Writer’s Deep Dive: Sail Repair

As I said in my last post, The Writer’s Guide to Sails, the sails are the engine of the ship. Therefore, any damage that prevents the sails from performing their function threatens the ship and crew. In the worst case, the vessel will be stranded or at the mercy of the tides and waves.

As a result, sail maintenance and repair are critical skills. This was especially true before ships had engines they could use instead of sails and radios to call for help.

In this article, I will cover the major sources of damage and how it can be repaired.

Now, let’s dive in!

Causes of Damage

Sun and Water Damage – Sails are subjected to a lot of weather. The hours of exposure to the sun and sea spray will weaken the cloth’s fibers. Eventually, the fabric will fail at its weakest point. This can cause either a hole or a tear. Both negatively impact the sail’s ability to catch the wind.

Stress Points – Parts of a sail endure more stress than others. These include the points of connection to the rigging and masts. The edges also are under a large amount of stress.

It is important for a ship’s crew to inspect the sails regularly to spot areas of weakness that can be addressed before they result in a hole or tear.

A massive tear in a sail. Image source.

Catastrophic Damage – This type of damage results from unusual events that are not because of regular wear. Holes or tears can occur when the sail is pierced by a projectile, such as a cannonball, arrow, or missile from a siege engine. If a mast or spar is damaged, it can puncture the sail. Last, the sail can be damaged by a dashing character making a dramatic entrance by sliding down to the deck with his knife through the sail.

Douglas Fairbanks sliding down a sail with a knife in The Black Pirate. Image source.

Repair Methods

However, if the sail is damaged, be it wear and tear, a cannonball, or a dashing sail-destroying character, it will have to be repaired. Sails are expensive, even today, with the help of the sewing machine to speed up the process. Before the aid of machines, sails were all sewn by hand, a time-consuming process. As a result, replacing the entire sail with a new one was the last resort.

Patching – A hole or tear can be repaired by patching, although a tear is usually sewn together first to stabilize it. A piece of new sailcloth is cut out and sewn over the damage, completely covering it. A patch is applied to both sides. This encases the damage and prevents it from spreading.

A patch on a sail. Image source.

Replacing Panels – If the damage is more extensive but contained to a single panel, the entire panel can be removed at the seams and replaced with a new one. This is more drastic than patching but less extreme and expensive than replacing the whole sail.

A new panel. Image source.

Tools of the Trade

Most sailing vessels throughout history, especially those on long journeys, had a sailmaker on the crew. He would have a kit that contained the tools of his trade, including scissors, awls, a sailor’s palm, pliers, waxed thread, and needles. A sailor’s palm is the sailmaker’s thimble. It fits over the hand and has a reinforced cup that the back of the needle is seated in. It allows the sailmaker to apply more pressure to the needle and use the strength of his arm. A pair of pliers is usually needed to pull the needle out the other side.

A sailor’s palm. Image source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2023 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

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