The Process of Buying Sails, and How to Protect Your Investment

By: Members, Partners

Buying New Sails For Your Sailboat

While there are plenty of types of sails out there ranging from golliwompers, fishermen, and in the old days, bloopers, for most of us, sails simply come in three different forms.  

  • Main sails
  • Genoas and jibs
  • Spinnakers, both symmetric and the new gennakers

Let’s discuss these three sails, and the options that are available, starting first with the stable of our sailing inventory, the main sail.

Mains come in a couple of configurations, but overall, there’s just not a lot of options.  The biggest question that your sail maker is going to ask is whether or not you’d like full battens, vs. the standard, shorter leech battens only.  The full battens offer built in sail shape, because as the battens are tensioned, they inherently create shape.  The sails are also easier to flake, as upon lowering, the full battens have a tendency to stack up nicely, helping to keep the sail on the boom, especially if you have lazy jacks!

If it’s a sail that you leave on the boom all the time, the full battens can be worth the extra costs, and while we’re quoting you a sail, we can give you that cost for the full battens, though it’s normally only a small upcharge.

If the main is coming off the boom each time and is being folded and bricked, you’d need to remove the full battens each time, so with that scenario, I’d recommend the leech battens only.

The only other options on the main is simply one set of reef points or two, and whether or not you’d like a sail insignia with sail numbers.  Pretty simply stuff.  Of course, this assumes a standard hoist up main with sliders, slugs, or a bolt rope.  If you have an in mast furling system, that changes the dialogue on the types of battens, as in mast furling mains have either no battens or vertical battens, but for the sake of this article, we’ll assume it’s a standard main that you hoist up.  

Genoa and Jibs

The other upwind sail is the jib, or if we’re using the correct terminology, a genoa.  Generally, if a sail is 110%  or smaller, it’s actually a jib, while those that are larger are called genoa’s.  

The biggest question while discussing your headsail is whether it’s a hank on, or a furling sail. The sail making is nearly the same whether it be a hank on or a furling genoa, though naturally, the finish work is different in that the hank on simply has hanks, while the furling genoa uses a bolt rope, which slides up your head foil as part of your furling system.  The luff lengths are different, because the luff length of the furling genoa has to take the sizes of the furling system into account, but all of that is figured up upon the boat’s rig being measured.  With the furling headsail, we’ll always incorporate a UV leech cover, which I’ll touch on later.

When looking at the headsail, the biggest question that I’m going to have for you is the style of sailing that you do, whether you race the boat or cruise it, and the conditions that you normally sail in, as all of these will go towards the size sail, or the LP that makes the most sense.

Headsails generally come in three sizes…..  call it small, medium, or large.  Small? A 100% or maybe a 110%, also called a lapper or a working sail.  Medium would generally be a 135%, and your largest sail would be the 150% genoa.

Do you normally sail in a heavy air venue such as San Francisco bay?  A 110% would be perfect.  Do you have a boat where you sail with friends and don’t want to be overpowered?  Again, a 110% would work out well.

Are you the type that wants the power, and doesn’t mind working for it?  A 135% is a good, all around sail, not too big to where you’re on your ear all the time, though not as anemic as the lapper.  And if your sail is on a furler as most are, it’s a sail that can be partially furled, especially if you have a foam luff system which helps the sail shape as you furl the sail up part way.

Do you sail in a lighter air venue?  Or do you race the boat with five guys on the rail?  A 150% headsail is the bees knees, but just know that it can be a bit of a work out. 

So when you’re ordering that new headsail, the sail maker is first going to ask what size sail you’re thinking, and if we’ve done our job, we’re going to get enough into a discussion as to how you use your boat to make sure that you’re going with the right size.  We’ll ask if it’s on a furler, because we’ll need to spec a UV cover.


Thinking of more fun downwind?  Let’s talk about spinnakers, often called merely “a kite”.  (less syllables)  

The kite is going to have two different configurations, those two being the symmetrical spinnaker, which we’ve all grown up with, and will be set up with a spinnaker pole, and all of the rigging that goes with it.

These days, many of us are using gennakers, asymmetrical sails that tack down to the bow and that don’t require a pole or any of the rigging that goes with that pole such as the topping lift, foreguy, etc.  Simply tack it down, either to a fixed point or with a tack line, run the sheets, and hoist it up.  If you’re doing more cruising than racing consider using a snuffer, making the sets and the douses a whole lot easier!

The size of the spinnakers are simply calculations of the hoist dimension, and of the J, which is the measurement between the tack fitting and the mast.  Your sail maker will calculate the size of the spinnaker based on the rig measurements.  If we’re talking about a gennaker, we can discuss sails that sail deeper, vs. a Code 0 which is more of a reaching sail, though that’s certainly a great discussion for another day.  For the sake of this discussion, let’s just assume a standard, all purpose gennaker.

Finding a Sail Maker

When looking at sail makers, it’s more about quality and finish work, as well as the materials being used, than anything else.  There are plenty of off shore lofts out there that sell just off of the internet, and they’re going to rely on you to do the measuring, with big disclaimers if a sail doesn’t fit, because after all, you’re the one that did the measuring!  Set aside those internet sail makers, and stick with the names that you know, such as Ullman Sails, as part of a cadre of large, US based sail makers, because you know you’re going to get quality materials, and as long as there’s a loft near you, someone will be out to measure your rig to ensure that the sail that they produce, fits.

Whether it be an upwind sail such as a main or a genoa, or a downwind sail such as a spinnaker or a gennaker, all of the lofting of the sail revolves around rig measurements, and most of us that are with major sail lofts are happy to come out to measure your rig, in fact, we’re going to insist upon it!  Those measurements are then fed into a design program, which then digitally builds the sail while being supervised by the designer.  Once the design software, and the designer, deem that the sail is correct, the plotter cuts out the panels, and then the sewers on the floor custom make each sail.

Don’t be nervous if you’ve never bought sails before.  Those of us in the sail making business know what questions to ask, and will guide you towards buying the sail that is right for you.  We’ll make sure that everything is measured properly, because ultimately we want to build you a sail that fits right out of the bag!

Protecting Your Sails

And finally, there’s protecting your investment, with the best protection being to stay out of the sun.  Just like when you were a kid and mom yelled at you to put on sun screen, your sails also don’t like too much sun.

For the main, a good sail cover is your best friend for keeping the UV off of the sail, and for keeping it clean.  And remember, there are sail covers, and there are sail covers!  Get a good sunbrella cover, make sure it’s in good shape, and make sure that it’s a proper fit.  If your main is an in mast furling main, make sure you have UV covers on both the leech and the foot, protecting that little triangle that sticks out of your mast.

On the furled up headsail?  Again, a good UV cover is a must.  Know that the UV cover is sacrificial, and know that when that UV cover is in tatters, that it’s time to take in the sail for a new UV cover.  Don’t destroy the leech by letting it bake in the sun, because eventually, you’ll be needing to replace the whole sail!  And an extra tip?  When you furl the genoa, have the sheets wrap around the headsail, and then tie a sail tie around the jib at head height, so that if the boat’s in the slip and the wind’s a pumpin’, there’s no way that it can become unfurled, flogging itself to death.

This was written with direction from Glenn Selvin of Ullman Sails Newport Beach