How Long Do Sailboat Sails Last?

If you are considering investing in a sailboat, you may be thinking about the cost that will accrue over time. One of the biggest costs in a sailboat is the sails, so knowing how long your sails last is important.

How Long Do Sailboat Sails Last?

How long do sailboat sails last? If you take good care of your sails, invest in high quality woven polyester, and use your sails as an average weekend sailor typically does, you can expect your sails to last between 3500 and 4000 hours of active use. Storage time between active use hours should not affect the life of the sail provided they are correctly stored.

Here’s everything that you need to know about how long you can expect your sailboat sails to last, as well as essential tips for keeping them in great condition for longer.

How Long Do Sailboat Sails Last, Depending On Use?

Most sailors sail only on weekends and holidays. For such a sailor, who takes their boat out a couple of weekends a month and for a several week vacation,  will generally accumulate about 300 hours of active use in a year. 

Such a sailor may see their sails last for 15 years or more.  However, if you are living on your boat and cruising extensively, you may put your sails through around 1,500 or more active hours a year.

That means that your sails will probably only last for a few years. Calculate the active hours that your sails spend up and in use to determine how long the sails are likely to last.

Why Do Sails Degrade?

How long your sails will last can vary dramatically depending on several variables, including what kind of sails you have and how you treat them.

To protect your sails and keep them as long as possible, it is essential to understand why sails degrade. Once you understand what makes your sails lose integrity faster, you can do more to preserve them.

Sunlight

Most sails are made of woven polyester materials. These materials are susceptible to sunlight. Overtime, sun exposure makes sails more susceptible to tearing. This is the primary reason that sails breakdown over time: sun exposure. 

If you live in a climate that tends to have a weak sun or is often cloudy, you may see sails last longer, whereas if you live in very tropical sunny areas sails may break down faster. 

Wind

How much wind you typically sail under will affect how long your sails last.

Racing sailboats that often sail under intense wind and are pushed to go as fast as possible will often have sails degrade faster than casual sailboats that are usually taken out under mild conditions.

Storage

How you store your sails is one of the most essential elements in their long-term survival. Sails that are allowed to bake under the sun will age and break down much faster than sails that are stored under UV-resistant fabric. 

On small sailboats, sails are often removed entirely when the boat is not in use. On larger boats, sails are generally packed into bags that protect them from the sun.

Sails that are stored under material that completely blocks UV rays will last much better than sails that are not protected from the sun. 

Sailors that promptly put their sails into bags as soon as they are dropped after every sail will see sails last longer than sailors who let sails sit out between trips every now and then.

How Do You Know When It’s Time To Replace A Sail?

Some sailors are happy enough to live dangerously and wait until the sail rips extensively or fails underway.

You may be surprised at how long your sail can hold out even when it seems like it’s about to fall apart. However, there are some very real dangers to letting your sail degrade until it fails. 

Having a sail fail while you’re underway can cause damage to your boat or even cause you to capsize.

Furthermore, sails won’t work nearly as well as they get older. Here are some indications that it may be time to get new sails.

Tears Are Easily Extended

 It is normal for most sails to get a tear every now and then. The material is relatively delicate compared to its job of holding vast amounts of wind and propelling your boat forward.

Most tears can easily be fixed with patching or sewing back together. However, if you encounter a tear that extends very easily with even moderate pressure, your sail is unlikely to be repairable. 

Once the material becomes easy to rip, patches are unlikely to hold stitches are likely to open up. You should be able to apply a fair amount of pressure to a tear without extending it. If using pressure opens a tear up further, it’s time to consider a new sail.

Stitching Is Easy To Pick Off

You probably don’t make a habit of picking at your sail’s stitching, but it’s a good idea to run your fingernail over the stitching periodically. If your fingernail can easily pick out the stitching, the sail needs to be restitched or possibly replaced. 

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Stitching should hold up to significant pulling from your fingernails.  Stitching often gives out before the sail material, so you may be able to extend the life of your sail significantly by restitching weak areas.

Misshapen Sails

It can be hard to tell when your sails begin to lose their shape, but watching your sail while you are underway can help you to tell.

Stretchy sails will fill up too far and you won’t be able to pull them in to create more tension. You’ll notice that you struggle to maintain good control, especially when tacking upwind. 

The shape of your sails often degrades more rapidly than the material. Many sails will retain their shape for only about two-thirds of the time that they are structurally sound.

In some cases, misshapen sails can be reshaped, but sometimes they will need to be replaced.

Tips And Tricks For Storing And Caring For Sails 

Your boat sails are a significant investment into the overall cost, and having sails in great condition dramatically affects how well your boat handles.

Naturally, you want to make your sails last as long as possible.  Here are some tips to keep your sails in optimal condition.

  • Protect your sails from heat and sunlight. There is no way to keep your sails from taking sun throughout their life. Anytime you’re under sail on a sunny day, your sails will handle a fair amount of UV rays. However, you should do your best to protect your sails from the sunlight and heat whenever possible. Keep them covered in a UV resistant bag whenever you’re not using them and consider storing them somewhere cool or temperature-controlled for long-term storage rather than in a very hot location.
  • Avoid luffing and flogging. Most sailors try to avoid having their sails luff or flog whenever possible, since it is loud and unruly and sails aren’t cooperative while in the state. However, keeping your sails in excellent condition is another reason to avoid this kind of thing. Luffing and flogging can give a lot of abuse to sails , reducing their lifespan considerably.
  • Don’t motor with luffing sails. On days when you don’t have quite enough wind to fill the sails, it can be tempting to motor sail, giving yourself the feel of sailing while still making headway. However, if you can’t fill your sails with wind, keep them down while you motor. Having sails luff in the wind while being exposed to the heat is bad for them, and making a habit of this will reduce the life of your sails over time.
  • Wash and dry sails before storage. It may not be practical for you to rinse your sails down with fresh water every time you take your boat out, but it is best to give your sails a freshwater rinse whenever possible. Freshwater rinses off the salt crystals, which otherwise will rub against the material, weakening it. Whether use freshwater or not, be sure that sails are thoroughly dry before you put them away so that they won’t sit with moisture in the bag.
  • Pay attention to halyard tension. The correct halyard tension makes sure that the sails are able to fill with wind appropriately but not overfill. It also ensures that sails don’t luff or stretch unnecessarily. Maintaining great halyard tension keep sails tight enough to avoid friction from luffing or stretching from being too tight.
  • Take sails off the boat for storage. If you are storing your boat for extended periods, especially at dry dock, take the sails off the boat entirely. They will last longer if stored in a cool, dry place, rather than being left in the heat in their bags on the boat. This may not be important for between trips, but if storing the boat for a season it’s worth taking off the sails. 

Coral Dawn Drake

I spent most of my childhood on the family sailboat. On weekends and short holidays, my family sailed the waters around our home in South Florida. Over the summers, we sailed through the Bahamas, exploring the lonely islands of the Abacos. It wasn’t unusual to go weeks without seeing another person, but that was just fine by us. We fished or gathered conch for our dinners and spent the hot afternoons snorkeling over some of the most beautiful reefs in the world. Now I’m a fulltime writer. My parents still have our Maine Cat 30 and I spend as much time on the water as I can.

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