Dan Dickison

When most sailors consider purchasing new equipment for their boats, sails are often the last things that come to mind. The presumed logic behind this outlook is that sails are so integral to a sailboat that they’re all too easy to overlook. It’s true, you’ll rarely find sails listed in marine catalogs. And when we sailors sit around and talk with fellow boat owners about gear we’d like to buy, it’s usually deck hardware, electronics, or even rigging that we discuss well before the talk turns to sails. But purchasing the right sail can have a pronounced impact on your boat’s performance—and your budget—as much or more than almost any other single item, save a new engine.

So, it’s prudent to consider some important questions about your boat, your sailing preferences, and your expectations before jumping into the fray and talking with sailmakers about a new sail. Taking a few moments to ensure that your priorities are in order can help a lot when it comes to actually placing an order.

Start by asking yourself, do I really need a new sail? Numerous elements will factor into the answer here, including the condition of your current set of sails, the way in which you use your boat most, and your expectations for future sailing. Let’s say you’ve got a mainsail with five or six years use on it, and you’ve been thinking lately that you’d like to replace it. Chances are, if the shape of that sail isn’t too far gone and the cloth still has some rigidity to it, you might manage to get another season, perhaps two, out of that sail.

Further, if you’re the kind of sailor whose activity is primarily limited to occasional weekend cruises and recreational day sails, and you don’t actively race your boat or plan to do any serious offshore sailing in the coming year, the chances are even better that you can make do with the existing mainsail. Sailors of this ilk don’t ordinarily regard performance as an overly important factor, so for them, an older, not-so-efficient sail is less likely to impinge on their enjoyment of sailing.

Lastly, you should consider what you’ll be doing with this boat two years from now. Will you still be using it in much the same way, or is there a chance that you might sell the boat? If that latter is true, you’ll find it even easier to talk yourself out of ponying up for a new sail.

OK. Once you’ve addressed those essential questions, you’ll either be a buyer, or you won’t. If you’ve determined that you do want to buy a new sail, your next step is to consider another brief list of important questions. These are nuts and bolts items that any good sailmaker should ask the boat owner before rendering a quote.

First, what kind of boat do you have? Knowing the make, model, and year the boat was built not only ensures that you end up with the right sail, but it will expedite getting the initial quote from a sailmaker. Then, does your boat have a standard rig, or an optional or modified rig? Often times, even the most standard production boats have variations in their rig dimensions, and getting accurate rig dimensions is a critical underpinning to building the right sails.

Next, where do you sail, and how do you use your boat most often (cruising, day sailing, etc.). Sailmakers have many options available when specifying the kinds of fabric and the style of construction that will be used in a given sail, and offering them information about your sailing style and venue will help them make the appropriate decisions regarding those important aspects.

Lastly, be prepared to tell the sailmaker why it is that you’re buying a new sail. Any good sailmaker should be interested in finding out about the condition of your current suit of sails. They may be able to glean important information that will bear upon the new suit by way of that discussion.

Such discussions help you eliminate the omission of information. One area that can easily be overlooked is the boat’s overall inventory. If the sailmaker you’re talking with doesn’t ask about the other sails you have on board, then you need to offer that information. Ideally, a new mainsail won’t be designed in a vacuum, but with a full understanding of what kind of headsails there are on the boat. The converse of that is true as well.

And that’s really the most important point here. When you work with a sailmaker, that person needs to ask questions, but they also need to be able to listen to your responses as well as your questions. When you buy a new sail, it shouldn’t just be a matter of money changing hands, but information as well. The sail-buying process is ideally a two-way interaction. And the best sailmakers aren’t didactic salesmen, they’re people who listen, assess, and advise. Keep that in mind, and you’ll end up not only with a better deal, but a sail that’s more appropriate for your boat and your needs.

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.

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