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Squaring away sails for a ship

Jun 25, 2014

When most voyagers order a new set of sails, they usually have a new main and jib in mind, maybe a storm jib, with perhaps an asymmetrical spinnaker throw in. But what if you required a few more  — what if you needed 20 sails?

The sail training vessel Oliver Hazard Perry, still undergoing construction at Newport Shipyard in Rhode Island, will be square-rigged and will be equipped with a suit of 20 sails. The sails, have been constructed by Hood Sailmakers in Middletown, R.I.

Building a collection of square sails isn’t the sort of job most sail lofts undertake every day, but the Hood loft was a good choice based on its experience building a complete set for the Mexican tall ship Cuauhtémoc in the mid-1990s, building replacement sails for the Coast Guard barque Eagle and making sails for the Sea Education Association (SEA)’s two steel brigantines, Corwith Cramer and Robert C. Seamans.

According to Bart Dunbar, chairman of Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island (OHPRI), the idea with the Perry sails was not to make reproductions of 19th century sails. “We were not trying to make them look like a square rigger of a hundred years ago,” Dunbar said. He stressed that OHPRI wanted to support local marine trade companies like Hood Sails that use modern products and techniques.

Once Hood won the contract, its sailmakers were faced with an interesting challenge. Unlike many sailmaking jobs where Hood could send a few technicians out to measure the masts and spars and use those measurements as the basis for building the sails, in this case, the vessel didn’t exist. The sailmakers would need to rely on the drawings. “Starting without spars was tough,” said Tom Braisted, sales and service manager for Hood. “We did have a sail plan to use. There will be a few changes, I suspect, when the sails go up.”

The choice of material was clear for Dunbar and OHPRI, they wanted modern sailcloth, not traditional canvas. The material used for the sails is Vectran, an aromatic polyester with impressive characteristics for strength, low creep, moisture resistance and UV resistance. “Vectran is much stronger for its weight than canvas and it doesn’t rot,” Braisted said.

Jim Barry, head rigger for OHPRI, said that while Vectran is much stronger than canvas, it does have a drawback compared to the traditional material. “The material can be kinda stiff when it’s new and slippery when it gets wet.” The stiffness issue should recede as the sails are broken in, while the slickness when wet is a tradeoff for Vectran’s superior strength and durability.  

The knowledge the loft has gleaned from making the sails for Eagle has helped. “We know there will be no sail covers like on a yacht and there will be lots of opportunity for chafe,” Braisted said. “We’re building them the same way we built the Eagle and SEA sails. We cover each seam with Dacron tape and stitch these down. This technique has added life to these sails.”

According to Braisted, the projected lifetime of the new sails is not a definite number, but will depend on conditions and use. “Four to five years is what you can reasonably expect,” Braisted said. “But we have a sail on Robert C. Seamans that is eight years old.”

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