News From The Loft

Plenty of (Ship's) Canvas

This fetching sailplan is next on our list of commissions, and we have set aside several weeks during which to savor such interesting work. The boat, an 18.5-ft design by French naval architect Francois Vivier, is currently abuilding in an old barn near London, Ontario, Canada, destined to sail in Georgian Bay. The builder has a strong prejudice against ordinary Dacron sailcloth, so we discussed Oceanus Ship’s Cloth, which simulates the soft “hand” of the cotton canvas of yesteryear, for the working sails. (The tops'l will be in a lightweight tanbark.) My client was not certain the Oceanus sample sent him was soft enough to suit his taste – so I pointed out that as it comes from the mill, Oceanus has a light sizing which slightly stiffens and stabilizes the cloth to facilitate the sailmaking -- lofting, assembly, sewing, etc. To evaluate what Oceanus will feel like after a little use shakes out that sizing, I suggested tossing his sample into a tumble dryer for a few minutes. That did the trick, and at this writing the 168 sq ft gaff main is starting to take shape in the loft. The stays'l and jib will add 83 sq ft, and with the 41 sq ft tops'l set the total will be 292 sq ft.

Old Customer

“Greetings from an old customer” announced the query for a little sprits’l. Long-time small craft builder Rob Barker (South Cove Boat Shop, Easton, PA) was completing a 12-ft lapstrake dinghy to take to a forthcoming boat show, and wanted a sail with a few traditional touches to go with it. We settled on a soft 5 oz cream with hand-sewn rings and a rope becket for the sprit tip. While in conversation, he sent us this photo from a decade ago -- his 22-ft Muscongus Bay sloop wearing the Oceanus Ship’s Cloth main and jib we made for him in 2008. At the time the 300 sq ft main was the biggest traditional sail to come out of our small loft. On our current docket is another job with Oceanus, the gaff main, stays’l and jib for French designer Francois Vivier’s 18-ft Koalen cutter. Other commissions include sails for Vivier’s 14-ft lug yawl Ilur, Iain Oughtred’s 13-ft lug yawl Tammie Norrie, and Joel White’s gaff-rigged 15-ft Marsh Cat

Final Passage

Dabbler Sail's sole prop spent most of 2018 as caregiver for his wife, Dee Carstarphen, who was in Hospice care at home. The sail loft went into idle, then full stop. Dee died in her sleep on January 3, 2019. She had a 40-year career under sail, first on the 36-ft wooden ketch Southern Cross, in which she and her husband and young son sailed from California to the Virgin Islands, then with her second husband aboard his 75-ft gaff tops’l Brixham trawler ketch Maverick, chartering in the Caribbean, and finally, after being widowed, a decade aboard our 30-ft Sea Wind ketch, including offshore passages from the Bahamas to Long Island, New York, out to Bermuda and back, and down to the Virgin Islands, with extended cruises on the Maine coast, throughout the Bahamas, and in Chesapeake Bay. Between husbands she cooked aboard charter vessels in the Caribbean, and for several summers was head cook aboard the 125-ft ex-Grand Banks schooner Adventure, the queen of the Maine coast dude schooners. She retired from the sea to a home she designed and we built together on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, but continued to cruise seasonally aboard our 23-ft cat yawl Muskrat. Dee was a life member of the Seven Seas Cruising Association, founded by a half-dozen live-aboard sailors in San Diego, California in the 1950’s, now with thousands of members cruising under sail in all oceans. She was the last survivor of that small group of free spirits dedicated to “leaving a clean wake.” A self-taught artist, she wrote, illustrated, and published four books based on her experiences afloat: Maverick Sea Fare, a pen-and-ink ode to “the good years with Capt. Jack”; Windjammer Cooking, featuring the big wood stove on which hearty fare for 40 was turned out daily aboard the Adventure; The Conch Book, researched aboard Sea Wind during several cruises though the Bahamas; and Narrow Waters, a full-color sketch log of a cruise down the Intracoastal Waterway.

A Handfull

This Francois Vivier 14’ 8” ILUR is wearing a 133 sq ft sail the designer calls a “misainier” -- a Breton-style boomless lugsail, tacked near the bow and sheeted to horn cleats on the quarters. One big, efficient sail, if you can handle it. Ron Mueller, a seasoned sailor and boat builder from Bellingham, Washington, launched her in time for the 2018 Palooza Crooza regatta in Puget Sound (see, and reports that the ILUR outperformed all the 35 other sailboats, ranging up to 22’. One long leg of the three-day event was up a narrow passage in very light headwinds, requiring many, many short tacks. For Ron that meant lifting the sheet tackle off the leeward cleat while steering through the eye of the wind, and getting it on the old windward cleat before the sail filled. In spite of that he reports “I outsailed them all thanks to your handiwork.” The photo tells us the designed sheeting point is correct for the all-important close-hauled work. Leave it to M. Vivier. The sail is 4 oz Challenge tanbark, a nice relatively-soft cloth we stocked up on a few years ago, slit down to 27” panels. It’s rigged for brailing up, but Ron didn’t reeve the brailing line for the rally. This was the third of these “misainiers” we've made, and the first for which we have any feedback. We wondered about man-handling the sail in heavier winds. Ron says he's comfortable with whole sail up to 10 mph when alone, up to 15 with crew. Takes all three reefs when wind tops 20. He's currently practicing with a crew to compete in the forthcoming Barefoot Raid in the Straight of Georgia, British Columbia. (See ILUR can also be rigged as a lug sloop, or with a boomed balanced lugs’l. At least one is rigged as a lug yawl. Scroll down to find that version, reefed in heavy weather. Photo by Palooza Crooza organizer Marty Loken / Small Craft Advisor

Strong Corners

A customer in San Francisco who designed and built a 20-ft gaff rigged traditional boat (“more or less like a Herreshoff 12 ½, but longer”), included in his priorities for the sails “strong corners”. He further explained that his goal for the rig is to use modern materials while maintaining a traditional look. So, we offered 5 oz tanbark cloth, crosscut with narrow panels, boltropes with ducktails, and traditional corner patches, BUT with Bainbridge Inox hydraulic-pressed rings (instead of brass spur grommets or hand-sewn rings) for corners and the reefs. We used these routinely on the big sails we made during Dabbler Sails early years. Since retreating to smaller traditional sails the inventory of various size rings, and the expensive dies used to set them, has tended to collect dust. They are, however, just the ticket for this customer’s 163 sq ft gaff main, destined for use on windy San Francisco Bay. We would have used them even if the brief had not included “strong corners.” Our home-made press is hung on the wall at eye level, which facilitates scrutinizing the operation as the liner flares out and squeezes the two halves together. The handle in the 22-ton jack is for 7/8” and 5/8” rings. The longer handle hanging on the wall is necessary for 1” and 1 3/8”rings. See below for Inox ring anatomy.

Strong Corners II

Inox rings from Bainbridge have been our standard hydraulic pressed system since we started in 1991. Here are the components – a pair of injection molded nylon rings, one with passivated stainless steel needles, and a tubular stainless liner, which is flared in the dies to press the liners together. The needles penetrate the multi-layered patch and enter the plain ring opposite, creating a double shear load on the needles. The 7/8” ring in the peak of our 5 oz gaff sail has two dozen of these tiny needles. When introduced three decades ago hydraulic pressed rings quickly replaced the traditional and time consuming art of hand sewing corner rings. Several sailmakers have tested the relative strength of pressed rings against hand-sewn ones, with inconclusive results – sometimes high tech wins the tug of war, sometimes the artful HSR. We chose high tech for this sail partly for predictability, partly for economy (8 HSR’s @ $50.00 each compared to 8 Inox rings @ about $10.00 each).

Cotton Sail Mimics

The new owner of this lovely 15-foot wherry, designed by Bud Macintosh and built 40-odd years ago by his apprentice Jeff Fogman, contacted us with a brief for a new gaff main and jib: “I have the original cotton sails, which are beat but intact. I’d like sails that look right with the traditional build (cedar on oak, linseed oil/pine tar interior), but modern/durable and reasonably efficient.” We settled on 5 oz Contender cream, a very soft polyester, vertical cut with 18” panels, ¼” boltropes (we agreed not to imitate the originals' hand-sewn and rat-tailed boltropes), and hand-sewn brass rings w/brass liners for the corners and reefs in the main, as in the cotton suit. See below.

Wherry Rings

Here’s the clew of the jib for the wherry above. There will be 11 rings in the wherry sails, 3 in the jib and 8 in the main. We will use No. 5 and No. 7 (5/8” ID and 1” ID) brass rings and brass liners, the appropriate sizes for most of the small craft sails we make. This is a No. 7; the 5's will be for the two reefs in the main. We don’t get a lot of commissions calling for this kind of palm-and-needle work, so we couldn’t produce a good result without cheating a little. Instead of plunging away freehand, we make a pattern of needle holes with a template, and pre-punch them on the sailmaker’s log with an awl and mallet. Then it's just stitch and heave, stitch and heave.

Adventure Cruiser

We made this 85 sq ft boomless lug sail late last year for adventurer and author (Jagular Goes Everywhere) Tom Pamperin. He recently finished his new boat, an 18’ “Alaska” beach cruiser designed by Don Kurylko, and took a short trial cruise. (The design calls for a ketch rig, but Tom elected to start with just the main in an alternate step.) This rig is a big jump up from the Jagular, a flat-bottom skiff home built with cheap plywood, a 2 x 4 for a mast, closet rod for a boom, and a sail made out of a plastic tarp. Alaska was specifically designed for long-distance cruising under sail and oar, and is a serious piece of boatbuilding. The lugs’l is 5 oz cream Dacron, with one more reef than shown on the plans. Because the sail is used without a boom, there will be considerable strain on the new foot for each reef, thus the continuous reef bands instead of individual reef point patches. When we saw this photo, we suggested the possibility of a vinyl window so Tom can see where he's going (he replied he has raised the sail a little and can peek under it), and mentioned the idea of brailing, to make way for rowing in a calm without dropping the sail.

Force 5

Wow! Double reefed in force 5, and making to windward against a lumpy chop on Lake Champlain. Hats off to Dr. John Hartman for having his Francois Vivier Ilur ”Waxwing” perfectly set up for the conditions. Hats off to the designer for drawing such a powerful, seaworthy row-sail beach cruiser. Hats off to the skipper of an Iain Oughtred Ness Yawl who snatched this frame out of a video he shot, catching the precise moment the hull destroys that wave -- you can almost hear the “Pow!” Modesty forbids the sailmaker from doffing his hat to himself, but he confesses feeling lucky that Dr. John, Monsieur Viver, and the videographer have conspired to make his sails look pretty good. They are deployed and trimmed beautifully, and that double-reefed main looks very tidy, no dribs and drabs sticking out here and there. Although only 14' 8" long, the little yawl has a very generous sail area of 134 sq ft. Plenty for light airs, you might think, but in fact the Waxwing’s skipper recently commissioned a bit of spinnaker cloth to bring the total to 174 sq ft. See below.

Staysail Power

A few years ago we made the lug main and mizzen for "Waxwing," the Francois Vivier designed ILUR seen above, and since then she has done quite a bit of sailing in Vermont and on the coast of Main, frequently encountering very light winds. Because the ILUR is a row-or-sail boat (no outboard clamped on the transom), the owner imagined more sail area, in the form of a handy, easy to set and strike mizzen staysail, and queried us for an opinion. As it happens all of our personal boats have had mizzen stays’ls -- a 30 ft ketch, a 40 ft cat ketch, and two catboats converted to yawls – sails we deployed whenever the occasion presented. We agreed such a sail might prove particularly useful on a row/sail beach cruiser like the ILUR – might often make the difference between having to row for the next campsite or not. On receipt of a few measurements, we drew a 40 sq ft sail to be tacked on the weather rail forward and sheeted to the leeward rail aft. We cut it rather flat from 3-oz polyester (instead of nylon) “storm spinnaker” cloth, in the hope it will prove useful even with the wind a little forward of the beam, and keep its shape in slightly stronger winds.

Tom Cats

West Coast naval architect William Garden designed this 12-ft Tom Cat catboat for his own use, basing her on the general aspects of the popular East Coast Beetle Cat class. WoodenBoat Magazine featured her in 2004, and several have been built since. Last year we made the 120 sq ft sail for two California customers, both of whom chose 7 oz Oceanus Ship’s cloth, with custom handwork – rat-tailed boltropes and hand sewn rings. This one, undergoing sea trials near San Diego, has no reef, usually considered obligatory for gaff cats, because the client wanted the purity of a sail without one. (He may be counting on scandalizing the gaff if overblown.) The other California boat will be sailing near Los Angeles. Early in 2016 we delivered a third Tom Cat sail to a Long Island, N.Y. client. Based on day sailing in Long Island Sound's usually light summer winds, he chose 4 oz cream cloth from Contender Sailcloth, but specified TWO reefs instead of the single reef shown on Garden’s plan. Different strokes . . .

Duck Tailed Bolt Rope

Here’s Dabbler Sails' new style for terminating boltropes. While making sails for a Nathaniel Herreshoff Coquina we struck a compromise on one of the important aspects of sailmaking – what to do with the boltrope when it ends at the head, tack or clew: A compromise between cost-effective utility and the time-consuming process of rat-tailing -- separating the boltrope strands into yarns, tapering and waxing them, twisting them back into strands, then those into rope, finally hand-sewing the rat-tailed bolt rope to the sail. (See an example of that on the Appendices page of this 'site. We still like to do it when the client chooses.) Our new technique looks like a practical alternative to the traditional elegant, but expensive, handwork: Around the corner for strength, with what we have dubbed a “duck tail” instead of a rat tail. For full disclosure, see below.

Ducktail Anatomy

To "ducktail" a boltrope, the tabling with it's machine sewn rope is sewn around the corner (head, tack, or clew) and a little beyond. A few inches of rope has been left unsewn to the tabling, and now it's three strands have been separated and sheared off at staggered lengths. A simple patch, heat cut from a scrap of cloth, is folded over the cut strands and sewn in place. The corner ring, whether a spur grommet, hydraulic pressed ring, or hand-sewn ring, will be trapped inside the boltrope, a better looking and stronger arrangement than the nearly universal method of truncating the rope before it reaches the corner; a method that works only because of the great strength of modern sailcloth, but which leaves corners subject to distortion and occasional failure under heavy load.