Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   October 2015


Making Sails Last

Preserving Your Headsails

The Caribbean sun can burn not only your skin, but your boat’s sails as well. How can you protect them and give them longer life?
See last month’s issue of Compass on how to preserve mainsails and mizzens. This month, we’ll talk about protecting your headsails.

Roller Furling Headsails
Headsails are damaged by UV rays, especially during long exposure while the boat is not actually sailing — which for cruisers can be a lot of the time.

Many try to eliminate the sunburn problem on the leech and foot of roller-furling headsails by sewing on a sacrificial layer of Sunbrella about 18 inches wide. But it looks like hell and does not improve the set of the sail. Some boats use a sacrificial layer of material the same color as the sail material, so it is not noticeable. Mark Fitzgerald, the long-time skipper of Sojana, a 115-foot Farr ketch, paints the leech and foot of his sails with white emulsion paint, which has proved to minimize UV damage.
The better solution is to hoist a cover for the roller headsail. I first saw these covers in the Baltic in the late 1990s; they were quite common on German yachts. Now they are available in the States; during the 2011 US Sailboat Show I saw five boats in the Annapolis Yacht Club marina that had their roller headsails protected by full-length covers. The covers do not flap in the wind. After they are hoisted, they are tightened via a lanyard threaded through a hook-and-eye arrangement.

Hoist a cover whenever the boat is not going to be used for a few days and the headsail will last an incredibly long time.
One problem with the covers for roller furling headsails is that, because of friction, there is a limit to how big they can be made. Graham Knight of Antigua Sails feels that 60 feet is about the maximum practical luff length. Above that size, friction between the cover and the sail is too great to facilitate easily hoisting and dousing the cover. If hoisting the cover is difficult, it won’t always be done and the headsail’s leech and foot will suffer from UV degradation.
If only parts of a sail are damaged from being overexposed to the sun, cutting the “sunburned” material from the leech and foot of a high-cut jib can make the J1 into a J2. This can also be done on genoas, reducing the 150-percent genoa to a 135.
Graham Knight once pointed out the test to tell if your Dacron sails have been severely weakened by UV degradation: Take a sail needle and push it through the material. If it goes through cleanly, all is well: the sail can be restitched or repaired. But if there is a “pop” as the needle goes through, the material is shot.

Hanked-On Headsails
Preserving hanked-on headsails from UV degradation is easy if they are stowed in double-zipper turtle bags, as they can stowed hanked onto the stay — ready to be hoisted but protected inside the bag. When it’s time to hoist, unzip the double zippers, attach the sheets and hoist away.

To make a double-zippered turtle bag, take the sail to the sailmaker along with a short piece of rod a little larger than the diameter of the stay on to which the sail is to be hanked. Spread the sail out, hank it on to the rod, then lightly tension the clew and flake the sail down. Fold the clew forward so that the length of the flaked-down sail is approximately the distance from the stay to the mast. Then have the sailmaker make a bag with a full-length zipper. Close the forward end of the bag around the rod that represents the stay, closing the bag with either a hook-and-eye lashing or a flap secured by Velcro. Then have the sailmaker install a second zipper, so when the second zipper is closed the sailbag forms a very tight tube (a “turtle”). Then have the sailmaker sew a number of webbing straps to the bottom of the bag, long enough to go around the bag to secure the bag to the lifelines when the sail is dropped and stowed in port.
As the late Rod “the Great God Rod” Stephens always said, the turnbuckle for adjusting the headstay should be at the masthead. Then when the time comes to switch headsails it is easy to hank on the headsail to be hoisted underneath the one that is up. If the sails are stowed in turtle bags, two headsails can be left stowed on the headstay. This means that when one is up, the one that might be switched to is already hanked on and ready to go.

For those sloops that have a removable staysail stay that is properly set up (see the August 2015 issue of Compass at — with the turnbuckle at the mast, and the stay being set up with a proper lever that will tension the stay without the necessity of a turnbuckle adjustment — the sail is right down at the bottom of the stay and stowing the staysail in a turtle bag is the way to go. It is left on the stay, sailbag and stay can be stowed alongside the mast and ready to go whenever they are needed.

And finally, regularly check your headsails and restitch the leech and the foot as well as three feet in from the leech and foot. This helps prevent splitting. When sails are being restitched, Graham says if you can persuade the sailmaker to use Cortex thread (available from various sources including Bainbridge) the thread will last longer than the sail. Sailmakers do not like this thread, however, as it is expensive and the machine must be specially set up to use it.

One last tip to extend the life of your headsails: With older headsails, you might start noticing that when sheeted in hard, the foot and leech are tight but the body of the sail will not flatten. Des McWilliams (who was head of McWilliams Sails in Crosshaven, Ireland and is now head of Ulmer Kolius Europe) explains the problem. Sailmakers often install tape webbing as leech and foot tabbing. As time goes by, the tabbing shrinks while the sail does not. If a well-used sail is spread out and the tabbing removed, it will be seen that the tabbing is considerably shorter than the sail. The sailmaker can then resew the tabbing back onto the sail, adding extra tabbing as necessary. You’ll have a vastly improved headsail, good for a few more years.

Visit Don Street’s website at

Sign up now and never miss an update from Caribbean Compass. We'll email you a copy of our monthy magazine, as well as other timely updates!


Top of Page

Copyright© 2023 Compass Publishing