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Sail Making 101

Still no plywood. I have started making a sail. It is based on the measurements provided in the Skerry Plans but there are not a lot of details. This has never stopped me before and merrily I started my sailmaking career.

I decided that what I wanted was a fun looking sail that would allow me to get my feet wet and give me a start. Since I had no idea of where to start and what is important it also had to be reasonably priced because I would no doubt want to go on to a better set up.

photo of skerry

The sail that is suggested by the designers is a SPRIT sail. It is a squarish sail with a spar that supports the top corner away from the mast. This is called a sprit. It is pushed with more or less strength into the corner to keep the sail well shaped. This is done by tightening a rope where the mast and the sprit join. This rope is called a SNOTTER.

The designer, John Harris, has placed the sail in this boat unusually high so that when the boat comes about and the sail swings around, the mast doesn't bonk you. Some people have set up the sail without a boom but apparently it is not as efficient.

What is a Skerry sail made of?

Traditional sails were made of canvas. it's hard to get your hands on sailmaking canvas and it requires all kinds of hand stitching so that the style of making stays in line with the traditional material. The lady at the fabric store could wax poetic about upholstery canvas but was notably quiet about sailmaking materials. it's a bit complicated because of the finish that is applied to new fabric masks the true texture. Canvas is much softer after it is washed. Some people have suggested ticking cotton (used to make pillows and duvets)

The best modern alternative for small sails is Dacron. I type of stiff polyester. There are sail kits available but that would set me back about 200 dollars plus shipping, plus duties maybe, plus taxes plus exchange. This is probably not bad but my toy budget is a bit strained!

It looks like a sail made from a poly tarp has many advantages including strength and reasonable performance and not least, ease of making (seams are sometimes held together with carpet tape), but I have yet to see a pretty one. (Note: I eventually tried one, see lower part of this page) It is very affordable though and this is a good thing.

If you can tolerate the advertising logos, Tyvec (used as a vapour barrier in house building) is a really nice material as well. Usually you have to live with all the manufacturers logos and writing on the tyvec though.

I went shopping and found some nylon on sale. People were buying it to make windbreakers. It came in 2 colours, a sort of orangy red and teal. It was also really cheap! I know the sail will stretch too much but it will give me a chance to decide if I like the sprit rig. After all spinnakers are made of nylon so it must be strong enough. it's really light and folds up small enough to fit in my purse along with the bicycle tools and the camera.

making skerry sail

Eventually I taped the fabric to the floor, threatened the cats so they would stay off, and stretched out a line to get my straight lines.

I drew it out on graph paper and figured out a cutting diagram. Rough cutting the panels was really quite difficult. I ripped the 60 inch fabric in 2 strips and laid each strip on the floor for cutting. Between laying out the material flat and keeping the cats off it so I could cut it I had a lot of trouble.

making skerry sail

The cats took turns running and sliding onto the fabric. It was great fun until I caught them and shooed them away then when I walked away then the game would start again.

I sewed everything together using lapped seams. At least one of each of the seam was in the straight of the fabric and did not stretch much. (Johan in charge of quality control)

making skerry sail

All panes are assembled and sail is cut out accurately. The masking tape helps keep the fabric in place and marks the edge better than a pen.

You can see that the panels don't meet perfectly at the corner because I had to cut it in order to get the proper angle. The corner reinforcement covered this and it really doesn't show at all. I also had to add a little bit to the top side because my overall angle was off when I sewed everything together. I stitched everything very well and I am hoping everything will hold.

making skerry sail

The corner shows how I had to cut to get my proper dimensions.

This is a detail of the corner reinforcement. I cut 3 semi circles, each cut at a different angle to reduce stretch and each smaller than the previous one. I sewed them all on the sail with lots of stitching. it's not really very neat but it's quite solid. The edges are bound with a double layer of nylon. it's easy to just rip the nylon to get even strips. I tucked the edges under and sewed it on each edge. This really solidified the edges and I'm hoping I don't need to sew any rope on the edges.

skerry sail skerry sail corner detail

Corner detail shows reinforcement and stitching. I reinforced each corner and where grommets are planned at the bottom and mast side. After binding the seams I had a sail. I stitched around the edge a couple of times to help solidify everything.


Set sail in front of BoatYard! I put some grommets on the sail and took the mast/sprit/boom and sail outside for a photo op. Looks like too many grommets really so next sail I will reduce the number. It looks so easy on an 8 and a half by 11 piece of paper. Everything gets harder in real life! The boom is over 6 and one half feet long. 10 inches longer than I am. The mast is 12 feet and so is the sprit. Finally I got everything together and took a picture. Neighbours were peeking out of their windows and wondering WHAT I was doing now. I have a couple of coats of epoxy on the wood and it looks like it might actually look nice once I sand and varnish. I have more photos of the mast etc. here.
Christine DeMerchant's skerry sail

My pretty nylon sail; this sail has always been intended more as a "model" and an experiment rather than the final sail and I guess it will do to help decide what kind of rig I want in the end. That is the one part of the Skerry design that I am not sure about. I will reserve decision until I have sailed with this rig. The mast is a bit bigger and stronger than the plans asked for so I'm hoping that it would support a different rig without too many problems.

Cricket the Skerry gets a new SAIL

After a season (I've been out about 30 times now) my nylon sail is beginning to be stretched out. It is still quite good in light air but as soon as the wind gets strong it distorts quite badly. I was out in 18 knots last week and the sail was looking sorry for itself. (The 18 knots was not on purpose. I got caught in a squall and had a bit of an adventure.) Time to Replace! White Polytarp sail

The more I use the spritsail the better I like it. so my next sail experiments will also be spritsails.

Read about other bits of my Skerry being constructed

Links to:
[ boat ][hull part 1] [hull part 2] [mast] [rudder and daggerboard] [sail] [oars] [cleats] [daggerboard well and mast step] [sailing] [SAIL]

emails: Christine

This web site reflects my personal ideas and doesn't represent anyone else's point of view.