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Offshore Sail Repair

A quick reference for anyone sailing offshore

Wed, 18th Dec 2013
By Brian Hancock

Offshore Sail Repair A quick reference for anyone sailing offshore

No matter how far or how fast you are sailing, at some point your sails are going to rip and you are going to have two choices; stuff them in a bag and wait until you get to a place where there is a sailmaker who can do the repairs for you, or you can repair them yourself. To be perfectly honest, the latter suggestion should not daunt you. Sail repair underway is not as tricky as you would imagine, and with a decent sail repair kit and some tips you can repair your sails and have them ready to use in just a few hours.

Chuck Skewes from Ullman Sails San Diego has repaired all kinds of sails while at sea and offered up some tips and tricks for this article.

Repairing racing sails

Your racing sails rip from snagging on a sharp edge or being mishandled during a sail change. Sometimes it’s chafe that causes the problem but no matter the cause the repairs are all pretty much the same. They can be quick and crude. Basically you just need the sail to hold together until the end of the race when you can hand it over to your local Ullman Sails sailmaker.

Your friend in this case is sticky back Dacron. It comes in various width tapes but the one that you will use most is a 2-inch tape. You can do a quick repair on most sails using sticky back, but there are some definite things you need to do before applying it. Most important is that the area you are repairing needs to be clean and dry (if possible). Rubbing alcohol does the job as it gets rid of salt crystals and evaporates allowing the sail to dry quickly.

The second thing you need to do is to make sure that you lay the sail out as flat as possible. Use a floorboard or any flat surface. It’s preferable, but not absolutely necessary, to pin the sail down so that it does not move. What you are trying to accomplish is to place the edges of the sail alongside each other just as they were before they ripped. Sticky back is very strong especially in sheer, but if there is a hard spot, or a spot that stands proud, that’s where the load is going to go and that’s where the sail is going to rip. Once you have the two edges side by side apply the sticky back Dacron. Peel the cover off and start laying it down, smoothing it over the rip and rubbing the tape to make sure that the glue adheres. If you have not followed the rip perfectly don’t worry, you can always cut the sticky back and start again making sure that you overlap the edges of the repair tape.

Depending on the fabric, size of sail, location of rip and how bad the rip is you may need to apply a second layer of sticky back on the other side of the sail. If your sail is a laminate and you are sticking to the film side you can rest easy as the sticky Dacron tape adheres very well to film. If it’s a large sail, or a bad rip that will undergo a lot of load, its recommended that you tape both sides. If this is the case it’s a good idea to use a slightly wider Dacron tape for the second layer. You want to avoid creating a hard edge where the two tapes are laid down on top of each other.

Lastly you need to understand something about loads in a sail. If the rip is in the middle of a sail there is very little load there compared to the edges of the sail. Often you can actually leave a small hole in a spinnaker if it’s in the middle of the sail. If, however, the rip is near the edges, the leech and foot especially, then a second layer of tape is recommended. If you use Dacron tape to do the repair you will need to apply some kind of powder to the other side of the tape so that the exposed glue does not stick the sail together.

Repairing sails on an offshore passage

If you are halfway across the Pacific and your sail rips, your only choice is to fix it yourself, but this time you will have to make a more permanent repair. A sticky back patch will hold, but a sticky back patch that has been sewn down, even with a few crude hand stitches, will hold better. Just as with racing sails make sure that the edges to be repaired are clean and dry. You have more time on a passage so do try and dry the sail properly. Fire up the generator and pull out a hair dryer to do the job if you are in a rush. Then use the salon table or a door or floorboard to act as your loft floor if room permits.  There is a nice tip to help you get a decent repair but it’s only possible if you have space.

For sails that have a lot of depth such as genoas and spinnakers, it’s hard to get the sails to lay flat because of the sail shape that is designed into them. If you take a fold in the sail a little ways away from the rip, the fold removes the shape allowing the sail at the rip to lay down flat. Do this on both sides of the rip and then use the sticky Dacron to make the patch. If you have a sewing machine on board you can sew around the edges of the repair for strength. Alternatively you need to hand stitch with a needle and a sailmakers palm. A single row of straight stitch is okay, but a row of zigzag is better especially if you return to the beginning sewing the opposite sides of the stitches.

Emergency repairs on a headsail or mainsail

If you need to get your working sail back up and running quickly you can use an epoxy to repair the sail. Again you will need to clean and dry the area and lay it out flat. Cup a piece of similar weight fabric (as the sail) and use West System 650 epoxy. The beauty of this epoxy is that it’s flexible allowing the sail to flap and be bent without the glue cracking and coming apart. Over time it will turn yellow and not be very pretty, but sometimes practical beats pretty.

Spinnaker repair

Spinnakers are the most likely sail to need fixing when underway. Fortunately they are quite easy to repair if you follow the same rules already laid out. It’s very important to get the edges as close to “normal” as possible. Normal does not always mean that the edges need to be touching. Often when a sail rips chunks of nylon disintegrate leaving a hole. As you lay the two pieces of fabric side by side imagine how the sail looked before it was ripped and if there are areas where the torn edges are not close to each other do not worry. It’s more important to get a smooth repair. For spinnakers use a similar fabric to the sail itself. A fabric of a different weight will stretch differently and you will end up point-loading the sail causing it to rip again.

A good way to repair a spinnaker is to do it in stages repairing from seam to seam. If you cut out a piece of fabric that is big enough to cover the rip and wide enough so that it goes between two seams, you will be able to glue down on the seams which are already strong and will resist point loading of any kind. A series of patches across a spinnaker is better than one single patch that stretches the length of the rip. In your sail repair kit you will have Venture Tape, an extremely strong double sided tape. Simply lay a section of tape around the edges of the repair patch, lay the patch over the rip and gently remove the backing from the Venture Tape smoothing it down onto the sail as you go. Be gentle and slow. You want the nylon patch to lay as flat as possible without any areas that can point load. Venture Tape is what your sailmaker uses to build spinnakers that are not sewn. If you have cleaned and dried your spinnaker the tape should be strong enough to hold it together without sewing especially if the rip is in a low load area.

Of course if you have a sewing machine on board adding stitching will only reinforce the patch. Once you have applied all the patches you can turn the sail over. It’s now time to cut out the excess fabric of the spinnaker that lies within the patch. The patch is bounded by the Venture Tape and the tape and patch form a structural bond. The original spinnaker fabric inside the area now has no use and needs to be cut away for aesthetics as well as to ensure that it does not snag on anything.

Repairing clew reinforcements

The clews on most sails are usually reinforced with webbing. Sometimes the webbing comes loose and needs to be reattached. This seems like a simple job but on larger boats it can be a challenge. Either use the existing webbing or add new webbing using Venture Tape or epoxy to hold it in place. You then need to use an awl to puncture holes in the webbing and sail. It’s very difficult to simply push a needle through even using a sailmakers palm. Once you have the holes punched it's time to hand sew the webbing down. Here is a neat trick. Take your sailmakers needle and break the tip off. You want a dull tip. You have already made a hole in the webbing with the awl. A needle with a sharp tip will always try and make its own hole whereas a blunt needle will follow the hole made by the awl. You will find it a lot easier to hand sew the webbing if you blunt the needle first. Items included in your Sail Repair Kit: Sailmakers Palm Sewing Needles (various sizes) Waxed Thread V346 Dacron 3” adhesive tape Seamstick tape ½ inch Dacron Insignia patches 2’X4’ Kevlar Insignia 2” Scissors (quality) One inch tubular webbing Dacron cloth

This article was posted on Wed, 18th Dec 2013