Buying a Sail

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It was not so many years ago that buying a new sail for your boat meant a pleasant trip down to your local sailmaker. You made a call (e-mail was not yet invented), set up an appointment and then spent a few wonderful hours looking at bolts of cloth, talking boats and settling on a price. If you were a good customer a handshake would seal the deal, the sail would be made, and a few weeks later it was delivered to your boat and an invoice would arrive by mail. Your sailmaker knew you by name—both yours and your boat’s—just as your family doctor knew your medical history. More often than not the sailmaker would bend the sail on personally, take the boat out for a sail to check the fit and cut of your new purchase, and generally treat you like, well, a customer.

Those days, however, are long gone. We live in a much more technically advanced world where even important purchases like a new sail are done via e-mail, phone, the web or some other “convenient” means. Old-fashioned service is gone unless of course, you are spending upward of fifty thousand dollars, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since then, as now, that service doesn’t come cheap.

True, you want the sail to fit right, look good and perform well, but you also want all these things at a reasonable price. For a sailmaker, spending the afternoon out sailing with a customer, while a pleasant experience for both parties, is costly, and that cost inevitably has to be added on to the price of the sail. The good news is that these days, with modern fabrics and computer technology, the chances of a sail not fitting perfectly and looking good the first time out are becoming increasingly rare.

In fact, the truth is that today you really don’t need to know your sailmaker personally, nor do you need a personal visit and sail check to ensure that everything came out as designed. The world has changed, and so has sailmaking. In some cases, you can now simply go to “add one to your shopping cart” and with the click of your mouse have the sail show up via FedEx a few weeks later. Still, for all the high-tech, some aspects of sail buying remain the same, including the fact that the process starts by asking the right questions. This includes both you asking the sailmaker the right questions and the sailmaker asking you questions.

You also need to ask yourself some hard questions like, “what kind of sailing will I be doing over the next couple of years,” and “do I really need the latest molded sail from the most expensive fabric available when the experience level of my crew is questionable?”

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Remember, a sail is an expensive purchase, and you need to be clear about what it is you are buying. If, for example, you are thinking about entering your boat in the Newport-to-Bermuda Race in a couple of years, does it really make sense to save a few dollars buying a new Dacron headsail now because it’s all you can afford when you know that an investment in fabric and engineering will pay long-term dividends? Perhaps, instead of that Dacron sail, you could have your current sail recut, and in a year’s time buy the laminated sail, which will still be fairly new when the race starts.

It is also important to articulate to your sailmaker what it is you expect from your sails. For instance, is out-and-out performance your goal, or are you willing to trade some performance for durability? Maybe sail handling is more important than sail shape. For a cruising sailor used to physically changing sails, the feel of the fabric might be more important than the cut of the jib, and a soft, tightly woven Dacron a better choice than a stiff, highly resinated one. Whatever the choice, the process starts by asking good questions. Sails remain custom-made items, and just like ordering a new suit, you should not decide on the first color you see. Do your homework and you will be more pleased with the results. Your sailmaker will also be happy to know that he has satisfied a customer.

Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that an educated customer is a sailmaker’s best customer. With this in mind, you should talk to other sailors with similar boats, sailors with different boats, and a number of other sailmakers, since it’s not only their job to sell you their product, but to make sure you get what you want and not what they want you to have.

Throughout this process remember this very important point: there are any number of ways to make the same sail, and in most cases, they will all be good. There are, for example, various styles of fabric produced by different fabric makers that will all do an equally good job, so don’t be too concerned if two sailmakers recommend two different types of cloth. Ask about the merits of each kind, but don’t assume that one has to be “bad” and the other “good.” By the same token, brand loyalty is good, and if you’ve had a good experience with a certain fabric maker then that’s a good reason to ask for their product again. Sailmakers, fabric makers, and hardware makers appreciate loyalty, and the result will be a better sail for you.

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Not surprisingly, sailmakers need lots of important information if they are to do their job so be sure that you are ready to provide it. Again, they need to know if you plan to mostly race or cruise. They also need to know if you are daysailing or heading offshore, and in what region of the country you will be sailing. These days a lot of sail buying is done over the phone, and a sailmaker located on Long Island Sound, where the summertime winds are light and variable, might not know that San Francisco has a blustery afternoon breeze that kicks up a short chop. This would be a valuable piece of information if you are a West Coast sailor and want your sail to be designed and engineered to suit the local conditions. A sail designed for use in choppy inshore waters will have a different shape than one used in long ocean swells.

Once you have established the kind of sail you want, it’s time to move on to the next very important step: information about your boat, including its dimensions and the exact size of the sails needed to fit the rig. Never assume anything—on either side. It’s not enough, for example, to simply tell the sailmaker that you have a Beneteau 345, since there are six models of Beneteau 345, and they all have different rig dimensions.

If you are not sure whether you have a tall or short rig, be sure and find out before the sailmaker works up a quote. Be specific about which model you have and, equally important, know exactly what year the boat was manufactured. A C&C 27 built in 1984, for example, has a different boom length than a C&C 27 built in 1988.

You also need to tell your sailmaker if you know of any modifications done to the boat. Perhaps a former owner lengthened the boom or raised the lifelines. Maybe the boat has a whole new rig. Small details like the height of your lifelines will have a bearing on your new sail. If it’s a cruising headsail, the sail designer will want to be sure that the foot of the sail clears the lifelines so that it does not chafe. If it’s a racing headsail, the clew height will be placed so that it does not hang up on the lifelines each time you tack.

The same points apply to the rest of your rig. If you have a furling unit, for example, make sure your sailmaker knows its make, model and year. If the deck layout has been changed, be sure to make that information available. Sailmakers work on the same principal as carpenters: measure twice, cut once.

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Similarly, you need to think long and hard about things like the number of reefs points; full-length battens versus standard; a main that is loose-footed or not; and possibly a foam luff for a furling headsail. Often the answers will come from the kind of boat you have and the kind of sailing you plan to do. If you are going offshore, you will want at least two reefs, possibly three. If, on the other hand, you are only daysailing a single row of reefs should suffice. Remember that options like additional battens, additional reinforcing or reef points will inevitably also make a difference in terms of price.

Whatever you decide, never underestimate the importance of these “littler things,” since they—like the technology and fabric used in the sail’s basic construction—can have a huge impact in terms of how it functions underway.

Once the legwork has been done and you have had detailed discussions with various sailmakers and gathered all the relevant information about your boat, it’s time to get a quote—actually a number of quotes since even if you have a good relationship with a sailmaker it’s a good idea to get prices from a number of manufacturers to see what the market is like.

Be honest with your regular sailmaker, if you have one, and tell him that you are asking around for some other quotes. Also, be frank about what is most important to you in terms of price, performance and durability. If, for example, you are strictly a bottom-line person then tell the sailmaker that you want the lowest price and that you will be making your decision based upon this single criterion. If, on the other hand, you place greater importance on service, durability, warranty, personal service or any number of other factors, make sure that is known as well. Whatever your priorities, make sure each sailmaker gets the identical information from which to generate a price. It’s in your interest to be able to compare apples to apples as opposed to quotes that vary in terms of final product.

Once you have received your quotes from the various sailmakers, it’s time to take a closer look at what has been proposed. Again. it’s important to remember that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and that different fabrics from different manufacturers used by different sailmakers can all make for equally terrific sails.

If you have a number of proposals it might be useful to place the relevant information in a spreadsheet so you can compare your quotes more effectively. List items such as fabric choices, fabric weight, sail area and such details as the number of reefs, the edge treatments, the warranty and any other important pieces elements you’re considering. By having this information organized in such a way that you can view it all at a single glance, you will soon see if one sailmaker is off in terms of sail area, for example, or price.

In the event something seems “off,” maybe call that sailmaker to see what exactly he or she was thinking. You never know, it might yield an interesting new approach in terms of the construction of your sail. Also be aware that sailmakers sometimes use different methods for calculating things like sail area. With headsails, for example, some will simply calculate the area of a triangle, while others will take into account leech hollow and foot round. Same for mainsails. Different sailmakers, for example, may factor in a different percentage for the amount of roach on a sail.

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Again, be sure to take a good look at these numbers to see if there is one that stands out as potentially being wrong, especially since the two main elements that go into the cost of a sail are the amount of materials being used (fabric in particular) and labor. Spinnakers are most certainly an area where you will see big differences in sail areas and by extension the prices of the sails, so be sure to pay careful attention to those numbers.

Once you have done your homework, it’s time to go back to the sailmaker and raise any remaining concerns you might have, especially with regard to price. Sailmaking is a competitive business, and while sailmakers want your business, they know their margins and know where there is room for negotiation, so you may be able to work out some kind of compromise. You should know that there is usually at least a 50 percent markup on sails, which results in a 33 percent profit, giving most sailmakers a little room for flexibility. Bear in mind, though, that there is a fine line between astute negotiating and simply playing one sailmaker off against another in an effort to save a few bucks. Among other things, the second method will probably result in you being on the losing end in the long run, since you will get what you pay for. By this I mean that if the sailmaker has been bargained down in a fight for the lowest price, he may be tempted to cut a few comers when it comes time to actually build the sail. There are cheaper grades of fabric, for example, that look much the same as the better ones, and you might get your sail made from one of them.

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Finally, once you take the plunge and actually order your new sails, you should be aware that sails take a long time to build. If the sail is to be made from a custom fabric, for example, the sailmaker might have to wait for the fabric maker to manufacture the fabric before he can start work. Similarly, if you are buying molded sails there is a chance that the necessary equipment will be tied up with other orders.

With this in mind, it’s in your interest to give the sailmaker plenty of lead time, and if at all possible, to avoid new sail purchases in the spring when everyone else also suddenly remembers that they need that new racing headsail. Given the opportunity, your best bet is to take advantage of Fall specials or to find a time when business is slower than normal to order your sail. Not only will you get better attention to detail, you will also get a better price since a production facility needs to build products to keep the workers working. Remember, though, to use this leverage judiciously, since again, you get what you pay for.

With respect to payment, for most orders, it’s standard practice to make a 50-percent down payment when you order sails and the balance before you receive them. A percentage of the balance can be withheld pending successful fitting of the sails and sea trials, but be fair on all accounts. You want your sailmaker to be there for the long run, and you also want your new sails to be right. In the end, it may require a bit of give and take. 

Brian Hancock is a Whitebread Race veteran, the author of several books on sailing, including the sail-trim book Maximum Sail Power, and founder of the sailmaker Great Circle Sails.

For more on sails and sail trim, click here.

October 2018

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