Case Study Fabric for High Latitude Sailing

I recently had two customers who were building boats for high latitude sailing. One was building an 80-foot sloop and the other a 50-foot sloop. It's interesting that both customers had firm views on what they wanted, and both went against conventional wisdom with their choices.

Since both boats would be sailing in areas where the conditions were harsh and repair facilities nonexistent, rugged and durable were the principal requirements. Both owners were presented with similar fabric choices, but the emphasis was slanted based on the sizes of their boats. Once a boat gets over 50 feet in length the loads start to increase to a point where it makes sense to invest in a more exotic fabric like Pentex, Vectran, or even Spectra. There comes a point where you need so much of a lesser fabric (like Dacron) to manage the loads that

Skip Novak's Pelagic anchored in a cove in Antarctica. Sailing in this harsh environment requires a well-thought-out inventory.

the price difference is narrowed, and the gains with a stronger, lower stretch fabric become that much more significant. A lot of this depends on the righting moment of the boat, as well as length. Boats that have great stability and are able to carry a lot of sail in heavy air are likely to place more strain on their sails than boats that heel over easily and burn off power. In general, above 80 feet, one should really consider Pentex, Spectra, or Vectran for the inventory. So I was a little bit surprised when the customer with the 50-foot boat opted for Vectran, and the customer with the 80-foot boat chose Dacron.

In each case the fabric choices offered were Dacron, Pentex, Vectran, and Spectra, since all four are proven, reliable, and very durable. Dacron was the cheapest option with Spectra and Vectran quite a bit more expensive. Pentex was more than Dacron, but less than the other two. With constant talk of war in the Persian Gulf the price of Spectra was the most expensive because the price of Spectra inevitably soars when there is uncertainty in the air since its principal use is for the defense industry. The plusses and drawbacks for each fabric were quite evident. Dacron is rugged and easy to repair and fairly easy to re-cut, although heavy and hard to manage. Spectra, on the other hand, has been proven on numerous around-the-world races and will handle the loads of an 80-foot yacht without any problem. Not only that, the sails will hold their shape and be lighter than the Dacron sails by about 15 percent. Vectran, for its part, has the same attributes as Spectra except that it has less favorable UV properties. However, since the fabric proposed had the Vectran fibers sandwiched between UV treated taffetas and most of the sailing would be in the high latitudes where UV degra

Skip Novak's Pelagic anchored in a cove in Antarctica. Sailing in this harsh environment requires a well-thought-out inventory.

Photo by Skip Novak

dation was not a significant problem, Vectran's UV weakness was discounted. Finally, there was Pentex; cheaper than both Spectra and Vectran, and with significantly less stretch than Dacron.

For all these advantages, however, the owner of the 80-foot boat had a long and favorable history using Dacron; he liked the cross-cut look and figured that because the boat had a centerboard the sails would not be unduly overloaded. Weight aloft was not an important consideration, and sail handling would be done by furling units on the headsails and lazy jacks on the mainsail. Price was a consideration, but not overly so. It was a simple matter of trusting what you know, and being confident in your experience.

The customer with the 50-foot sailboat, on the other hand, stuck with Vectran for a number of different but equally valid reasons. For example, he planned to sail the boat double-handed with his wife, so it was important that the sails be light and easier to manage. Therefore Vectran and Spectra were obvious choices. After further investigation Spectra proved to be too expensive, which made Vectran look even better. Interestingly, from the outset the slight off-white color of the Vectran fabric caught their interest and perhaps even played a role in their final decision. Ultimately, since all the other factors pointed to Vectran being a good choice, Vectran it was.

A number of points become evident after studying this case. First, as stated earlier, there are many ways to make a good sail, and in this case all four of the fabrics presented would have made a fine inventory. It often becomes a matter of preference and a comfort level. In the end, unless the choice is way out of line, a happy customer is one who has played a part in the decision making process. It's never an obvious choice, and sailmakers, knowing that sails are custom-made products, need to place the needs and requirements of the customer first.

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