1.  Re: Polytarp Sailmaking

I have been sailing with my first PolyTarp sail for the last year and I can say I am very happy with the results.

What do I base that statement on?

I started sailing some 40 years ago, worked for Bludworth, North and Banks sail lofts, sailed with Smyth, Taylor, Cameron sails, owned boats from 14 to 36 long, 3 Olympic campaigns and built my latest 2 boats within the last 3 years, a Goat Island Skiff and Hapscut. The GIS has a Sailrite kit and Hapscut has a PolySail kit.

I had problems with both kits and each manufacture was helpful in suggesting corrections or pointing out that I missed something in the instructions. Correcting the Sailrite kit cost more than the kit, while correcting the PolySail kit cost my less than $10 and some of my time. Which one am I most satisfied with when it comes to cost and my time involved? Well, it is the PolySail kit.

I have seen some of the newest cutting edge sail making materials degrade in one season or with horror on the owners face watch a brand new sail vaporize in a cloud of threads streaming for the mast head however; both of my sails have provided hundreds of miles of carefree sailing. The GIS now has over 800 sailing miles and Hapscut has some 400+ miles. I have no doubt I can get more miles out of each sail and while I am sailing, it doesn’t matter what material the sail is made of because I am out on the water doing what I like best, sailing.

I selected a PolySail kit for Hapscut in order to try out a different sail making material. It fit my budget easily and the time invested was well worth the savings. The sail can drag a fully loaded Hapscut, 1500 lbs., anywhere I want to go upwind or downwind. This was only my second balanced lug sail to build and I know I can do better next time, but I can also grab my seam ripper and modify the sail until I get it right while I sit at my home sewing machine. I will build another sail for Hapscut one day and yes I’ll stick to a PolySail kit.

Texas GIS

The best materials, brightest minds and highly skilled labor will not guarantee success. Just read the latest sailing news.


1.            Re: Polytarp Sailmaking

Todd is right to emphasize the difference between composite racing sails and well-built dacron cruising sails, etc. But I think there’s certainly a problem with holding that Dacron is the only “real” sail building material, as some folks have implied. In taking the conversation in this direction, the members of this forum have missed the opportunity to learn more from Dave about strategies for making serviceable sails out of alternative, economical materials. We’ve also not paid much attention to the distinction in polytarp grades.

I’m not sure about the economy of paying a professional sailmaker to construct sails for me out of polytarp. But having built leg-o-mutton and a balanced lug out of tyvek and heavy-gauge white poly, I want to insist there are some good points to this material and method. This might be particularly relevant for home-built boats because of their affinity for traditional sail cuts.

It does seem silly to compare the durability. I just sold a 1967 FJ with original sails that still held their shape quite well. I sailed approximately 500 hours on them myself, in light to moderate winds. A Tyvek leg-o-mutton with taped seams on my puddle duck began to lose its shape after 100 hours under similar conditions. My sewn, white polytarp lug sail (Dave Gray’s heavy grade) saw 150 hours of sailing last year and has become supple but has not noticeably bagged out. For a cruising sail, this is obviously not a brilliant testament to durability. But look at the scum at the waterline of some of the boats in your local marina — do those boats see 15 hours of use a year? A well-built polytarp sail might last a decade under those conditions! I sailed with it on my Michalak Piccup Pram in 25 knot winds at Champlain and Cape Cod without a failure, though I am now wishing I had followed Dave Gray’s reinforcement advice more carefully at several grommet points.

Which brings me back to my real point. When I’m thinking about a new sail, I consult books by David Nichols, Todd Bradshaw, and Emiliano Marino — then I pop on over to Dave’s website or send him an email. He has some very useful strategies for reinforcing polytarp at high stress points. This economy of his method allows for a kind of experimentation that amateurs like myself can’t otherwise afford. I’ve now “upgraded” to a custom-built dacron lug. The reason was primarily aesthetic. I also paid for increased durability, but I can’t really say there’s a marked difference in performance.

When I get around to playing with a batwing design or a chinese lug, you can bet it will be made of polytarp. And this, frankly, is the spirit with which I approach wooden boats — not with the aspiration, budget, or ability to build a gleaming, teak-trimmed classic but with an enthusiasm to mess around in sail boats.

Ken Sherwood, PhD