Features March 2005 Issue

Discount Options for Sails

We web-surfed our way to some real bargains on working sails. It takes time, persistence, and a little self-education, but there are good deals out there.

furling headsail
A new furling headsail awaits stitching at AirForce Sails. Most of this company's sails are built in China, but custom orders often take shape at its loft facility in Charleston, SC.

Buying new sails is a big step for most every boat owner. The joys of enhanced performance and greater reliability take some of the sting out of writing a big check to your sailmaker, but there's no getting around the fact that this is one of the biggest investments a boat owner will make. So the temptation to save a few bucks is strong, and we can certainly relate.

Because our empathy runs deep, we thought it would be instructive to assess the bargains available through online discount sail brokers—those that sell new sails and those that offer used ones as well. So, we logged on and set out to compare product options, services, prices, and warranties for a suit of working sails.

In an attempt to standardize the information we hoped to receive from these entities, we chose an established design—the Catalina 320—as our hypothetical boat. The 32-foot Catalina has the following rig dimensions: I = 43' 7", J = 12' 4", P = 38', E = 13' 3, giving it a mainsail of 252 sq. ft. and a foretriangle that measures 521 sq. ft. Over 1,000 Catalina 320s have been built since the boat's introduction in 1993, so we felt this boat would offer a relatively stable basis for comparing the sailmakers' quotes.

There are a number of details to consider when ordering a sail. Cloth types and weights should correspond to the kind of sailing you do as well as your expectations for the sail's longevity. For the mainsail, there are questions regarding the number of reefs you want, and where to put them, as well as the types of mast attachment hardware and batten configurations, along with the reinforcement areas you desire for the sail. Genoas will need to have the appropriate sized luff tape to fit an existing roller furling unit (or the right size hanks). Another option specific to furling units is whether to have a foam luff sewn into the sail, which increases the sail’s shape-holding ability when partially furled. Then there is UV protection on the leech and foot of the sail. Leech lines and cleats, telltales, and insignias or numbers, sail covers and sail bags all round out the options. We chose to specify a single-reefed, fully battened mainsail built from 7-oz. cloth, and a 140-percent genoa with a UV suncover and foam luff. We didn't include any gennakers or spinnakers in our hypothetical inventory.

It's important that we also address the areas of customer service and warranties provided by these brokers and sailmakers. We believe that the people who sell sails should do more than offer lip service about standing behind their products. Even though the sails they're selling are discounted, these folks should nonetheless answer e-mails and return phone calls, and offer advice when requested regarding the many details involved in getting a sail right for the clients who are forking over their hard-earned cash.

The Players
Based in Ft. Myers, FL, National Sail Supply deals in new and used sails. It was the first discount online sail supplier we contacted and frankly, we were impressed with their response time and attention to detail. The firm's website offers a generic form to complete for quotes, as well as a direct e-mail address and phone and fax numbers that are easy to find.

Our morning inquiry was met with a quote that same afternoon by Dirk Sharland. He quoted on a new, 7.3-oz. Dacron, fully battened mainsail with one reef and internal mast slides on the luff and a boltrope on the foot for $1,280, including the battens. Despite our attempts to submit precise and detailed measurements and option preferences, Sharland picked up on an omission we made—sail slide size. He wanted to know whether we needed 3/4" or 7/8" slides.

A new 140-percent genoa made from 6-oz. Dacron and fashioned to fit a Schaefer roller furling system, including a foam luff and Sunbrella UV protection on the leech and foot, came in at $1,325. Again Sharland's e-mail response asked us for more details. In this case he wanted to know the maximum allowable luff length on the furler as installed. He said both sails would come with a two-year warranty covering material quality and workmanship, and that the price included clam cleats, tell tales, and flow stripes. The construction included triple-stitched seams as well as large corner and reef reinforcements with a handsewn leather finish. We were glad to find pictures on the website that illustrate many of these details.

Sharland told us that the standard delivery time is three-to-four weeks from confirmation of the order, and they will ship anywhere in the world. The price was somewhere between $25 to $35, for one sail, shipped UPS Ground from Florida to California. Sales tax does not apply out of state, which is an added bonus. The website also specified how much the extras or upgrades would be, at a glance. An extra reef point, for instance, was $75, and a mainsail cover was another $171.

The total price for our test inventory was $2,605. We should note that National Sail Supply places a particular focus on serving Catalina owners, which made this quote easy for that company, but the timely service and insight were well above average.

Cruising Direct, a subsidiary of North Sails based in Portsmouth, RI, deals only in new sails. The company's website is full of good information, particularly for the DIY owner.

Dan Calore, a sales rep, offered a relatively prompt response, answering one day after our initial e-mail inquiry. He told us his quote would be for a mainsail with only two full battens (the remaining two would be partials), adding "that's the most we can do for full battens." Admittedly, that might disappoint an owner who has his or her sights set on a full-battened main.

This website offered the most extensive technical details in a downloadable, PDF format, which included an outline of the recommended sail cloth—North's NorDac 4800 (a cloth the manufacturer claims offers a greater stability than any other in the 5- to 9.5-oz. range). Standard features for mainsails ordered from Cruising Direct include cross-cut panel construction, two rows of three-step stitching on horizontal seams, stainless-steel rings, solid fiberglass battens with Velcro closure pockets, triangular patch reinforcements, adjustable leech and foot lines, and a sail bag. Extras that are available include reefs, a cunningham adjustment, sail numbers and/or insignias, one or two full-length top battens, and a performance-enhancing roach.

There's no formal warranty, "but we stand behind our products," wrote Calore. The on-line order form breaks down prices for extras like reef points and cloth weight. A 7-ounce Dacron main was priced at $1,297, one reef was $104 and two full length battens were $150, bringing our total to $1,551.

The standard genoa package includes cross-cut panel construction, telltales, hydraulically pressed stainless steel rings, adjustable pre-stretched leech lines, a drawstring sail bag, and self adhesive spreader patches. For the genoa, we chose a 140-percent sail built from 8-oz. Dacron, priced at $1,429. The UV foot and leech cover (out of Sunbrella), which added $264 to the cost, and the reefing pad with reefing patches added another $357, bringing our total to $2,050. The price for the set came in at $3,601. Depending upon your location, sales tax may apply, as does a $40 shipping cost per sail, which bumped the Cruising Direct package up to $3,681. Calore told us that delivery times vary seasonally, but the company recommends allowing more time for orders placed from January through June.

Far East Sails sells new cruising sails manufactured by a leading Hong Kong sailmaker, A. Lam Sails Hong Kong, the original sail purveyor for Cheoy Lee Yachts. The form we filled out and submitted via the website was answered five days later by Brad Gunther.

A fully battened mainsail cut from 7.4-oz. Contender Sailcloth which the manufacturer rates as "offshore quality," with one reef, was $1,176, while a 140-percent headsail built from the same cloth and fitted with a foam luff and Sunbrella UV cover, was $1,551. The prices, said Gunther, included air delivery, shipping insurance, and U.S. Customs Tax.

Seams on sails over 200 sq. ft. are triple-stitched and come with a leech line and clam cleats, except for the company’s high clew headsails and storm sails. Main and mizzen tacks and headsail clews come with leather chafing protection and anodized aluminum headboards. Slides and hanks are coated with a soft film to protect against chafing while the sails have pressed alloy stainless steel cringles and nickel-plated slide and hank eyelets. Sails have a webbed "O" ring at the tack and clew patches with double tape along the leech and foot with oversize patches at the tack and clew. Full-battened mainsails do not come with battens or batten tensioners, an item that’s left to the purchaser to install. Due to these details, we felt that photos on the website would be a welcome addition.

The lead time for delivery is approximately five weeks from receiving the order, and shipping requires two to four days via UPS. All sails come with a one-year limited warranty. One nice touch is that before production begins, the company sends each customer a computer-generated drawing of the sail as a final opportunity to check all the dimensions prior to approving the order. The total price for our inventory was $2,727.

The Sail Warehouse of Monterey, CA, encourages sailors in the market for new and used sails to explore the website carefully to see if their questions have already been answered before making a call. Information on the site specifically states that the company doesn't offer sail quotes by e-mail and cautions against calling if searching for a used sail.

Our first call for a quote met with few results. While we had the measurements, it must have been a busy time at the loft as we were instructed to search the site by square foot for an approximate quote. We called weeks later and our luck changed, that call yielded a quote that was put together in about five minutes while we waited on the phone. And, we were told that the Sail Warehouse was going to begin stocking sails for the Catalina 320 in its inventory.

The mainsail this company builds comes in three versions, a standard OEM, the Coastal Cruise, and an Offshore version, ranging from $1,235-$1,475. When we mentioned that we were looking for a fully battened main, this tipped the scale to the $1,475 price. (We were also warned that the price would likely being going up by 7% soon due to price increases by their cloth supplier.) The Coastal Cruise version has reinforced corners and is intended for coastal and medium-duty cruising and club racing. The sails are made from performance-grade Dacron with two-to-three rows of zig-zag stitching used throughout. Pressed corner rings are reinforced with webbing and draft stripes are standard. We were told that a 140-percent headsail would run between $1,400-$1,700, but a final price couldn't be nailed down as we didn't have the precise measurement of the furler hoist, and thus we were referred back to the website, which has hundreds if not thousands of sails listed. In hindsight, we felt such a small increment—typically inches—wouldn't significantly alter a price estimate for the headsail, and we expected a more accurate quote. The Sail Warehouse offers a two-year warranty and delivery of a sail typically takes three to four weeks. We were told that the total price for our order would run between $2,875 and $3,175.

Atlantic Sail Traders in Sarasota, FL, is one of the biggest names in discount sailmaking, and deals with new and used sails. Our first inquiry apparently got lost in the ether after we filled out the required form on the website, which only reinforced our preference that companies in this trade provide individual e-mail addresses to facilitate contacting their sales reps. (None is offered on this website, but there is a tol l-free phone number.) Our second e-mail was also never answered. So we picked up the phone and twice left messages on a machine during business hours. When we never heard back, we did what most sailors would do at that point, and went on to the next sailmaker.

We wonder whether our experience in this case might be a useful gauge of the company’s outlook regarding timeliness and customer service. If you can't get a quote for a sail, it's easy to imagine that, were you to buy a sail from this outfit and a problem arose with that sail, it would be equally difficult to correct.

Nonetheless, Atlantic Sail Traders' website does do a good job of instructing how to measure your boat for a sail. The company's cruising sails come with radial corner reinforcements, triple stitching, leather chafe guards, leech line, draft stripe, telltales, and a sail bag. Mainsails come with four partial-length battens and the batten pockets are reinforced for their entire length. There are slides at the luff and foot, and a heavily reinforced aluminum headboard. Hank-on headsails come with bronze piston hanks and furling headsails are offered with a foam luff and UV Sunbrella cloth. All of the above are options we were looking for, which underscored our disappointment in being unable to connect with a live person after leaving messages and sending e-mails.

There were hundreds of used sails listed by leech, luff, and foot size, with their conditions ranging from "useable" to "new." They were also listed by boat type. You could spend hours browsing on this site. The company maintains a 30-day return policy and its loft can also alter a sail to fit. Clicking on 'view' provided further details like cloth weight, sailmaker, luff type, as well as other details unique to a particular sail.

Minney's Yacht Surplus in Newport Harbor, CA, also deals in used sails. The company’s website offers a veritable online swap meet, and with a little looking, you might find a good buy. The site's layout is a bit dizzying due to the abundance of offerings, but our e-mail quickly drew a response from Ernie Minney, instructing us to look at bin No. 45. That search yielded a 9-oz. mainsail built originally for a J/30. The sail was listed as "in excellent condition" for $695.

Minney, a circumnavigator and experienced ocean racer, has been selling used sails for the past 30 years. He told us that each sail is re-measured before it leaves and can be returned by the buyer for a full refund for any reason. Considering the many details involved in getting used sails to fit your boat, like mainsail slide size and headsail foil size, the odds of finding exactly what you are looking for in a used sail are certainly stacked against you. But if you're looking to find something that, given a little time and effort, might work, it's worth perusing this website.

Getting in touch with the folks at Sail Exchange in Newport Beach, CA, initially proved difficult. Two e-mails we sent went into the void, but we did get a return call from Scott Sheller, the proprietor, after we left a phone message. He's been in this business for 35 years and proved to be quite helpful as well as very patient once we connected with him.

Sheller said his company services every type of sailor from family cruisers to offshore racers. At the time of our conversation, he had over 1,800 sails in stock. His website segments these into mainsails, headsails, and spinnakers, and further lists them by luff length, so finding the right product is pretty simple. He said once a purchase is confirmed, the sails are shipped within two working days and the correct size is guaranteed. The customer pays the shipping charges (90 percent of the sails get shipped via UPS), and has up to 10 days to try them out and then return them for a full refund or exchange them if for some reason he or she is dissatisfied.

When buying used sails, said Sheller, the actual luff, leech, and foot measurements prove more important than I, J, P, and E measurements that might be listed on a design drawing, because the latter are boat-specific rather than sail-specific. It's also worth noting that what you see listed on Sheller's website doesn’t represent the Sail Exchange’s entire inventory as sails are bought and sold on a daily basis, so making a phone call is worth the effort.

While the company stocks new sails for Catalina 22s and 27s, it was sold out in the luff and foot size needed for our hypothetical genoa. Sheller did have a used mainsail in stock that closely fit the dimensions of the Catalina 320. As he does with all his sails, he had given this mainsail a rating, in this case a 6 for "good." He said that it still had two thirds of its life left, or 8 to 9 years of use by his estimates. The sail was built by Danish sailmaker Elvström Sails of triple-stitched, 8-oz. Dacron and came with two reef points, with a bolt rope for the foot, a cunningham, a leech cord adjustment, and internal luff slides. The price was impressive—a $495—and tempting, particularly since Sheller told us later that he also entertains "reasonable offers."

Bacon & Associates of Annapolis, MD, has one of the easiest to peruse and most comprehensive online inventories of used sails that we examined. The company claims to have 10,000 sails in stock, and we don't doubt it. The inventory is updated daily, and there are literally thousands of headsails, mainsails, storm sails, gennakers, and spinnakers listed, not only by the luff, leech, and foot measurement, but also by boat type, including some relatively obscure ones that we've owned and sailed. Headsails were listed in percentages of the foretriangle, along with a helpful blend of I, J, P, and E measurements for boat type.

For the Catalina 320, we found 11 possible mainsail matches (all were for J/30s) ranging from a 7.5-ounce Dacron Doyle main in "excellent condition" to a "soiled, stained, and patched" 6.5-oz. main for $250. A search for genoas yielded some 55 results sorted by luff and foot length.

One possibility looked quite promising—a 136% Neil Pryde roller-furling headsail made from 7.5-oz. cloth, which was listed in "new condition." It came with 3/16" luff tape, leech and foot lines, a Sunbrella cover on the port side of the sail, telltale windows, sewn-on draft stripes, and was only lightly stained, all of that in a turquoise bag. It listed for $1,135. The company maintains a policy of offering customers a 10-day examination period that includes hoisting, but not sailing. A full refund is made if the sail, when re-examined, is in the same condition as when purchased, with all shipping costs paid by the customer. And if you have old sails you no longer use, the company buys sails, but charges a 35% brokerage fee.

AirForce Sails, the sailmaking arm of SailNet out of Charleston, SC, is a relative newcomer to the industry, having been established in 2001, but the company has slowly built a good reputation with its small market share. Most sails sold here are built by a subcontractor in China, but the quality is first-rate, particularly the hand work. Because more than 90 percent of this company's business is transacted online, we weren't surprised to get a quote for a Catalina 320 mainsail in about 30 seconds after logging on to the site.

Mainsail options include Coastal sails (3-year warranty) with either radial or crosscut configurations, and Blue Water sails (which are more robustly built and carry a 5-year warranty) with the same choice of panel configuration.

We opted for a crosscut Coastal main, which would be built from 7.3-oz., high-modulus Dacron for $1,240, but an additional 10% discount brought that to $1,285. This sail would include an anodized aluminum headboard, two rows of stitching (for sails with luffs up to 35 feet, three rows for those over 35 feet), a webbed "O" ring at the tack, a pressed stainless ring at leech, and tapered epoxy battens.

Then we clicked on the button that read "Customize this sail by selecting your own options." By adding one reef and four full-length battens, the price jumped up to $1,642 ($1,478 with the 10% discount).

We also selected a Coastal headsail, in this case a 140% crosscut sail built from the same 7.3-oz. Dacron used in the mainsail. The basic sail includes trim lines, pressed stainless rings in the head and tack, and double stitch on luffs up to 35 feet. This would run us $1,329, but again the 10% discount lessened that to $1,253. Then we factored in the options, in this case a Sunbrella suncover for the leech and foot, and a foam luff, and that shot the price up to $1,731, ($1,558 with the discount). The total price for this AirForce inventory would be $3,036, with a five week delivery time.

Conclusions
With just a modest amount of talent using a tape measure, you might be able to procure new or used sails for your boat at a substantial discount, but there are drawbacks to all of this. Essentially, you'll lack the advantage of having a sailmaker's trained eye assess your boat (as well as the rest of your inventory). And consider that almost every source we spoke with told us that getting the measurements right is critical, even for well-established boat designs. If you end up spending $80 to $100 for shipping the sail from the broker and back because it doesn't fit, there goes a big chunk of the money you might have saved with the purchase in the first place.

For a brand new suit of working sails, our research produced five firmsthat could deliver exactly what we were looking for: National Sail Supply for $2,605, Far East Sails at $2,727, The Sail Warehouse for somewhere between $2,875 and $3,175, AirForce Sails for $3,036, and Cruising Direct for $3,681. National Sail Supply offered the best price and by far the most attentive response to our inquiry, and thus gets the nod among new sail options.

But our budget favored the used-sail options, and among those, the Sail Exchange was our most positive experience. We think the Elvstrom mainsail that company quoted at a mere $495 (or less if our bargaining skills proved worthy), would be the best buy.

For a used headsail, we liked the comprehensive offerings at Bacon & Associates, and $1,135 for a 140% genoa wasn't too far out of line compared with the price quotes for new headsails that we got from the other brokers. (This one was listed as "in new condition.")

If you're willing to spend more, and you want the assurance of aftermarket warranty work, we'd recommend either Cruising Direct or AirForce Sails. The first has a parent company with an extensive network of lofts, which means that a service facility won't be far away. The second has the longest warranty—three years—of any firm we evaluated.

We can not recommend Atlantic Sail Traders due to that company's lack of response to the inquiries we made.

Whether you're buying new or used sails, there's an opportunity to learn a lot about sails in general and your boat in particular, just by doing some web surfing on these sites. You can probably learn a great deal more by actually speaking to the people behind the scenes, if you can reach them. It's an education that could enable you to get a better deal when the time comes.

 

Also With This Article
"Value Guide: Discount Sail Suppliers"

Contacts
• National Sail Supply, 239/693-1896, www.nationalsail.com
• Cruising Direct, 888/424-7388, www.cruisingdirect.com
• Far East Sails, 206/339-3618, www.fareastsails.com
• The Sail Warehouse, 831/646-5346, www.thesailwarehouse.com
• Atlantic Sail Traders, 800/946-3800, www.usedsails.com
• Minney's Yacht Surplus, 949/548-4192, www.minneysyachtsurplus.com
• The Sail Exchange, 800/628-8152, www.sailexchange.com
• Bacon & Associates, 410/263-4880, www.baconsails.com
• AirForce Sails, 877/2372457, www.airforcesails.com

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(Editor's note: The following text came from June 2005 issue of PSL)

 

In our March issue article on "Discount Sail Options," we were unable to offer readers details about the products of one well established discount sailmaker and broker—Atlantic Sail Traders. Bud and Betty Fahrer, who along with their son Steve, are the proprietors, couldn't respond to our queries, we later learned, because they were out of the country. In 2001, Steve was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease, and at the time of our e-mails and phone calls, the Fahrers had accompanied Steve to China for experimental surgery.

Because of this unfortunate timing, we offered what information we could glean from the company's website, and then wrote that we couldn't recommend Atlantic Sail Traders due to the company's lack of response. This struck a chord with more than a dozen readers, all loyal customers of the firm who each sent us e-mails relating the positive experiences they'd had buying sails from AST. That prompted us to contact the company and learn more. We now amend our statement and offer the following details so that readers can be better informed about the products and services offered by this company, which has served sailors for 20 years.

Atlantic Sail Traders deals with a broad range of customers owing to the fact that the company is also a full-service loft making cruising and racing sails. A full 50% of AST's business is used sails, but unlike many lofts this size, there is a full-time sail designer on staff. Betty Fahrer allows that some of the company's sails are built in Hong Kong through a long-standing arrangement with a large sailmaker there, but the majority are built on site at the company's facility in Sarasota, FL.

Betty offered us quotes on both used sails and new ones. She first proferred a used Sobstad mainsail that closely matched our requirements, though it was a little short on the foot and slightly long on the luff. It had a rope luff and was rated as "Good" by AST, meaning that it was judged to have 70% or 80% of its life left.

Made of 6-oz. cloth, the sail had three reefs, but only partial battens. Betty told us that they could make alterations for an additional $75 so the sail would fit our sail plan. "We do this type of alteration all the time," she said. Without alterations, that sail was $485.

Before quoting on a used headsail, she cautioned us about the need to get precise pin-to-pin measurements for the luff length, and be sure of the correct luff tape size of our headfoil. She also instructed us on how to do that, and offered to send luff tape samples so there'd be no mistake. Then, she suggested a "Good+" UK Tape Drive headsail with UV cover, spreader patches, leech and foot lines, and reinforced corners for $770, but cautioned us that this sail was more suitable for club racers than cruisers because it shouldn't be kept on the furler for more than a few days at a time. She also mentioned that the company's inventory changes rapidly because they also buy sails, so clients are encouraged to check back frequently if the right sails aren't immediately available.

A more suitable option for our requirements would be one of AST's new sails. Those all come with triple stitching, radial corner reinforcements, leather chafe guards, leech lines, draft stripes, telltales, and a sail bag. "All of our sails are computer designed to insure good shape and performance," said Betty. "We only use top-of-the-line Contender Super Cruise Dacron. It has a UV inhibitor to make it last longer and has a great history of holding up well over a long period of time." All sails come with a 30-day, no-questions-asked inspection period and a 2 year warranty.

Betty quoted a new mainsail out of 7.4 oz. cloth for $1,368, with a fair sized roach ($1,284 without the roach). The new headsail would be $1,403, and delivery would take four weeks.

These prices are very competitive relative to those offered by the other discount sailmakers we evaluated, and AST's clear interest in customer satisfaction can't be overstated. We're pleased to recommend Atlantic Sail Traders.

Contact - Atlantic Sail Traders, 800/946-3800, www.usedsails.com.

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