Just before we left Annapolis, we retired our old genoa and installed a new one from Island Planet Sails. It is a truism in the sailing world that installing a new sail on a cruising boat can be like buying a new boat. Racers change sails a LOT. Cruisers change sails when they have to. Over the course of the five to ten years of a typical cruising sail’s life it stretches out of shape, and it no longer presents a proper airfoil shape. Because this happens so slowly, the drop in the boat’s performance is not noticed by the crew.
It is easy to forget that a sail is not a flat piece of canvas, but has a carefully designed 3-dimensional shape. When that shape is compromised, the sails performance drops dramatically. When a new sail is installed, suddenly the boat’s performance takes a quantum jump. “Wow!” is the usual reaction.
The old sail was a cross cut sail. It has relatively few seams (about a dozen), so the labor costs are low. It also can use lower cost cloth. On the downside, it is more prone to stretching and shape changing over time. The loads in the sail are also not well oriented to the strongest directions in the cloth, so even when new it tends to distort more.
Our new sail has a radial cut. instead of large horizontal panels of cloth, it has triangular pieces that all radiate out from the center of the sail in a star-like pattern. Our sail was assembled from about 50 individual pieces of sailcloth. That’s a LOT of sewing.
The benefit of all this extra work is that the loads on the sail are all oriented to the strongest direction of the weave of the sailcloth. As a result the sail stretches very little, and keeps the shape the designer built into it. The downside of a radial cut sail is pretty much all cost. The sewing and the need for more specialized and expensive sailcloth add a lot of dollars to the final bill.
Speaking of sailcloth, our sailmaker gave us three choices for a radial cut sail. In order of decreasing relative cost: HydraNet Radial (125), or ProRadial (100) both from Dimension-Polyant, or Challenge ProRadial (80) from Newport.
The choices as presented to us were that the Challenge Newport fabric was more stretch prone, and would have a shorter life span than the Dimension Polyant. That seemed a good reason to pay the 20% premium for the Polyant product. The Hydranet was presented as a premium fabric with even less stretch, but we were told that we should not expect a longer lifespan. The advice from the sailmaker was for a cruising boat, the significant extra expense was not worth it. We agreed.
Were we happy? Based on the performance of the sail on the way down to Florida, it would be fair to say we were overjoyed. When the autopilot was told to pick the course that resulted in the best VMG upwind, it settled on an AWA of 34 degrees, a good 3 degrees better than we ever saw with the old sail. That might not sould like much, but it is a HUGE improvement in upwind performance. At all reaching angles we saw a significant increase in lift/drag ratio. The result of this is we go faster, and we can carry more sail, at higher wind speeds without heeling excessively, or having helm balance issues. It really was (almost!) like having a new boat.
The new sail is a bit bigger than the old which was branded by one of the major companies. When you are shopping for a genoa for an Amel, you want to talk with a sailmaker who KNOWS the boat. If they ask you if you want a “150% or a 130%, or what?” go talk to somebody else. You want a sail that is the size Amel designed. Same luff length, same foot length. Same tack height. This is important for general performance, and also for fitting properly when using the downwind poles. Yes, it is a big sail, but with a proper foam luff, it will roll up and keep a respectable shape even in a blow.
When you are shopping for sails, also be 100% sure that the sailmaker is supplying cloth that is the appropriate weight for the size of sail. Going one size lighter in weight is one way to reduce the quoted price in a way that the sailor is unlikely to notice–until the sail stretches out of shape long before it should. Ask to see the panel layout, (like the diagram above) and be sure all quotes are a similar design. If they are different, be sure to ask why each designer thinks his is better.
There are only one or two computer programs that all sailmakers use to design the shape of their sails. So that is a given–if they are using the same input data. Most sails these days are assembled at contract lofts in Siri Lanka or to a lesser extent, China. So construction quality has little to do with the name brand on the label. When comparing quotes be sure that you see all the details, and be a pest with questions about the construction and details. Things like how the details of the head, tack and clew attachments are made can make a huge difference in the life of the sail, and how well it fits and works on your boat, and is a way that a sailmaker can cut costs.
There is nothing wrong with saving money, just be sure that you are saving the money in those places YOU decide give the best performance/cost balance.