Basic Preseason Sail Inspection
by Dan Dickison
If you're like a lot of folks around the U.S., you've been a little distant from your boat the past few months. Now, as the mercury in your thermometer—okay, the sensing unit in your digital weather station—spends more time in the temperate ranges of its scale, sailing looms more prominently in your thoughts. In places like New England and the Great Lakes, boat owners are putting their steeds back in the water, which means that they're figuratively, and often literally, shaking the rust off. So, at this time of year, it's fitting that we offer some advice on getting your sails ready for a season (or more) of use.
If you haven't aired out your sails all winter or really had a close look at them, spring is the perfect time. If you can, find a warm day, or at least one with semi-stable weather for a few hours, and head down to the boat. If you're just concentrating on your sails, you shouldn't need anything more than a notepad and pencil and a clean rag. But you may as well tote along a tool kit with some lubricating spray, just in case. The objective here is pretty simple. You want to examine the sails, assess and note any needs pertaining to repair, and essentially assure yourself that the sails will be ready for action come the first outing of the season.
It would be ideal on this occasion to go through the whole sail inventory, but if you don't have the time for that, just concentrate on those sails you intend to use most regularly. And, don't forget to inspect whatever equipment it is that you customarily use in conjunction with those sails (mainsail track cars, whisker poles, fiddle blocks, etc.). You'll be looking for any parts of the sails or other equipment that will require either maintenance or more serious attention. A rusted or recalcitrant hank on a headsail luff can be taken care of pretty easily with some lubricant, pliers and a little persistence, but frayed stitching on your mainsailís leech tape will likely mean a trip to the repair shop, or at least the application of some sticky-back dacron (some sailmakers refer to it as insignia cloth.) Remember, getting small tears or loose stitching issues taken care of now will keep them from becoming bigger problems later on.
With the mainsail, start at the tack ring and begin inspecting the luff. As you move up the sail toward the head, examine the parts that attach the luff to the mast. If your mainsail has a bolt rope on the luff, you'll want to make sure bolt rope is well secured to the sail and not worn, particularly where the bolt rope is attached to the headboard. For those sails with luff slides or slugs, damage here is usually pretty apparent, but cars will require closer inspection. Make sure that each car can articulate in its full range of motion. If the car has bearings or slides, lubricate those according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Also, make sure there isn't excessive wear near the reef points along the luff.
Depending upon your boat's rig, it might be convenient to hoist the mainsail in order to conduct this inspection. If the prevailing weather allows, this can be a good way to ascertain whether or not your mainsail is stretched out. (It should go without saying that you shouldn't hoist any sails if your boat is out of the water and stored on jacks or poppets.) As you work your way around the sail, note the condition of the forward end of the batten pockets. Are these areas worn? If you have conventional batten pockets, they're apt to have elastic receptors in them. These keep the battens under tension after they're inserted, which helps to support the leech of the sail. Make sure those receptors still offer some resistance when the batten is inserted. If the elastic is spent, it can be replaced very easily by a sailmaker. And, if you have full-length battens, make sure that forward receptacle brackets are still mounted tightly to the sail. Elsewhere, you'll want to play close attention to the stitching in the sail, particularly along the leech where the loads are characteristically heavier.
Also, have a look at the foot line and leech line cleats (if your sail has those controls). Determine if these are working properly. It's not uncommon for the small jam cleats that normally secure these lines to wear out after a few years. Now would be the time to replace them, and you can do this yourself, but it requires some skill with a needle, palm, and waxed thread. (In some cases, these cleats are riveted in place, and that you can do yourself as well.)
Inspecting headsails also means inspecting some hardware, whether it's furling gear, simple hanks, or halyard shackles. One easy way to check the luff of a headsail is to have a friend or partner slowly hoist the sail on the headfoil or headstay while you scrutinize the luff as it ascends. Note any problem areas with the sail or its attached hardware. Before you drop the headsail back on the deck, add a little more halyard tension and then sheet the sail using the normal upwind sheet leads to make sure that the sail still has some life left in it and doesnít require replacement. If the sail is overly stretched, it won't trim well to the normal sheet lead locations, and you may see vertical wrinkles along the luff. If either of these is the case, it's likely that the sail shape is blown out. A good gauge for this the location of the maximum draft while the sail is hoisted and trimmed in. If that max draft is well aft of 25% back from the luff, chances are that your sail will be a good candidate for replacement.
Once youíve thoroughly inspected your boat's working sails, spend a little time examining the corners and outer panels of any spinnakers or drifters that you intend to use. If you want to be more thorough, you can find a place on shore with a smooth surface where you can tie the head of the spinnaker to a post or pole and then stretch the sail out one section at a time over that smooth surface so that you can more fully examine it. And, if you're a serious offshore sailor, you'll also want to have a close look at your boatís storm sails (storm trysail and jibs) and any other heavy weather sails in the inventory. In these cases, pay close attention to the stitching and attachment hardware. But for the majority of sailboat owners, simply giving the mainsail and most regularly used headsail a good inspection should be all you need to do to ensure that these items will be good to go when get back aboard for your first sail of the season.
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.