A suit of sails doesn’t come cheap these days so we’ve outlined a number of sail care tips to help prolong their life

Sail care is an essential part of boat maintenance, whether it’s a simple wash down at the end of the season or more extensive measures.

A mainsail that’s been cared for and handled properly can last as long as 15 years. After all, cruising down the Hamble with wrinkled, stained or misshapen sails doesn’t instill a great sense
of pride or seamanship.

You’ll need:

  • Soft bristle brush
  • Mild soap solution
  • Cleansing gel/white spirit
  • 5% ammonia solution
  • Washing-up liquid
  • Mildew detergent/bleach
  • Oxalic acid, tape/leather


In order to maintain the strength and shape of your sail, it’s important to minimise the amount of time they’re left flapping in the wind. Flogging and leech flutter will soon damage the sailcloth and deteriorate sail performance.

Avoid motoring into the wind with your sails flogging and prevent leech flutter by adjusting the leech cord and making sure proper leads on the sheet car for the genoa. This will stop the upper
portion of the genoa’s leech from twisting away and fluttering in the wind.


Wherever possible, prevent your sails from chafing on other parts of the boat. The more contact the sail has with other objects, the sooner it is likely to fail. If avoiding chafing completely isn’t
possible, then use tape or leather to cover parts of your rigging that are prone to rubbing on the sails.

It’s also important to regularly check areas that are more susceptible to wear than others, such as the stitching. Roller furling headsails do twice the work of a single headsail and are trickier to check so make sure you lower the sail for inspection at least once mid-season.

Finally, if your sailmaker hasn’t reinforced vulnerable areas, it’s worth keeping rolls of sticky-back Dacron on board to add patches yourself.

UV damage

Direct sunlight is one of the worst enemies of sailcloths as it can cause it to lose its strength. Over time, UV rays can degrade sailcloth until it becomes brittle and tears like a sheet of paper.

It’s good to double-check the sacrificial strip protecting the luff and foot of your roller-furling jib. If it’s badly faded, get it checked or replaced before the sun’s rays damage the rest of the sail. Whenever you’re not using your sails, ensure that you keep them covered and out of direct sunlight.

Dampness and cleaning

After using your sails, be sure to always wash them down with fresh water as to remove any salt
and airborne grit or sand that can get caught in the seams as it will erode the stitching as well as the cloth. For dracon sails, use a mild soap solution with water to remove any dirt. For nylon sails, just rinse with fresh water.

Make sure you dry your sails before putting them away as dampness can cause milde. Salt can also cause you some problems as it damages sail cloth and promotes corrosion of fittings sewn to sails.

At the end of the season it’s worth getting your sails valeted. This will include being washed and dried in a specialized laundry and checked over – they’ll often be stored by the sailmaker for free until spring.

Removing stains from your sails

Before you attempt to remove stains from your sail, check which chemical cleaners are appropriate to use with your sailmaker as even biological liquids can damage them.

First rinse your sail with fresh water, paying attention to areas such as the head, clew or tack. To remove tar, grease and oil, try using a hand cleansing gel or white spirit, followed by water and a mild detergent. Use washing-up liquid, not biological washing powders.

For rust stains, oxalic acid will shift any marks, but it’s powerful stuff so needs to be treated with care. An ounce of crystals in a pint of warm water should do the job.

Should you get any blood on your sail, wash it immediately with cold water. For dried blood, try
using bleach or a 5% solution of ammonia and water.

When it comes to mildew, scrub your sail lightly with a stiff dry brush followed by a soak in
warm water with a mildew detergent or a solution of household bleach then rinse thoroughly. Be sure not to use bleach on nylon sails such as spinnakers.

Storing your sails

Creasing can break down fibres in the fabric and weaken the sail. For this reason, make sure you fold sails loosely rather than stuffing them inside a bag. They should ideally be rolled but this
can sometimes be impractical.

When moored up or anchored, ease the tension from the mainsail outhaul, if it’s not a loose foot or shelf design. Finally, don’t forget to shake out reefs before putting the cover back on at the end of a hard day’s sail.

Read our beginner’s guide to boat cleaning and boat canvas cleaning