Choosing a Sailmaker

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 10:59AM - Comments: (3)

Photo by Frank Lanier
Photo by Frank Lanier

David Baxter of Baxter Sailmakers in Norfolk, VA, measures a Union Cutter for a new mainsail.

Historically, fall has been the best time to order new sails. Boat show specials abound and you have plenty of wiggle room on delivery date—at least if you are snowed in for most of the winter. But our wants and needs seem to rarely dovetail with the perfect season. By the time spring rolls around, the sailmakers find themselves swimming in Dacron, but if you shop around you can still find some good deals. With offshore sailmakers streamlining production, meeting a spring delivery date is still within reach.

The following article from our print archives is aimed primarily at the first-time sail-buyer. For more specific guidance on sail buying, be sure to check out our recent articles on choosing a cruising main, which includes a link to PS readers’ favorite sailmakers and list of recommended sailmakers, and “State of the Main,” a look at how the industry has dramatically changed over the past two decades. If a new jib is in your future, we have a two-part series on headsails in October 2015 and November 2015. And for those looking to upgrade their light-air inventory, we have a guide to sizing and selecting asymmetrical spinnakers, and have tested several light air headsail furling systems

For a one-stop comprehensive look at building a sail inventory we also have a downloadable e-book series in our bookstore. You can buy the individual e-book you need, or save on the complete three-part series that covers all the essentials as well as more esoteric sail subjects like storm sails and riding sails.

Selecting Sailmakers

You’re best off selecting up to a half-dozen candidates that make the kind of sails you want and sticking with them. In identifying them, you’ll want to consider a number of variables. If you’re a heavy-duty, serious racing fanatic, you may do well with one of the national franchise groups, particularly if you are good at it and likely to add to their victory list. If you’re not all that fanatical, you may do better with a smaller, local company that has a good reputation for bringing in the silver in local events. They’ll be more likely to offer you good service, since any individual customer is obviously more valuable to a small outfit than a large one. Don’t necessarily expect the price to be a lot lower at the local loft, though.

If you are not involved in racing, you probably have a wider choice of sailmakers who will do a genuinely good job for you. You may still want to try a franchise, particularly one that has a loft close to you, though you should remember that the large companies, for the most part, got that way through their involvement with racing. If you are a cruiser or casual sailor, you may get promised the world but not delivered much beyond the “white triangle.”

For most people, it is worth considering some of your local lofts, for simple convenience. All other things being equal, it pays dividends to buy locally. The few bucks you might save by going “out of town” can get quickly eaten up in freight and travel, should you have a problem.

And remember, even a phone call to Hong Kong is not likely to result in that sailmaker’s arriving on board next Saturday to check out your sails. If you are really serious about your boat, and want to get her all the best things for your Great Cruise, then you’ll probably spend a little more time on selecting the sailmaker who will be compatible with your style of sailing and your type of involvement with boats. Observing other boats and asking their skippers how they like sails that you think look good will help lead you to the right sailmaker.

Sometimes, even the advertising can be believed! Once you’ve narrowed the selection down to a manageable number, ask for an appointment to see the loft, and the opportunity to discuss how they make sails and why they recommend their methods. What’s good in a racing sail is not what you want for a cruise to Bora Bora.

Interpreting Price Quotations

Sooner or later, you’ll get together the quotes on the sails you need. Unless you’ve been very specific about the exact sails you want, you may be overwhelmed by the apparent choices offered. You may also be amazed by the variation in prices for sails of a given designation, and it is easy to arrive at misleading conclusions about the cost of sails as a result. Any price quote you get should include at least the size and weight of the sail, as well as the price. Many people assume that a number 2 genoa is a number 2 genoa is a . ... but it isn't necessarily so. In studying prices from a number of sailmakers over the last five years, we‘ve found that there is little consensus even as to how big a 150-percent genoa is on a very ordinary boat, and in some cases, we’ve seen quotations for sails that were nominally the same, but which were quoted on a variable of more than 10 percent of the assumed area! So, be as careful in evaluating the prices you get as you expect your sailmaker to be in designing your sails.

The quickest means of comparing values is to compare price per square foot for sails of given weight and construction. Beware of any quotation that gives sail areas grossly different from the bulk of replies you receive, and before accepting such a quotation be sure the sailmaker is working with the right numbers. Even the best are not immune from mistakes of this sort. Depending on the size of your order and/or the time of year you will need the sails, you may well avail yourself of special discounts.

Most sailmakers will offer some incentive to place your order during their slack season on the premise that it is better to work for a small profit than not to work at all. In the Northeast, the discount season is generally October through December, the particular dates varying from one loft to another. At least one loft we know offers a sliding discount, largest in October, tapering down to smallest at year’s end. In most cases, a deposit of about 50 percent will be required to write the order, with the balance due when the sails are completed. It is increasingly common to make the discount contingent on prompt payment of the balance, as well. You may also be able to swing a discount on volume if your order is big enough.

How big your order has to be to negotiate such a discount varies from one loft to another, and not all lofts are approachable, but if you have over $5,000 to spend, it is probably worth asking. You will also occasionally see ads for seasonal specials, generally on light-air sails in the summer. You’re most likely to see this during summers of slow economic growth in general, as in ordinary times, sailmakers will be busy from early spring through late fall, with only the slightest pause for a week or so in August.

Adding it Up

No discussion on buying sails would be complete without mention of quality. Of course, every sailmaker sells only the finest quality, so it is up to the buyer to determine for himself which “finest quality” sails are right for him. In fact, not all sails are made the same. Price is a guide to quality, at least to the extent that you are unlikely to buy the best sails at the lowest price. Of course, not everyone needs or wants the very best, and the budget-priced discount sailmakers certainly have a place in the “best” market if the best thing you want to say about your sails is that they didn’t cost much. If “best” means "fastest” to you, be prepared to pay fancy prices to look at fancy cuts that may go out of fashion fast. For most people, “best” is modestly priced and expected to drive the family sloop on the family cruise for 10 or more seasons, without having to drive cross-country for service. For a few, “best” is simply the best: well made, durable, reliable offshore in bad weather, repairable on board in far away places, quick, of obviously fine manufacture and cut, and not cheap.

In the end, you play as great a part in getting good sails as the sailmaker himself, because ultimately, you make the crucial decisions. Providing the correct and adequate information, deciding which of the many options you want, and selecting a sailmaker you feel confident will do his best to serve you with products appropriate to your usage all are matters for you to resolve. It’s your money.


Comments (3)

When I needed a new set of sails for my former Sabre 34 -- coastal cruising up and down New England -- I got six quotes. Turns out that North -- biggest of them all -- was the best buy, and they didn't just deliver a "white triangle." My boat sailed better and faster. And excellent service. The nearby North loft was just as "local" as any one-man shop.

Posted by: Troubadour | October 31, 2019 11:23 AM    Report this comment

Years ago we had access to sailmakers actually making their sails here in America for decades with well established reputations. Nowadays sails are almost always made overseas taking advantage of much cheaper labor. Typically on large computer driven cutting machines. And far fewer sailmakers nowadays actually "go to sea" to see how their products hold up. Long gone are the days when needing a new sail(s) one could go to a long established local sailmaker and give the order knowing the price would be reasonable and the quality superior. Our auto tires are now made abroad in foreign climes. So too our sails. A step backwards. Where are the sailmakers who go sailing with their customers to see how their new sails are doing ?

Posted by: Piberman | October 31, 2019 10:41 AM    Report this comment

I am fortunate to have a very good local sailmaker. He designs sails for the local conditions and personally sails with me to advise on trim.

Bill Records
Lake Travis Texas

Posted by: | October 31, 2019 10:28 AM    Report this comment

New to Practical Sailor?
Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In