Sail Care

Max Peterson

LOVES Wooden Canoes
Last fall I picked up an Old Town sailing rig that I think dates from the 1960's. The mast is about 6'6" and the boom and spar are both about 10'6". I would therefore assume the lateen sail to be about 45 sq. ft. My question is how to care for the cotton sail. It is in pretty good shape, but somewhat stained from storage. Should I launder it, dry clean it, treat it with anything, or just leave it alone? It is quite usable as is, but would look better cleaned up. Any helpful suggestions would be most appreciated.
Having had to recut several sails that supposedly were just "reconditioned" by Sailcare because they had screwed up the sail's shape in the process, I'd be very careful about giving them any business. It might come back OK and it might just as easily come back ruined. You can not re-shape a sail properly if you don't know what shape it was supposed to be in the first place - which they don't and can't! The good news in this case is that their process is only used on synthetic sails and not applicable to cotton ones.

Best bet for a cotton sail is to soak it in a solution of lukewarm (but not hot) water and a mild detergent. You can agitate it by hand and scrub it as needed with a soft brush. If you know what sort of stains you have, there are various formulas for trying to remove specific types that may help, though expecting an old sail to turn back to pristine fabric is usually not realistic and most of the chemicals that might do it may also damage the sail. Best bet is to get it as clean as possible without weakening the cloth and without shrinking or abrading it in the process. In any case, the final step is to rinse it very well with water and let it air-dry completely (no dryer) before storing it. If you want to treat it with anything, the best bet is likely a fluorocarbon trigger spray like 303 Fabric Guard. It will help repel water and adds a UV absorber (UV damage is one of the prime dangers). These absorbers convert UV to heat where it can float off into the atmosphere, rather than deteriorate the cloth. The other dangers are mildew, which can usually be eliminated by careful drying any time the sail gets wet and careful storage, salt corrosion in some areas of the country and mice. If you sail in salt water, a good fresh water rinse after the trip is in order. As for mice - you wouldn't believe how much repair money I've made over the past 25 years fixing mouse holes in sails. Consider yourself warned and keep those little furry buggers away from your sails.
Thanks for the information.

Gil, Thanks for the information. It is always good to find another resource. I'm not going to spend much on this sail, just use it and then replace it if it falls apart.

I think I'll try the home soak and rinse first. As I said, it is not bad as is. I would just like to clean it up as much as possible. There isn't much salt water around here in Pittsburgh, but I will try to prevent an "inpestation" from mice.

Todd, the mast seems quite short in relation to my reading of the chart in your excellent book. This thing came from a 1960's Boy Scout canoe that another fellow wanted more than I did at an auction. When I asked him about the sail rig, he didn't have any interest in it and sold it to me quite inexpensively. I may try to use it with a little 16' Peterborough or a 16' cedar strip Kruger that I just finished and was wondering if I should make a taller mast to provide a bit more head room. Those two have a rather narrow beam. Any thoughts?

Also, while I have your attention, I have an 18' 1941 OTCA with full rig but the mast is missing, and the badly deteriorated boom and spar are a little over 12'. Can you provide a recommendation for replacement sizes of mast, boom, spar, and sail? I probably won't get around to restoring this canoe for a while, but I think it can be a nice canoe with all original hardware and new sail and spars. When I do get it done, I will want to discuss a new sail with you.

As you can tell, my sailing experience is quite limited, but I'm working on it. All thoughts and opinions are welcome.
Max, there is a tremendous amount of mast height variation out there on old lateen rigs and surprisingly, it often doesn't have a big effect on the sails position over the hull or even the performance of the boat. In many cases, it's more a matter of where the mast could conveniently be positioned in the boat's existing structure. The masts that seem abnormally short usually intersected both the boom and the yard farther forward than what we're currently used to seeing on modern boats like a Sunfish, yet the sail itself stayed pretty much with it's center of effort over the middle part of the hull. Boom height above the gunwale was adequate, though experienced sailors (both then and now) tend to sail with the boom set lower than what you'll see on a fleet of Sunfish sitting outside a typical modern seaside resort. The lower boom position reduces heeling forces when it's blowing hard out there and isn't hard to get used to.

Best bet if you're doing some restoration and spar building is to do do some measuring on the hull and some drawing or maybe a closet pole mock-up. The boom and yard should both be 4"-6" or so longer than the edge of the sail that they will attach to, so they're easy to figure. Then it's a matter of figuring out how tall the mast needs to be using the current mast step (or a good spot to install one) to (1) get the sail's center above the middle portion of the boat, give or take a little bit (2) get as much sail-to-gunwale clearance as you think you'll need and (3) get enough mast height to reach and intersect the yard directly above the mast step. If you are adding a rig to a boat that doesn't already have a mast step installed, the best choices for a place to add one are usually the bow seat frame or a thwart just behind the bow seat. I'd probably start my calculations for mast height assuming that the step will be in whichever of those two spots seemd more practical and do some measuring and drawing to arrive at my mast height figure. Given a choice, I'd probably opt for the thwart over a modified seat frame as the thwart is sturdier, but both can be used and have for a long time.

With 12'-ish long spars, your OTCA most likely used a 55 sq. ft. lateen rig. I'm sure I have measurements for the sail, but not sure about the mast. Benson, or one of our other members, probably has a rig like that and could give us a typical mast height. If not, we can always draw a mock-up and fake it.

Photos of what? While I have a Mad River Explorer with an interesting Balogh rig, all of the others are just parts at this point.

Max, I take interest in old stuff and I'm sure many of my readers will, too. I was thinking about some pics of the cotton sail, and spars, etc., if you have them. If you have a boat to go under the rig, that would be nice to see as well.
canoe sailing magazine

Ed, I read the contents listing of the most recent edition and with much enthusiasm looked forward to the photos of a "gorgeous Algonquin". Imagine my disappointment when it was a canoe and not a woman.
Considering Dan is on the masthead, the lack of 16/30 shots is alarming - or did I just not find them perhaps? Need any?
Great mag by the way.
Considering Dan is on the masthead, the lack of 16/30 shots is alarming - or did I just not find them perhaps? Need any?

New ones are coming, don't worry. But, you have to get on your boat if you want to be in them. (!)
Thanks, Andre. Happy you like the magazine, and sorry about the Algonquin!

Dan's busy and I bug him and his fellow contributing editors, like Todd, et al, enough about coming across with some content, so it's nice to see a reader rattle his chains every now and again.
Max Peterson said:
Can you provide a recommendation for replacement sizes of mast, boom, spar, and sail?

The images and article at as well as the message here at both have a full summary of the standard sizes for the mast, boom, spar, and sail that the Old Town Canoe Company used. This should give you a good place to start and you can adjust it from there.

Thank you Benson for reminding me. I had read, and actually printed out your posts of this valuable information. I just hadn't gotten around to digging through the notes that I already have. Sometimes I quickly post a thought or question as it flashes between my ears without doing my homework first. I hope this didn't cause you to waste much time on my behalf, and thanks for the wealth of information that you have provided and continue to provide for all of us.