New sails are expensive, regardless of the material they are made from.
Used sails can be a tempting option for replacing some worn-out sails or just expanding your inventory.
So is it a good idea to buy a used sail?
Here’s What you Need to Know When Buying a Used Sail:
Before buying a sail for your boat, consider the condition of the sail, how much work a sailmaker will have to do to make it fit your rig, and the asking price. If a sail has a lot of exposure or wear, you might find it falling apart on you quickly. New sails might be better in this case.
Even if the first two factors are favorable, the asking price should still be less than half the price of a new sail.
The Condition of the Used Sail
There is a reason the previous owner got rid of this sail. Most likely, it has seen a lot of use and is nearing the end of its life, and the owner replaced it for that reason.
Before looking at how much work has to be done or even considering a price, you need to evaluate the condition of the sail.
This starts with the material the sail is made from. It will either be a woven fabric or a laminate.
Spinnakers will be nylon or polyester.
Laminates are generally not going to be worth buying.
This is because laminate sails do not have anywhere near the durability of woven fabrics. They are superior in shape retention and reduced weight aloft, so they are favored by serious racers.
Because they are used in racing, they see a lot of harder use, from lots of tacking (and therefore fluttering and chafing against the mast and shrouds) and rough crew work. Most racers plan for 3 seasons (or less) of decent racing life out of their laminate sails, so by the time they are offered for sale, they will not be in good shape.
It is doubtful that you will get more than a few years of use out of them, and they will probably already be blown out or even delaminating.
Woven Fabrics & Polyester:
Woven fabrics, such as Dacron, are the superior choice when buying a used sail.
Woven fabrics, mostly polyester, can have a life span of 10 years or more. Make sure the cloth weight is not too light for your boat. Heavier cloth (therefore thicker threads) stretch less than lighter cloth in the same amount of wind.
All woven sails stretch slightly under load, but the better (and heavier) threads go back to their original size when the loads are off.
But be aware that there are various “cruising laminates” that are more durable than those designed expressly for racing. These usually have a layer of woven cloth, or “taffeta,” replacing one of the Mylar layers. These are better for buying used but are still not as durable as true woven fabrics, as they are subject to delamination.
For spinnakers, the cloth is lighter and stretchier, so its condition may be harder to determine.
Determining a Sail’s Condition:
So, let’s say we found a decent sail made from polyester – how do we determine its condition?
You want to look at three things:
The Color of the Cloth:
UV degradation is inevitable.
It destroys laminates faster, but all fabrics fall to it eventually.
On woven fabrics, there are obvious tell-tale signs. This will be a yellow-gray discoloration; on colored sails, this will be a fading of the color.
You cannot undo the damage done by ultraviolet light.
If a sail fits perfectly and has a very favorable price but has the obvious signs of heavy UV exposure, you would be better off avoiding it, as it will fall apart much sooner than you hope.
Fracturing on the Leech:
This is the most obvious area of general wear and flutter damage on a sail.
This is because the luff will be supported, either from the mast if a mainsail or the headstay if a genoa, and the foot does not get anywhere near the stress of the other edges of a sail.
You will see if a sail has had hard use are some fractures in the cloth running into the body of the sail, perpendicular to the leech. They will be black or gray and fairly easy to see.
They can be straight or ragged. They may even be along the fold lines of a sail, as these can become weak points over time.
These fractures eventually become actual tears, following the tear-on-the-dotted line principle.
Fracturing can be arrested to an extent, and there are two ways to address it. The first and most simple is to put strips of adhesive polyester fabric over them on both sides. This is a lightweight option and may need to be renewed often, but it does mitigate some of the flexing at that weak point.
The second is to re-cut the leech, getting past any areas that show fracturing. This is another large expense, though – see the next section on making the sail fit your rig.
Areas of Chafe:
Finally, look at areas that come into contact with the mast.
There will likely be chafe patches there already, such as at the spreader area, the bow pulpit area, and where the foot has rubbed against the lifeline stanchions.
Look over the whole leech, as well, as it has constantly rubbed against the mast during tacking. There may be some tears from spreader lights or pole rings.
So, we’ve gone over the sail, and we’re pretty happy with its condition. Now what?
The Amount of Work Needed to Make it Fit Your Rig
Here’s where it gets expensive.
Almost every sail will have to be modified to fit your rig, as no two rigs are the same. For the mainsails, this may not be too bad.
If the sail is too tall by a foot or so, your sailmaker can probably re-cut the sail from the top batten to the new head and put in a new head-plate – though they may have to build up the patching to reinforce the area. The same can be done at the foot, coming off the lower batten.
But if there is a substantial difference in the dimensions, there will be more surgery, both on the luff or foot and from the leech where it needs to taper to the new point. This can involve moving the batten pockets (if they are not full-length).
The first option may only take an hour or so of loft time and run around $100; more extensive modification will easily run hundreds of dollars.
It is also important to make sure the cloth weight is consistent with the cloth manufacturer’s recommendations for your boat. A lesser weight will stretch and get blown out faster; a heavier cloth will tend to sag and not produce the proper lift to move your boat.
Finally, the luff and foot attachment will need to be considered. Most use boltropes or slugs/slides, and they must be of the proper size.
There is a very good chance you will have to change the attachment, and it will not be cheap.
Genoas Are More Complex:
This is because while there is a better chance that it will fit your fore-triangle, there is less of a chance that the sail will sheet properly to your existing track.
Some boats have long tracks for their foresails, with some that sheet to the toerails instead, which are perforated and allow for placing blocks at any point.
But most have tracks from 2 to 8 feet, depending on the size of the boat, and require the clew to be in a certain narrow area compared to the leech and foot to sheet properly.
If the sheeting angle falls in front of your track, the leech will always be tight, and the foot will always be loose. If it falls behind the track, you will never get the leech tight, and the sail will flog the entire time.
Your sailmaker will need to plot your potential used sail on a profile of your rig to see if it will sheet to your existing track(s). This adds to their time and your cost.
Something to also keep in mind on genoas is the luff attachment. If the sail has bronze hanks and you have a wire headstay, that is great – as long as the hanks fit and are not frozen or almost cut through.
Hanks are made of bronze so that they will not damage your stainless steel headstay; therefore, they are eventually sacrificial in that way. Inspect them to see if they need to be replaced.
Likewise, if the headstay has a foil or roller-furler, you need to make sure the luff tape is of the proper size. Though there has been a movement toward standardization of this in the last couple of decades, many furler and foil manufacturers use less-common sizes, and the different size furlers may take different size tapes as well.
This will be an additional expense, running hundreds of dollars, so be aware of it in your evaluation.
Finally, for genoas, if you have a roller furling system, know whether you will have to install a UV cover on the sail or if you have to replace the existing UV covers. This is a considerable expense.
For spinnakers, the geometry is a bit more forgiving since their attachment and sheeting are different.
Smaller lengths than designed may work well, as long as the girth is pretty close. Larger than proper sizes will most likely not sheet to your rig, so it will involve a lot of cutting.
The Price of the Used Sail
We can finally look at the price and decide if it makes sense for us to buy the sail. In addition to that cost, add in modifying the sail and getting any needed repairs.
If the cost of the sail and necessary modifications are getting over 2/3 the cost of a new sail, it will probably be better to get a new sail, as it will not just be tailored for your rig and manufactured in the proper cloth weight, but it will last twice as long as any used sail you are likely to get.
But if you do find a used sail in excellent condition that requires little or no modification to fit your rig, getting a sail for half (or less) the cost of a new one probably makes sense.
It is usually a bad choice to get a used sail.
Even if it is in good condition, it will most likely require many modifications to fit properly on your rig and get expensive.
If you are willing to put in a significant amount of time in searching and inspection and paying your sailmaker to draw the potential sail on a profile of your rig, you may end up with a good deal.