Hand–Tailored Sail Repair
Seamanship: “All of the arts and skills of boathandling, ranging from maintenance and repairs, to piloting, sail handling, marlinspike work, rigging and all aspects of boat operation.”
This definition of “seamanship” became particularly apropos one day while we were anchored off one of the Bahama Out Islands when a fellow from a neighboring mid-sized ketch dinghied over to us and asked whether we had any way of repairing sails; apparently the clew had torn out of his 150 percent genoa.
We said, yes, indeed, we could do it the old-fashioned way and could hand-sew a clew ring on the sail. We further explained it would be plenty strong, even though it would look different from what he was used to seeing.
In fact, the old-fashioned ways of doing things are not only still alive, but are well suited for use on boats today, be it for sails, rigging or rope work. On our boats, we have focused on using the old-fashioned or “traditional” ways, as some folks prefer to call them, for years. The more we do so, the more we’ve come to appreciate their advantages.
For people doing their own work, traditional methods are usually the least expensive option
The work can easily be done just about anywhere, often on the boat itself
The work is seldom dependent on having perfect weather or access to electricity
The necessary materials can often be found locally
The work usually only requires hand tools
The necessary skills can be self-taught, are quickly learned and improve rapidly with repetition
The work may be time-intensive and frustrating at times, but is seldom onerous
Though the results may look different from the contemporary way of doing things, the aesthetic has a cachet all of its own that happens to be quite appealing.
The big issue that this fellow had with getting his sail repaired was not so much the cost of shipping the sail to and from a sail loft, but the eight or more weeks it would take to get the sail repaired and back to his boat.
He was also worried that the sail might get lost in transit as it traveled from mail boat to mail boat to the shipper to the loft and then back again.
In contrast, using traditional methods right next door, we had his sail repaired and back on his boat, ready to be hoisted up his furler again, in a matter of only a few days.
How We Did It
Although installing hand-sewn rings is usually a straightforward process, this particular repair was somewhat more involved, as the old ring had torn out the entire corner of the sail, which meant it had to be rebuilt as well.
As a first step, we trimmed the torn edges of the various layers of cloth and patched in enough layers of new sailcloth to match the total original cloth weight. For each seam we put in two rows of stitching with a #13 sail needle and V138 polyester thread.
To minimize the buildup of cloth in any one location, each seam was offset one or more inches from all the seams below it. After trimming the foot and leech to shape, we cut a new edge tape to the proper width and sewed it over these edges where needed. We then patched in new material where needed in the sacrificial covering using 9.25oz. Sunbrella acrylic and sewed this covering back into place with a #13 sail needle and V138 polyester thread.
We didn’t have access to press-in rings, a hydraulic press for installing them, or correctly sized “hard” rings that could be easily sewn in, so we were forced to substitute one material for another—again, one of the advantages of using traditional methods.
In a dusty back corner in a local store, we found a length of 1/8in-1x7 stainless steel wire that looked perfect for making grommets (pic 1). One drawback was that we needed grommets thicker than what could have been made up in the standard manner, where only one strand, not the entire wire, is used to make the grommet. However, we worked our way around this problem by using the entire wire as a single strand (pic 2). In the end, the largest grommet (1¾in ID) that we installed as the clew ring received four layers of wire, and two smaller grommets (1¼in ID), to be installed as the anchor rings, received three layers of wire. In both cases, this approach allowed us to make up rings that were thick enough to work on this sail.
As we finished making up the grommets, we simply left the ends lying on top of the other layers of wire and then wrapped each grommet in tarred cloth tape, half-lapping the tape as it went on to form a moisture barrier. As an added benefit, this same tape prevented the stitches that hold the grommet in the sail from chafing against the wire.
After that we put two additional coverings on the largest grommet: a tightly wrapped layer of #21 twine follow by another layer of half-lapped tarred cloth tape (pic 3). This made our grommet stiffer and added another moisture barrier and an even thicker chafe barrier between the wire and the stitching on the sail (pic 4).
All three grommets were finally sewn into the sail using an alternating stitch pattern with a #13 sail needle and #9 twine (pic 5). Once sewn in place, each grommet was seized to its neighbors, again using a #13 sail needle and #9 twine. Should the strain on the sail’s clew ever need to be spread over an even wider area, a third row of rings, either “hard” metal rings or “soft” rope grommets, could be sewn in, each being seized to all of its neighboring rings.
As a final step, because neither brass liners nor any correctly sized setting dies were available, we also sewed in a piece of 7oz leather to prevent the stitching that holds the clew ring to the sail from being chafed by the sheets (pic 6). To eliminate the need for pins or staples, we used sew-to and strike-up lines, along with a few strategically placed temporary stitches, pre-punching holes where necessary. In addition, though none was used in this repair, spray-on adhesive, contact cement or double-sided tape can also be very helpful in holding things together.
Although we used a specific size of sail needles, thread and twine in this repair, bear in mind that there is some flexibility in using other sizes.
Rudy and Jill Sechez have been cruising since 1997, traveling the Gulf of Mexico, Florida, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the East Coast of the U.S. up to Lake Erie. They have built eight boats (both sail and power) and designed six, including their current home, a 34ft sail-assisted troller
Photos by Rudy and Jill Sechez
How to Stock the Ideal Sail-Repair Kit
The topic of sail repairs often brings up the question of whether or not to have a sewing machine onboard. Our experience suggests that for on-board repairs, it is often easier and faster to make repairs, large or small, by hand.
Before you decide whether to buy a sewing machine, think about the cost of the machine and all of the extra parts and spares needed for it, and the space it will take up on board. Consider also that when you are doing your own repair work, speed is not necessarily the most important goal.
Something else to consider is that many sewing machines can’t sew through the bulk of material made up by many layers of sailcloth, reinforcement patches, hems, edge tapes and webbing. On furling sails, there are also sacrificial coverings that increase bulk in a typical repair. As a result, many projects will require hand-sewing anyway, often over a considerable amount of it.
Then there is the often underestimated, if not out-right overlooked difficulty of using a sewing machine aboard a boat. It is not the machine itself that is the problem, but rather the difficulty of handling the sail while trying to feed it through the machine within the tight confines of a boat’s interior.
Lastly, a sewing machine should not be a substitute for developing the necessary skills needed to do repairs by hand, skills that you will probably need whether you carry a sewing machine onboard or not.
Taking all this into account, it often makes more sense for sailors to leave their machines at home and instead focus on acquiring the skills and tools needed for hand-sewing. You can then use these tools to do the jobs that you would otherwise use a sewing machine for.
Hand-sewing is not difficult, but it can be if you don’t have the right tools to work with. These include: a variety of sail needles, a seaming and a roping palm, an awl, a mallet, pliers, scissors, a knife, a small block of wood you can use as a backing block, wire cutters, several sizes of hole punches, a sharpening stone, and a good book on marlinspike seamanship. And for those unfortunate enough to be born with only two hands, a sail hook could prove to be indispensable. You should also thinking about investing in The Sailmaker’s Apprentice, by Amiliano Marino, and The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice, by Brion Toss, for more information on rope work.
You should also stock a few yards each of sailcloth, acrylic material and treated cotton duck, as well as thread, sail twine, twine wax, brass rings, liners, setting dies and a hammer hefty enough to set these liners, 6-8oz leather, Neatsfoot oil and several of the smaller sizes of three-strand rope, say 3/16in, 1/4in, 3/8in and ½in. The larger the job, or the more frequent their use, the greater the quantities to be carried.
Tarred cloth tape is used in electrical work, so it is usually available where electrical supplies are sold. However, polyester cloth, such as a bed sheet, pillow case or shirt, can also be substituted for tape by cutting it into ¾in strips and coating it with petroleum jelly, anhydrous lanolin (available at drug stores) or pine tar (available at horse chandleries or where traditional boat-building supplies are sold).
Number 9 twine is commonly found in hardware stores and fishing supply houses. Twine and even thread for sail work can also be had by unwinding 5/8in or ¾in three-strand rope into its component parts: strands, yarns, threads, and if necessary, filaments.
Other than using hefty enough thread or twine for the job to begin with, other alternatives to having strong-enough stitching include: doubling or re-doubling the thread or the twine in the needle; threading more than one strand through the needle; and continuing the stitching round and round, using the same needle’s holes until sufficient stitches have accumulated to provide the required strength.
Though some professional sailmakers say it’s not necessary to pre-punch needle holes, many amateurs will likely find that this is not so. A sewing awl can minimize the need to pre-punch needle holes, but it can also run into thicknesses that will defeat it. Be sure to keep your needles sharp.
If you need to pre-punch needle holes, the right tools will help. The most practical of these are an awl and hammer, with a backing block to protect the deck or sole. Other possibilities include a small-diameter hole punch, a small diameter drill bit, or a heated needle that can used to melt through the material.
Are you interested in making your own sail? Read Wally Moran's Making a Mainsail HERE