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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

Access to the net comes and goes, so I'll be writing in fits and spurts.Please feel free to browse the archives, leave comments where you will and write... I'll respond as I can.

Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sewing up the Sails

Rolling out the Red Carpet
Photos courtesy of Jim Dangel

One of the hardest parts of on-the-fly boatbuilding, for us, has been sewing up the sails. Finding a big, flat, clean, dry, affordable and empty space in SE Alaska is a challenge. Not all of these are necessary, but each sure speeds the process up, and improves the quality of the resulting sails.

With LUNA, we were lucky to be given permission to use the Tenakee school gym over winter break, only having to pick up once a week for open volleyball.

These were our first DIY sails as well as our first Junk Sails, and took about two weeks. Most of that went into learning to use a machine and beginner's overkill. Since Junk Rig distributes loads so evenly, the massive reenforcement patches, double edge hems, chafe strips, hand-sewn corner rings and such were all unnecessary.

For SLACKTIDE, we were in Sitka, a much larger town... we had no personal connection with custodians of large spaces, so were scratching our heads. Anke suggested checking out rental prices at the community center, the venue for a world class classical music festival, plays, trade shows, art markets and City Council meetings.

"You want to make sails... not sell them?"

Yessir, nossir!

"I don't see that we need to charge you anything... Let's see... I can give you three days."

Gulp. Well, sure. But only three days, and only during open hours (about eight per day). Gulp. At least, we figured, we could get the body of the sails sewn up, and finish edges and grommets, later.

We were able to store our materials and tools, there, so got set up and ready to go as soon as the doors opened.

Ready? Set? GO!

First, we rolled out the red carpet.  We'd designed the sails to be 2 x 60in cloth, minus 3in (2 x 1in for single fold hems and 1in for overlap between strips), for a total width of 117in or 9ft 9in. Once we'd dotted down the overlap seam with hot melt glue, we could think of the joined pieces as a single strip.

First parallelogram ready to sew.
Since our mostly riverine style of JR has parallel battens in what we call the parallelogram, these could be cut efficiently from our strip. Once the bottom angle is measured and cut (using a hot knife) all battens run parallel to that edge. Two more cuts, at the top of each parallelogram complete the shapes for both main and mizzen. BTW, the angled lines are a bit longer than the straight shot across... they finish just shy of 10ft, which will be the batten/boom/lug length.

We rolled the parallelograms 'vertically', from both sides, like a scroll, keeping the mid-line exposed. Twice each through the sewing machine, zig-zag stitch.

Headsail before leech hollow.
Headsails, the upper, semi-triangular portion, is only a little trickier. They are identical, so we laid out one on doubled cloth. We used the plans as guidelines, but more or less adjusted by eye, full size until we liked the look. Same sewing approach, down their mid-lines.

Last step requiring the big space was joining the headsails to their parallelograms. Again, we dotted with hot-melt glue, then transferred to the sewing table to finish up.

[Actually, we futzed around a whole day with chafing strips along each batten... I've come to consider these unnecessary for inshore, as we have seen absolutely no wear on the strips. Next sails will do without.]

Done with time to spare! We actually sewed up a tarp for the boat with the extra day.

As it happened, a teacher friend let us use his classroom (free in summer break) to finish up the edges. This took much less space as we could go a few feet at a time, exposing only the edge in question as we went.

To hold the hems in place, while sewing, we used good quality hairpins as clamps... 150 of them cost about that many cents.

The sails are only 10ft along the booms. We finished up by installing the grommets aboard SLACKTIDE, one rainy day, working along one batten at a time. A friend showed up and wanted to help. A little crowded, but loads of fun!

The hot-melt glue worked great... it helped to press it flat, on contact, or there will be a permenant little bead of glue. With some effort, we could tear it open to adjust, if necessary. It was fast and stuck well... unlike pins you don't get perforated. The hairpins along the edges were faster, yet, and no hot tip.

Sailcloth is Top Notch, woven from acrylic coated polyester thread. It has a nice 'hand', and no filmed coating. After three years, it's looking good, setting well and water still beads and runs off without soaking the fabric.


Rigging the battens, boom and lugs was a project for the docks.

We always tie to the far end, in Sitka (half a dock mile from the ramp). Easy sail in and out, no competition, great view and projects on the dock can often slide, if kept neat and in moderation.

Oiled, red cedar 2x2s have worked well for battens... light going up, but heavy enough to bring 'em down. We use a simple hole at each end (faired), and lash to the sail grommets. Then lace the battens to the sail with marlin hitches. 1/4in nylon along booms and lugs.

Batten parrels work best slippery. We like bright yellow, laid polypropylene... we use light duty tuck splices (slipping the end through several lays to form a loop... this is adjustable and easily removed and redone). The yellow stands out nicely against the red sailcloth.


The rig is usually the last push in building a boat. Once those sails are made and bent, one can almost feel the vessel yearning to be underway. To spread her wings and fly!

And who are we, to stand in her way?

Early days sailing... working out the kinks (in that mizzen!).


  1. Nice overview. I was curious how you put the sails together.

  2. Hi Dave,

    Hey, that's great. I love the part about the hot melt glue, and also the hairpins. Such an improvement over pointy pins, as well as the really smelly double-sided seam tape that Sailrite has become so fond of. And we've been trying wooden clothespins on our recent netting project (also large and unwieldy) but hairpins next!

    Could you say more about the battens? Made from 2 x 2 that is actually that dimension, or that is called that, but is actually 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 when you measure it? And another batten question: do you go through something to make the sail sandwiched between batten strips, or just lash to one side of the one thick piece of 2 x 2?

    Fascinating about the Top Notch fabric, that it can be used as sailcloth. I see that it's sold as upholstery cloth, but talks about being dimensionally stable. Sounds like it's working out great -- do you know if other folks are using this stuff for sails? And for sails other than junk rig? I've been so hoping to find sailcloth that feels, and behaves, like CLOTH! Sure do like those old, beat up sails that actually fold...

    Thanks so much for getting into all this. Gradually I am wrapping my head around the logistical possibilities for a junk rig for AUKLET -- can't beat that reefing!


    1. Hi Shemaya,

      We used standard lumberyard 2 x 2 (1 1/2in x 1 1/2in... the standard is, if inches are not specified, as in 2x4, then that's the nominal, rough cut dimension... after drying and sanding, we get the actual dimension which is supposed to be standard, but actually shrinks over the years as the industry tries to stretch profits. Plywood thickness, for example, is no longer nominal, but 1/32in under, in many cases... have to watch this as the error is cumulative in composites.)

      We don't sandwich the sail, though have considered it. A big plus of that method is not needing lacing grommets along each batten (one pair every running foot) or the lashings at the ends. Probably use barrel bolts to avoid proud or inset nuts.

      Top Notch probably could be used for a shaped sail, but probably wouldn't keep its shape as well as more stable sailcloth. I'd be curious how it compared to canvas, though, which managed to drive boats for centuries. We tend to get spoiled by high tech and think nothing else will do! But even poly tarp sails do reasonably well with no shaping other than at leech and luff, with a bit of gathering at the corners.

      We heard about it from the folks who bought LUNA... they had rigged a previous boat with it - I'm pretty sure JR - and had a bolt we could fondle. It was royal blue, which was then available as factory seconds for $5/yd!

      JR reefing is hard to beat!


  3. Dave,
    What type of hot-melt glue did you use? Were you able to sew right through the areas which had been glued, or did you have to keep the glue away from where the line of stitching would be?

    Are you using a conventional home-style sewing machine, or an industrial type? If a home-style machine, are you having any problems using heavier sail thread while punching through multiple layers of cloth?

    Are your sails flat-cut, or did you make cambered panels, which are now being touted on the Yahoo JunkRig site?

    How close to the wind can you sail, and at what wind speeds?

    Thanks, John

    1. Hi John,

      We used some cheap, bulk glue sticks... nothing too special about 'em. We were able to sew through the glue (pressed flat) with no problems.

      We used home machines for both sets, running a heavy polyester upholstery thread. We bought a spool for a couple of bucks 20 years back, and it's still mostly full... use it for all our sewing needs. On the second set (fewer layers), we could punch through it all... first set needed a little help in stacked corners.

      The only place we use heavy sail thread is hand stitching at the corners.

      We went with flat cut. I'd like to try cambered (and maybe gurney flaps), but haven't yet. That's one panel at a time, so we could do it aboard ST. Might, someday.

      We're about 45deg off the wind in light airs to 55deg in gales (subjective). Progress is slow but reliable to windward. Our leeboards aren't foils, which means we give up a lot of lift.

      One wrinkle we use is to detach sheet parts from the bundle when deep reefed. This helps eliminate twist by reducing purchase at the boom. The upper blocks have beckets, and lowers attached with caribiners. We unclip after 2 and 4 panel reefs, and reattach to the beckets higher up. Don't need this often, but if we must get to windward in heavy wind, we will.


  4. Dave,
    You mention the possibility of sewing alterations while on board Slack Tide. Can you operate your sewing machine on board? Is it hand/foot powered, or 12v DC, or 120v AC? In your blog on electrical uses I don't recall your mentioning inverters or sewing machines.

    1. Hi John,

      We had a Wilcox/Gibbs chainstitch sewing machine (hand-crank, single thread), for a while. Perfect format, and supposedly home serviceable. Turns out, though, that it requires watchmaker precision (literally), and the firm that serviced them is long gone.

      Still, they were widely used in the American, Scottish and Australian frontiers... may not need much tinkering. Ours needed a bit of adjustment that we couldn't give it, so passed it on. May try again on a bigger boat in the sweet bye 'm bye.

      For now, onboard sewing is hand-stitching. We sometimes get power at a dock for bigger projects, either from the port, piggy-backing off friends, or with a loaned generator (usually some barter arrangement).

      We've got sailor's needles/palms, regular sewing needles/kit and Speedy Stitcher Sewing Awls.


  5. It sure would be nice to read here something about the difference between these sails (the Slacktide) and the different-looking sails of the Wayward. Was the Wayward experience harder or easier?

    1. Hi Sail4th,

      Reports on the way!

      In short, ST's sails are flat-cut, while WWs foresail is shaped AND has highly shaped 'jiblets' forward of a gap at the mast (Slieve McGalliard's Split Junk Rig).

      SJR is a much more powerful sail and points higher than flat cut. It is considerably harder to loft and build than flat cut sails, but easy compared to standard Western types.

      Dave Z

  6. Where to you buy your sailcloth fabric at a reasonable price, and do you still use Top Notch?

    1. Hi Sail4th,

      We've bought from Rochford Supply and Seattle Fabrics.

      We are using Top Notch, but WeatherMax worked out great on a set of protoype sails. In the future, we might switch. Only drawback is that colors aren't as attractive to us.

      Ah, Vanity!

      Dave Z

  7. Mosr excellent info. Thank you all !! I am fitting my boat with a gaff rig and have decided to use a full grown fir tree. This area of south eastern BC has an abundance of them. The boat is now near to Vancouver island and our travel plans include visits to my old haunts of kitimat and Prince Rupert. Just a few inches south of you.
    I imagine that someday we may meet so to note we also list coffee, chocolate and cheese with the basic mandatory vittles !! Thank you again for a pleasant read. The Yarbin.