Features August 15, 1999 Issue

Sail Track Lubes: Slide-All Lasts Longest

Whether fitted with slides and shackles on a metal track or plastic slugs in a mast slot, mainsails can be difficult to hoist or strike.

The paragon is a mainsail that sets smoothly and, when the halyard is freed, drops like a burlesque comedian’s barrel-waisted trousers when his suspenders are severed by the Second Banana.

Very annoying, and even a bit unsafe, is a main that goes up grudgingly and needs urging to come down. In a stiff wind, the main may fight it every foot of the way. Especially if the sail is new or heavy material, it may require a trip to the foot of the mast to grab and yank on the luff folds.

If spiders have taken up residence, their silky cocoons (which tend to collect debris) may jam the track or slot, along with what sail makers call “mast mud,” which is a gummy mix of lubricant, dirt and oxidized aluminum dust. It’s the black stuff you see along the luff of your sail.

Fighting the main is no way to live.

A better way is to clean the track or slot; check for and remove nicks, sharp edges and corners (a onetime job best done with the mast unstepped), and apply a lubricant. Subsequent cleaning and lubricating, utilizing a halyard, can be done with the mast in place.

To avoid accumulating dirt, a dry lubricant is the best by far. Ask any sail maker, who may be called to task if the mainsail doesn’t go up smooth like a lady’s nylon stocking and come down like a shot when the captain shouts, “Strike the main!”

Which lubricant?
Gathered for testing were four dry lubricants—McGee Industries’ Sailkote™; Multiple Choice’s Sea Spray; the Borden Corporation’s Slide-All™ (Elmer’s), and a can of Rig Pig™ Trak Wax that we’ve had for some time. (The old Rig Pig wax was part of a track cleaning and waxing system once made by a Colorado company we could not now locate. They had great T-shirts!)

Also included in this test was Bevlac Enterprises’ Fastrac™. We thought originally that Fastrac was a dry lubricant. When the tube was opened, it turned out that it’s a wet lubricant. The maker said it stays wet for three months. Because it’s marketed as a track lubricant, we kept it in the test, even though it looks, feels and smells like Teflon gel. If it is plain Teflon, it would be worth about 50˘ an ounce. Selling a half ounce for $5.99 might be deemed extremely entrepreneurial… or pillage worthy of Jenghiz Khan.

Also added to the mix was something we’ve used many times on external mast tracks—plain candle wax—which can be used also on a slotted mast by dipping a small, clean rag in melted wax and allowing it to cool.

Not included in the test, partly because it’s unsightly but mostly because it washes away, were various graphite (carbon) powder products. Also omitted were lubricants containing the soft, silvery lithium (the lightest metal known) and lanolin (wool grease). Lithium usually comes in a paste, and lanolin never dries.

We looked at several spray lubricants that go on wet and are supposed to dry, but found that after a few days they are gummy.

Excluded because it can be washed away by a couple of rainstorms was household detergent (Joy is most often mentioned).

We wound up with three commercial dry lubricants, one paste wax, the above-mentioned Fastrac (a clear jelly) and candle wax.

The Test Set-Up
Testing the six lubricants was a challenge. Considered and rejected because of the difficulty of controlling the samples, especially over a period of months, was some kind of treatment of slots and tracks on actual masts or pieces of masts.

Because the goal was primarily to see which lubricant was the most friction-inhibiting and which one lasted longest without getting dirty or gummy (as lubricants are loathe to do), a bench test emerged as the way to go.

A blemish-free fiberglass panel was thoroughly cleaned several times, rinsed repeatedly and dried. After being examined for any imperfections or variations in the gelcoat, the 12" x 36" panel was divided into seven columns.

The object was to place in the columns on the panel matched objects attached to strings, led over the edge, to which small weights can be attached until the objects on the panel moved.

After some experimentation, it was found that 1-lb. diver’s belt weights in identical plastic dishes could be made to move with the incremental accumulation of 1-oz. and 1/2-oz. fishing sinkers added to a hook on the string.

The test didn’t provide a scientific coefficient of friction, but yielded comparative data.

Before applying the lubricants, each panel had to be walled off to preclude adjacent contamination (three of the products are spray-applied), but before doing so each diver’s-weight-in-a-dish had to be cross-checked repeatedly in dry-runs to make sure there were no differences in the dishes or the panel.

The test worked perfectly. When the weight was sufficient, the friction was overcome and the dish moved smoothly to the edge of the panel. Although there were not nearly enough “pulls” to simulate any wearing away of the lubricants, as might occur when a mainsail is hoisted and lowered repeatedly during a sailing season, the initial data appeared both reliable and significant.

From the beginning, it was intended to place the panel outdoors—in sun, wind and rain—and retest at various intervals to see how the coated columns “aged.”

One other test (involving another fiberglass panel and dirt) is described and shown pictorially in the caption and photo on page 13.

The Results
The initial testing produced dramatic results, with the best friction fighter requiring about half the “pull” of the worst—nearly a 100% difference. The results are shown on the chart in the “Initial Test” column.

Sailkote was best, but plain candle wax was numerically almost equal. Elmer’s Slide-All held undisputed last place.

(About a month after this test started, Harken announced that it would market Sailkote on a worldwide basis; Harken’s release said it tested Sailkote for a year and found it more effective and long-lasting than wax, oil, silicone or Teflon-based lubricants.)

After spending 31 days outdoors, during which New England had a fine spate of nasty winter weather, the panel returned to the test bench. Placed at about 45° off level, it had been snowed on a half dozen times and rained on twice as often. The only thing it didn’t get was a lot of sunshine.

A water-beading examination showed that all six panels still retained a coating of some kind. Visually, it looked like there was nothing left of the Sea Spray on column 4 and the Fastrac coating on the second column appeared almost washed away; and some of it appeared to have migrated down toward the bottom of the panel.

Elmer’s Slide-All and Sailkote seemed to benefit from some exposure. Candle wax and the Rig Pig wax held their own. The other two lubricants deteriorated considerably.

After 30 days, Sailkote was still Number One, candle wax held second and Elmer’s Slide-All moved up sharply to run neck-and-neck with the old Rig Pig wax.

Sounds like a horse race, and it’s back outdoors for the last heat.

Two months later—which gave a total outdoor exposure of three months—the panel was brought in for final testing. It had suffered more rain and a lot of sunlight.

It was examined first with a reflecting light. The Sea Spray appeared to have disappeared (it looked like the uncoated panel). There was a faintly detectable residue on the Elmer’s Slide-All and Sailkote sections. The Fastrac panel had picked up a considerable amount of dirt and, as noted in the 30-day test, had migrated down lower on its section. Only the Rig Pig wax and the candle wax sections looked as they did in the beginning.

The third round of testing with the weights, conducted after 90 days had elapsed, produced the results shown on the chart.

Elmer’s Slide-All, which started last, finished first.

Candle wax and the old Rig Pig wax were a consistent second and third over the entire testing period.

The only real surprise was that Sailkote started first but ended up fourth, which means that it’s very slippery but needs to be reapplied sometime after a month and before three months.

If you want something that lasts for a full summer season, the test results suggest that Elmer’s or candle wax might do it. The advantage of Elmer’s is that it’s a good Teflon spray that can be used (like Sailkote) to lubricate most anything, including that once-a-season overhaul of the luff slot on a furling jib.

Remember, too, that these tests did not incorporate any wear factor resulting from hoisting, using and striking the sail.


Contacts- Elmer’s Slide-All, Borden, Inc., Dept. CP, Columbus, O 43215; 614/225-4000. Fastrac, 7825 Bayview, Thornhill, Ontario L3T 7N2; 905/763-8711. Jasper & Bailey, 64 Halsey, Newport, RI 02840; 401/847-8796. Sailkote, McGee Industries, Inc., 9 Crozerville Rd., Aston, PA 19014; 800/262-5823. Sea Spray, Mariner’s Choice, 6219 Monita, Long Beach, CA 90803; 562/598-5861.

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