News From The Loft

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 . . .

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.

Junk Rigged Chebacco

Our loft has made several Chinese lug (junk) sails over the years. Two or three experimental prototypes for skiffs, a 214 sq ft one for retrofitting a Nimble 26, and a pair totaling 540 sq ft for converting an old 30-foot fiberglass hull to a junk schooner. (After pouring a lot of money into that boat - new masts, reinforced hull and deck to support the free-standing masts, machinery, rigging, electronics - the owner was forced to abandon the project, and the sails were never deployed.) Then, a few years ago, a very determined young woman approached us to make Chinese lug sails to a design she had found among the gurus at – sails to power her 20-ft Phil Bolger Chebacco hull “Auklet”. Shemaya Laurel sails singlehanded, and was willing to trade sparkling performance to windward for the rig’s chief attraction- quick and easy reefing. She dipped deeply into Chinese lugs'l lore, and with the aid of a few friends carried out all the necessary for the Auklet’s conversion - from new masts to details like options for battens and pockets, euphroes for the sheet spans, and yard, luff, and batten hauling parrels. Here's the Auklet, sailing in light airs with the whole rig up. We made the sails using a combination of traditional flat-panel techniques and modern cambered panel techniques. Shemaya sails in Maine, and chose the tanbark main for visibility in fog, and the cream mizzen for visibility at night. See more at Photo by W.R.Cheney

Slip Fit for Sprit Tip

Sprit sails depend on a light spar to extend the fourth corner, the peak. The spar is slung low on the mast in a rope strop called a snotter. The upper end of the sprit is shaped to have a “peg” or “nipple.” Traditionally the sail’s boltrope is seized into a loop at the peak, a “becket” sized to exactly receive the peg. An example of that palm-and-needle work is illustrated on the Appendices page of this website -- see the article Custom Finish. The photo here shows a practical alternate, routinely used on Dabbler sprits’ls unless a customer specifies the more traditional rope becket. A brass ring of suitable size is strongly webbed into a grommet in the peak. (The sprit tip shown is the loft’s gage, offering 5/8” and 3/4” diameters for testing the fit – snug but loose enough to let the sprit tip slip out when scandalizing or striking sail.) A 5/8" diameter peg shouldered up to 1" is typical for small boat sprits'ls. The peg can be much longer than shown, and might be tapered a little for easy entry.

Remembering Robb White

Dabbler Sails recently supplied scaled-down Robb White “felluca” sails for a couple of Adirondack guide boats. The brief was for easy-to-set sails on a handy rig with short spars, to be auxiliary power with a favorable wind. The first thing that came to mind was the full-batten sliding Gunter Robb proposed to us 15 years ago. He sketched the sail plan for the light, slim dinghy he styled a felluca, and we suggested a simple way to rig the Gunter yard. The outfit was a success. He wrote about it in his book How to Build a Tin Canoe. Robb’s felluca is on the Small Craft page of this ‘site. A memorial to him is at

Last Cruise

The Muskrat, referred to with tongue in cheek as the “company boat,” has been passed on to a new owner. We acquired her as a run-down 1971 Marshall 22-foot catboat, and converted her to yawl rig with a dog house for comfortable all-weather cruising. We explored the Chesapeake Bay in her for 15 years, all the while making new sails at frequent intervals -- using her as a trial horse. We launched her with a self-tending jib, full-batten gaff main, and leg-o-mutton mizzen. Subsequently made a larger furling jib, a full-batten lug mizzen, two more mains’ls, and a big red mizzen stays’l. The photo shows her sliding along with a reefed main on our last cruise together. The Muskrat's new owner is going to keep her berthed right where he found her, and has offered us visiting rights. We’ll leave her special page on this website, in memoriam.

Best in Show

Swan, an eleven-foot six-inch John Welsford Truant design, was launched a couple of years ago near Tallahassee, Florida. She was built by Vanessa Walthall, in collaboration with her father Jody. Vanessa kept a lively blog ( during the build, and now follows Swan's adventures afloat at Last summer she and Jody trailered the Swan to the Apalachicola Antique and Classic Boat Show, and were rewarded with the judges ribbon for "Best Home Built Boat." She reports she was "not surprised that people were amazed/incredulous/delighted that a girl built this boat . . . but I am always surprised by all the people that seem taken aback that I can sail it by myself - people don't have much faith these days." We just received this photo of Vanessa and the Swan sailing in the Gulf of Mexico, exhibiting perfect deployment and trim of the 80-square-foot balanced lugsail. Pretty good for a girl. The sail is five-ounce Bainbridge Classic Cream polyester.

Norse Dory

Californian Ed Foster has the good fortune to live near Tomales Bay, a 15-mile-long shallow inlet from the Pacific Ocean, which is protected from undue development and exploitation by the State, where, he reports “on a good day you can beam reach from one end to the other”. Ed has been building boats for 30 years, most recently to his own modified dory designs, which he styles “Norse” dories. An earlier Foster dory, under a lug schooner rig, is on our Small Craft page. Here he sails one wearing a sail we sent him a few months ago. He made some flattering remarks when the sail arrived, but we have learned to wait until after sea trials for the final verdict. We weren’t disappointed: “I can’t say enough about how great it worked. At last this boat has a sail that makes her go like she should. As a few white caps started, the sail really got its shape, put the rail down and sailed like never before, especially to windward.” That surely brightened up our day.