News From The Loft

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.

Tension for Torsion

The first roller furling jib made in our loft was for the Dabbler, an 18' Marshall catboat my wife and I bought when we settled ashore after years of live-aboard cruising. We converted her to a yawl and added a bowsprit to carry a jib. The long ‘sprit dictated a furling jib. There were several foil systems available for small boats, but we decided to try an adaptation of the water generator we had towed on offshore passages: A small outboard prop on a few feet of ¾ “ shafting, shackled to a length of 5/8” Dacron double braid, shackled in turn to a DC generator hung on the stern "pushpit". The drag of the propeller put enough tension on the rope to turn it into a rigid driveshaft! The amps of 12-volt current generated at normal sailing speeds made ice and froze food in our tiny fridge. So the Dabbler's jib was made with an ordinary Dacron double-braid luff rope ending in thimbles. A second-hand furling drum and upper swivel completed the installation. We added a purchase to the jib halyard to get the needed tension. It worked perfectly, and we duplicated it when we rigged a bigger catboat with a jib. (See "The Company Boat" page on this site). Soon we were persuading customers to use furling on rope instead of the 1x19 wire which was common for small boat furling jibs back then. Rope’s larger diameter furls up the sail quicker. Rope will be stronger than the wire called for on many small craft designs. The tiny extra stretch is irrelevant on the typical traditional rig, which often has an unstayed mast anyway. Multi-thousand-dollar “torsion rope” furlers for big-boat free-flying gennakers have since appeared on the market – braided stainless-steel wire filaments over braided polyester core. A low-tech Dabbler Sails "rope furler" costs the same as a regular hank-on jib. Photo shows tack of a furling-on-rope jib (with suncover). The welded stainless ring has been added to fit between the drum and swivel jaws of popular small furling units.

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.

Semi-Annual Report

The first half of 2017 offered a striking variety of interesting work, from a 296 sq ft cambered-panel Chinese lugs’l in 4 oz tanbark Dacron to a 15 sq ft jib in 7 oz Oceanus for a Lunenberg dory. In between we made, among other small-craft sails, sprits’ls for Marc Barto’s 13’ and 16’ Melonseeds, three balanced lugs’ls for Iain Oughtred’s Willy Tern design, the big balanced lugs’l and little mizzen for his Sooty Tern, and sails for three restored Old Town canoes – two were typical lateen sails in 4 oz cream Dacron, the third got a Günter main and jib in vintage 4 oz cotton sailcloth (see below). Other commissions were for a 1920’s Nat Herreshoff 12 ½ footer, Bermudan version as in the illustration, and the modern derivative centerboard version by Joel White, the Haven 12 ½, gaff rig. (Yet another derivative, John Brooks’ centerboard Somes Sound 12 ½, is due for a gaff main and jib in the second half of the year). A few retrofits and repairs included two extra reefs in the sprit-boomed sail for a 15’ Stambaugh Sailing Skiff 15 we made in 2014 (because the customer intends to descend the whole length of the Missouri River in her) and restoration of a badly moused 75 sq ft sharpie sail. Coming up in the next six months, in addition to the Somes Sound 12 1/2 noted above, will be sails for several Drascombe boats, a Welsford Walkabout ketch, Arch Davis' Penobscot 17 ketch, a Doug Hylan 13' peapod sprits'l (to replace one we made many years ago, which was still going strong until the red squirrels got at it), and another Barto melonseed sprits'l.

Ghost Photo

A query arrived a few months ago regarding a 1927 Old Town 17-ft “Wolf Pond” canoe, carefully restored, but wanting a period cotton sail. Surprisingly, the owner had already scouted out a few yards of the appropriate cotton sailcloth, but had no idea what the original rig was. Google yielded this ghostly photo from the Old Town Canoe Company archives, showing a Gunter main and tiny jib on the identical model. With this scant evidence in hand, plus measurements of the spars on the restored boat and some obtained by scaling from the photo, we were able to replicate the original sails. Bowker and Budd’s 1957 handbook Make Your Own Sails refreshed our knowledge of the special techniques for working in cotton: scissors-cut (instead of heat cut) edges turned under and rubbed down, false seams folded and sewn into the wide cloth to add stability, edge rounds and broad seams vastly different from those used in Dacron, penciled “strike-up” marks for sewing panels together (instead of the double-sided seam tape used on synthetics), and straight-stitching everywhere (zig-zag was still on the horizon in the 1920’s). A length of three-strand cotton cordage, salvaged from an old cotton sail, was the right length and diameter for the boltropes, clinching the authenticity of the reproductions.

A Quarter Century Later

We didn’t always make sails like we do today. The most recent one, number 1,315, has been folded to display some of the ways current production differs from what we produced when we opened our loft in 1991. 1) Three-strand spun Dacron boltrope, sewn to tabling heat cut by hand from the same, or similar, cloth. 2) Boltrope carried around corners and ended with a trick we have dubbed “ducktailing”. 3) Reef points of soft braided nylon, finished with a seizing of sail twine instead of the hot knife. This one is close to the leech to help tidy up the bunt there. 4) Clew trimmed with hand-stitched leather. 5) Our logo, silk screened in the shop and machine sewn to the sail. 6) Colored 4 1/2-foot pennant to fly at peak of four-sided sails. 7) Webbed-in brass ring to suit sprit tip when sail is a sprits’l. Like most of our small-craft sails, this one is fitted with traditional corner patches. Hand-set brass spur grommets are used throughout.

First Sail

While we were making the first sails of 2017 (numbers 1,306 and 1,307, gaff main and club jib for Joel White’s popular Haven 12½) we happened to stumble on this old snapshot of the very first sail we made – about 40 years ago. We had a hand-crank portable machine aboard our 30-foot Sea Wind ketch (that’s her anchored off on the horizon). After getting on terms with the machine by sewing up new cabin upholstery, we ventured to make a sliding Gunter dinghy sail following guidelines in “Sailmaking Made Easy,” self-published in 1974 by Bill Schmidt. It proved successful, and never let us down, even when we had to beat off the beach to get back to the mother ship. Emboldened, we made new sails for our Sea Wind and several other cruising boats, before moving ashore to make sails in earnest. We still have the old hand-crank machine tucked away in a corner of the loft in case of power outages. Coming up in 2017 are a main and jib for Nat Herreshoff's keel 12½ , lugs'ls for four Iain Oughtred designs, sprits'ls for a couple of Mark Barto Melonseeds (13' and 16'), a lateen sail for a vintage Old Town canoe, and various custom sails.

Junk Sail with Airfoil

Chinese lug (junk rig) sails pop up on our agenda every few years. Currently we’re making a 297 sq ft one, in four ounce Challenge tanbark, for a client who wants to convert his 23-ft Com-Pac trailer sailer from the normal Marconi rig. More particularly, he wants his junk sail to be of the modern "cambered panel" type, with built-in draft for better windward performance than exhibited by the traditional flat junk sail. The plan he provides shows the dimensions of the panels, but not the amount of edge curve required for each to achieve the desired camber. It is suggested to design the lowest panel to have about 10% camber, diminishing to 1% (nearly flat) at the top panel. It's left to the sailmaker to determine how to do that. Here, we have struck the required curve on one edge of the bottom panel. See below for the finished panel.

A Cambered Panel

Five panels like this, each with successively less dramatic edge curves, will make up our 297 sq ft junk sail. More draft alow, less aloft, just like a normal Marconi main. The seams where they are joined will be covered by pockets for the rigid battens (1 ½” diameter aluminum tubes in this case). The pockets will be sewn down on a long under patch to protect the seam stitching, and they will be interrupted behind the mast to expose a few inches of batten for attaching a line called a batten parrel that prevents the sail drifting away from the mast on the starboard tack. Webbing loops for attaching sheetlets at the leech batten ends, roping on the head, luff, and foot, and grommets for lacing to the yard and boom will complete the sail. Lots of sewing on a sail that is all rumpled up from forcing those curved panel edges together. See below for a typical cambered-panel junk sail at work.

Cambered Panels Flying

Unlike many sails –Bermudan, gaff, lug sprit, etc. which can be hung up in the loft to check the shape, the success of the cambered-panel junk sail can only be judged when it is deployed on the boat. Here you can see the typical airfoil shape (shadow area) imparted by the shape of the individual panels. For the history of this modern kind of Chinese lug sail, see "Arne Kverneland's Files" at Although significantly better to windward than flat junk sails, some offshore voyaging junkies still favor the traditional flat sails, complaining that all that extra cambered cloth flops around maddeningly when rolling in light winds. Sailors who, in any event, try to plan passages that do not require too much working to windward.

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.

Good Turn

Boomless sprit sails invite brailing to clear the sail out of the way for rowing. A light smooth line is belayed at the throat, led back through a grommet in the leech, then forward again to the throat, where it turns to run down the luff in fairleads. The fall is belayed near the helm. Overhauling the line while the sheet is eased pulls the leech grommet to the throat, bundling the sail up against the mast. In very small sprits’ls, the brailing line often just passes through the throat grommet as a turning point. But in a big sprits’l, the friction there would inhibit gathering up all that cloth, so here we have hung a tiny block to ease the work. The 102 square foot sail is for an 18-foot rowing/sailing camp cruiser designed and built by a Swiss client. The block is a little beauty in cast stainless steel with a brass sheave on a stainless-steel pin – less than five dollars in the local True Value hardware store. The block is hung on a bowline made through the throat grommet and an auxiliary grommet.

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 . . .