Despite your best efforts, there will inevitably be times when your sail gets damaged while at sea and needs to be repaired. First, no matter what the job, you will need to do a quick damage assessment, a task that requires a flat wooden surface, sharp scissors and a helping hand. If the rip is in a high-load area of the sail, you will repair it differently than if it is in a low-load area. The edges, for example, especially the leech and foot of the sail, will need quick and careful attention, while a rip in the middle of the sail can be slapped closed with a piece of stickyback Dacron or Dacron sail-repair tape and left that way until you have time to do a proper job.
For sail repair at sea, stickyback Dacron is your best friend. Stickyback Dacron is simply Dacron tape with an adhesive backing and is to the sailmaker what duct tape is to a boatbuilder: a truly indispensable item.
It comes in various weights, but the 3oz. Dacron is the most versatile and seems to have the best adhesion. You can also build it up to a required weight by layering, doing so in a gradual transition so you don’t end up with a “hard spot” at the edge of the patch that acts like a hinge and later becomes a weak spot in the sail.
Before beginning any repair or adding any stickyback, make sure that the area to be patched is clean and dry. Wipe it clean with freshwater or, better still, with alcohol (not your best gin, but an industrial type). It is especially important that there is no grime or grease on the sail. In a pinch, Stickyback will also adhere to damp Dacron. However, the bond will be much better if the sail is clean and dry, and even better if you are able to heat the patch once applied—use a hair dryer or leave the sail in direct sunlight—since heat will soften the adhesive and cause it to bond better.
You can use stickyback for repairing any Dacron sail and as a quick fix for spinnakers, although it’s not a good idea as a long-term repair on the latter, because Dacron is not compatible with nylon and will form a hard spot in the sail that could end up ripping over time. Instead, use rip-stop nylon tape, basically the same thing as stickyback Dacron except that it’s made from nylon. Be warned, though: rip-stop nylon does not have the same adhesion as Dacron, and usually also needs to be sewn.
You can also use stickyback Dacron for repairing laminated and molded sails. In fact, it’s especially effective on fabric with film outer layers, because it adheres extremely well to that kind of material. In general, with lighter fabrics, stickyback is probably best left unsewn, since the needle holes only serve to weaken the base fabric. No matter what the material, this kind of patching should be all you need to fix a small rip or tear in a low-load area, like the center of a sail.
The same logic applies if one of the seams opens up. If the seam is in a low-load area simply apply a stickyback patch to both sides and leave it just as you would a rip. On the other hand, if the leach tape has come loose or if the seam has ripped close to the leech, which is a high-load area, you are going to have to sew the sail. When you do so, you can either use double stick tape to hold the seam or tape in place, or you can use a stickyback patch to hold it all in place while you hand stitch with a needle and thread.
In terms of the kind of stitching you need to do, it doesn’t really matter. Strait-line stitching is the easiest and will hold the patch in place just fine. Sure a zigzag will look more professional, but it’s all going to be pulled apart again anyway after you get the sail to a sail loft. Sometimes when repairing a seam you can follow the original zigzag holes and repair the sail that way. Two tips to remember. Use a sailor’s palm to force the needle through the layers of fabric and have a set of pliers on hand to help pull the needle through. If you are stitching multiple layers then the pliers will be especially handy. When you cut a stickyback patch make sure that you round the corners before you patch the sail. The rounded corners will not lift as easily as a pointed corner.
Of course, if a corner ring pulls out, you are also going to have to employ your needle and some thread. To start out, eyeball where the ring should be positioned then lay some strips of nylon webbing through the rings and onto the sail. Use double-stick tape to hold the webbing in place; stagger the ends of the webbing so that their transition into the sail is gradual; and then secure the entire repair together with a layer of sticky Dacron, since it will be easier to sew the webbing if everything is held in securely in place.
Use an awl to help sew through the heavy layers of patch and webbing. Bang holes in the webbing with the awl and then sew it using a blunt needle. The latter point is very important. Sharp needles will tend to try and find their own way rather than sticking to the holes that you have made. Put in a few rows of zigzag stitch, being careful to pull each stitch as tight as you can.
If you run out of sticky-back Dacron and double-stick tape, spray adhesives work quite well to hold the fabric in place. So does a glue gun, although you will have to sew the patches down since the spray glue and hot glue do not have a strong enough bond. You can also use epoxy for a really good bond.
There is nothing difficult about repairing your own sails. Like most everything in sailing, a little common sense goes a long way. Good preparation, a little patience and a good sail repair kit are all that you need.
Sail Repair Kit
Your onboard sail repair kit will be as comprehensive and varied as the passage you are planning and should be tailored to suit your needs. Store the bulk of the items in a bag in a dry, convenient place and have a smaller bag containing items that you need more often in a more accessible place. The smaller bag should include:
• wax thread
• whipping twine
• some stickyback Dacron
Keep the needles in a tight container wrapped in a cloth that has been lightly soaked in sewing machine oil. Also wrap your scissors in an oiled cloth, since even though they are stainless steel they will rust if not protected. Roll the pieces of nylon, sticky-back Dacron and regular Dacron tightly, and hang them in a waterproof chart storage tube from the overhead in your forepeak.
A basic sail repair kit will include the following items. Amounts will vary depending on the size of your boat and the trip you are planning. The amounts noted here would be suitable for a 40-foot yacht planning a transatlantic passage.
• 1 pair stainless steel scissors
• 1 pair regular scissors as backup
• 1 knife dedicated to sail repair
• 6 awls to secure the sail while patching
• 2 dozen push-pins with plastic heads to secure the sail while patching
• 1 adjustable hand palm for hand sewing sails
• 3 seam rippers
• 1 roll of pre-waxed hand sewing thread
• 1 roll of stickyback Dacron tape 5 inches wide
• 10 feet of stickyback Dacron 54 inches wide
• 5 rolls of double-stick tape
• 2 cans of spray adhesive
• 3⁄4-inch tubular nylon webbing
• 2-inch nylon webbing
• 2 stainless steel rings with bar
• 10 feet of Velcro
• a selection of needles, size No. 14 and 15
• staple gun and staples
• lump of wax
• assorted pieces of Dacron and nylon
A more comprehensive kit would also include:
• a spare set of battens
• spare hanks (if you have hanked on sails)
• a spare luff tape the length of your longest headsail
• leechline cord twice the length of your mast height
• an entire corner patch of one of your spinnakers
• hot knife
• Nicropress tool and sleeves
• Hole cutter and assorted rings
• 20 feet of seizing wire
Read, Part 1, Sail Care for Cruisers here.
Brian Hancock is a Whitbread Race veteran, a long-time sailmaker and the founder of Great Circle Sails, greatcirclesails.com.
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