Dealing with Dirty Sails


Among the many chores weve got ahead of us this winter, removing, and storing sails is one of them. This is also a good time to clean the sails.

We published a PS Advisor on the topic of cleaning sails in the April 2002 issue. Heres a recap of that report and other articles weve done in the past.

You can clean most sails yourself, but be sure to set aside enough time. You also will need a large work area.

Be aware that some sailcloth materials (Kevlar and nylon in particular) are sensitive to certain substances-chlorine bleach and acetone, to name those most damaging. While Dacron holds up to mild doses of bleach, spinnakers and light-air sails made of nylon are particularly vulnerable. If you expose Kevlar or nylon to bleach-say you decide to rinse the sails in a swimming pool-they can lose up to 90 percent of their original strength.

For washing your sails, most sailmakers recommend using mild soap and water, and avoiding anything abrasive. Use a soft brush, if necessary, to loosen dirt. For dirt or stains that are more deeply embedded, you may need to soak the sail, so you’ll have to locate some kind of large container, depending upon the size of the soiled area. (This is the time to requisition your kids’ inflatable swimming pool.)

For mildew, some sailmakers advise simple household bleach, a 5.25-percent solution of sodium hypochlorite. We’d use a highly diluted blend first. Be sure to rinse thoroughly. We had mixed results with various mildew removers on sails in our 2009 test of mildew removers.

When you’ve finished cleaning, always rinse the sail liberally with fresh water. And, if you hang your sails to dry, do so at a time when it’s not windy. If a sail is left to flog or flutter, you can do more harm than good. Remember, sails are composed of fibers, and the more back and forth bending those fibers have to endure, the more quickly they’ll lose their strength.

You’ll find additional information about the care and cleaning of sails on the North Sails website. Almost any large sail loft with a service department as most have arrangements with specialty cleaning services.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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