End of Season Storage and Sail Care Is Key to Prolonging Sail Life
North Sails Expert Tom Davis is particular about sail storage. He’s shared his best tips below to ensure your sails remain in top shape for next season.
Given how strange 2020 has been in many respects, sailing has, fortunately, turned out to be an ideal activity in the great outdoors. While the way many of us have put our boats to use in 2020 has differed from prior years, sailors have been able to spend lots of time under sail – perhaps even getting in more sailing days than usual.
For those living in areas where sailing has a defined season due to the approaching winter months, properly buttoning up the boat and equipment is a routine either underway or about to get started. Ensuring it is done right is critical for an effortless restart a few months from now when warmer weather returns.
While by no means intended to be an exhaustive list, here are a few tips based on personal experience to keep in mind when preparing to store your sails.
If nothing else (and as you’ll see below, there is plenty more to be done), your sails must be scrupulously dry before you put them away. That’s true of short-term storage (between sailing days during the season) and becomes essential when storing for the longer term. Why?
Moisture will encourage mildew growth, causing ugly dark stains on your sails.
Moisture will promote dye migration of colors in spinnakers, causing discoloration.
Neither of these bad outcomes is covered by sailmaker’s or sailcloth manufacturer’s warranties. After-the-fact cleaning will rarely remove all mildew staining, and cleaning will do nothing to undo dye bleeding in a spinnaker.
Mildew and dye migration are unsightly, but they don’t significantly reduce sail performance. Where long term moisture exposure will harm more than just the look of your sails is damage to adhesives, impregnations, and coatings on-and-in the sail material. Moisture hydrolyzes the components of sailcloth that keep your sails flying like foils and maintaining zero porosity. Hydro is water; Lysis is destruction. Enough said, right?
Is there any part of your boat that is well served by being dirty? Probably not. Dirt certainly damages sail material – sometimes through chemical interaction, sometimes by mechanical action. For example, dry salt crystals embedded in cloth act like tiny internal files, sawing away on fibers and films, clean sails will last longer and perform better, particularly as the hours of use increase.
So, how do you clean sails properly and effectively? For fundamental care, sail materials will handle a combination of water with a bit of detergent, some very gentle scrubbing by hand or soft brush, and liberal rinsing with fresh water. And as noted above, thorough drying after washing is essential.
Where it gets tricky is when more aggressive measures are needed to remove stains. Some fiber/film/resin types are quite robust and will accept exposure to reactive chemistry and more vigorous handling. Other materials can be very susceptible to damage from specific exposures. It’s complicated! Eliminating a grease stain from woven dacron is very different from removing a rust stain on a cruising laminate or mitigating mildew in a high modulus material. I suggest using a well-established sailing industry professional to clean beyond the basic soap/water/rinse/dry process (sailmaker, sail cleaning agency). A web search for sail cleaning tips and contacts is a good place to start, whether planning to DIY or sending your sails to a professional.
A few cardinal rules to remember (but far from everything you need to know before proceeding):
Be super careful with bleach. Some plastics have a high tolerance for bleach (polyester, aka dacron), while others are destroyed immediately by contact with small amounts (bleach is deadly to aramid fibers and nylon, among others).
Be wary of any cleaning agent other than mild detergent in a low concentration. Sometimes rust removers, “oxy” cleaners, and the like will do the intended job nicely. Still, when these are not suited to the cleaned material, disaster can strike quickly (and expensively).
“Race” sails can be cleaned with a simple water-rinse and dry.
Never rinse a nylon spinnaker in a swimming pool (you’d be surprised how often this happens!).
Once upwind sails are clean and dry, some products can be spray applied to help keep them that way – McLube Sailkote is a favorite of North Sails. Applications like these are best left to specialists, in my opinion.
A clean sail is undoubtedly nice to have – but not much use if the sail requires repair to be fully functional. Getting a needed repair completed before storage for the off-season is the right thing to do. That sounds a bit like “floss every day” or “avoid carbs”: easy to say, not so easy to do. But it will pay off (same with flossing and limiting carbs, of course). Sail washing does present an excellent opportunity to inspect and identify needed repair, whether you do the cleaning yourself or contract these services with a sailmaker or sail cleaning specialist.
I’ve seen many examples of damage to stored sails inflicted by mice, squirrels, and raccoons. Where I live in Connecticut, I’m convinced that we’re never going to win that war by eliminating these creatures (our always stocked bird feeders aren’t helping). So, the next best thing is to keep the little devils out of your sail bags. That starts with clean and dry sails. Don’t leave salt on your sails or their bags (this is a good time to soak away salt and crud on the zippers and zipper cars of turtle bags). If you flake and bag your sails on your lawn, make sure there’s no leaves or grass in the folded sails. Store your sails in a place where small animals cannot reach them. Spinnakers are particularly attractive to rodents as it’s a meal and good nesting material. A few years ago, I started hanging my (clean, dry) spinnakers from lines attached to the ceiling rafters in my garage rather than leaving them on a shelf or the floor. So far, so good.