We all like to keep our boats looking clean, neat and tidy (see also: Boat cleaning: how to care for your hull), which of course has to include the sails and any other canvas work. However, some of the initially more obvious routes to returning them to a sparkling clean state can create problems that shorten their serviceable life or hasten the degradation of sail shape.
The biggest problem is that no sail, whatever the material, likes to be creased or left to flog in the wind. This is sure to degrade the fabric far faster than many miles with reasonably good sail trim. So, even if you have a small boat, don’t plan on scrunching your sails up in the bath. The best commercial services have sufficient space to wash the sail without it needing to be folded and are able to hang them up to dry naturally, again with no folds. An alternative is that offered by companies such as Wash and Waterproof, who pass sails laid flat through a giant machine that cleans them and reapplies surface coatings.
Whatever their construction, sail fabrics have a propensity to pick up dirt and mould. It's not always appreciated the extent to which these two factors go hand in hand. Yes, damp conditions will help mould spores to multiply, but in addition to this, many types of mould will feed off dirt that will collect initially as dust, before subsequently building up into a layer of grime.
Therefore, if you can stop a build-up of dirt this will also help to keep mould at bay, even in warm and damp conditions. Renewing the water repellent coating that allows water to bead off, taking dirt with it, rather than the moisture being absorbed into the cloth is important if the sail is to continue looking good. Preventing the fabric from readily absorbing moisture in this way will deny microbes the habitat to readily multiply. It’s worth noting that the same principle also applies to other canvas work such as sail covers, sprayhoods, dodgers and biminis.
Bear in mind that new Dacron sailcloth is both impregnated and coated with resin to help it hold shape and reduce stretch as the wind increases. After cleaning it’s also possible to replace some of this coating, which will help restore some of the crisp freshness of a new sail.
Many laminate sails with a panelled construction are prone to developing mould within the laminate. In this case it can be harder to prevent the mould, or to remove it from the middle of the cloth. The good news is that it’s a largely cosmetic problem that doesn’t impact on the performance of the sail or the strength of the cloth.
Is it worth the cost?
Perhaps the biggest downside is that these treatments, while readily available, can be expensive when taken in aggregate. Therefore the big question is whether or not they offer value for money. It’s worth noting that the results can be extremely impressive even for sails that have become very soiled, extensively mouldy or have rust stains. As such, providing the underlying fabric is in good condition, such treatment is undoubtedly worthwhile for older but little used sails that have become badly soiled through neglect.
Beyond that, the answer to the value question will inevitably vary between different boat owners. On the one hand there are a large number that understandably place a great deal of pride in appearance, but sail a relative small number of miles each year. These people expect a suit of cruising sails to last a decade or two, so it’s clearly worth spending money on keeping the sails looking good.
However, those who sail very much higher mileages may be happy to compromise on appearance when the sail is nearing the end of its life. Given that for most of us boat ownership is a long-term proposition, if you know the sail only has a couple seasons of left, it may be worth accepting a temporarily less than perfect appearance while setting aside the money that might otherwise be spent on cleaning and surface treatments in a fund for new sails.
Checking for damage
Cleaning and recoating are only part of what sail makers have traditionally offered in their valeting services. Equally important is to check the sail for damage, attending to any problems such as weakened stitching and chafe points and to check for any UV-damaged material. This still remains part of the sail makers’ service, with cleaning and recoating now generally contracted out to a small number of firms with specialist equipment.
For more tips on sorting your sails, see: How to Choose the Right Sails: Spinnaker vs Cruising Chute.