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By Kevin O'Neill - Angleton, Texas - USA

To Part Two

A proa-nut is someone who's interested in proas, which are a sort of outrigger sailboat. I'm a proa-nut, and I chat about boats online and in person with other proa-nuts. The theme of proa-nut conversations often centers around going fast in a cheap boat. One can indeed go fast for cheap. Can you go fast for very cheap?

It's possible that proa-centered people have a definition of 'cheap' that exceeds even the cheapest of mainstream sailors; we're talking $12/sheet doorskin plywood and poly resin and bamboo spars, and in the same breath expectations of exceeding ten knots regularly.

Ten knots is kind of a benchmark speed for me on a cheap homemade boat. It's not "fast" by modern beachcat standards, but it's faster than most sailboats ever go. If your boat is never intended to go faster than five or six knots it's a different sort of boat to me than one that's intended to go ten or twelve knots for miles at a time, and to on occasion jump up over fifteen and scare you. Most of us don't go sailing in gale force winds, so I'm thinking about going over ten knots in something well under twenty knots of wind; if you can beam reach at twelve or thirteen knots in fifteen knots of wind, for example, I would say you have a pretty fast boat by my standards. It's not as fast as a modern beachcat, but that's moving right along for a homebuilt boat.

To go fast we all seem to agree you want a good hull shape, minimal weight, good foil shape. Ok. A lot of people want minimal rudder area in the water, other people want a good foil shape and area in the board and rudder to help you get to windward. Either way, we all seem to be on more or less the same page regarding hulls and reducing drag and that sort of thing.

But then we come to sails. I think it's fair to say that there is far less consensus on sails than on the rest of a cheap fast boat's design. Sails on boats I've seen in the last few years have varied from Moth rigs to bamboo and polytarp, and about everything in-between.

So good, this seems to me to be a good topic. How cheap can you go on the sails and still expect to maintain speeds of over ten knots on a regular basis? Nowhere does the desire to build a cheap sailboat run headlong into the desire to go fast more than in the question of sails.

On this subject I have opinions. These are my opinions on the various sail options we all have, shared with you, right here, in order from cheapest to most expensive. They're just my opinions, but maybe this will start you thinking or offer you a few more options than you're now considering:

Option #1: Build your own polytarp sails.

I think polytarp sails are great. There are some very nice polytarp sails out there, so I hope the following won't be misconstrued in any way; I think they're not suitable for a boat you hope will go fast. For an 8' Puddleduck or a ten or twelve foot monohull, great, have at it. For a bigger monohull I'll defer to the designer, whom I bet will tell you to buy better sails, and you can ignore him or not as you like. But for small monohulls, heck, build a sail out of polytarp and go to town, I bet it will work about as well as a 'real' sail. Of course, it is a real sail. It's a better sail than most of humanity has had for most of our sailing history. Better than the mat sails used for hundreds of years in the Pacific by Polynesians and Micronesians, better than the Vikings' wool or linen sails, eh? Better than canvas in every way, I bet. Thin, light, won't rot, cheap, easy to sew, polytarp is a great sail material. I built this sail from polytarp in an afternoon, it was a great sail:

So polytarp is great, unless you want to go fast. Then, not so much.

Why? The faster you go the more you have to control your sail shape and really get a good airfoil. Your boatspeed starts to catch up to the windspeed, and you're sailing in more wind relative to true wind speed, and with the apparent wind forward of the beam a great deal of the time. The faster you go, the more you find yourself sailing to (apparent) windward. On most fast boats it's faster to tack downwind than to just blow straight downwind, so you are always sailing with the sail acting as an airfoil, never blowing downwind with the sail stalled. You need good sail shape, and it's helpful to be able to vary the sail shape from one point of sail to another.

Traditionally you build some shape into the sail, then modify the shape with luff tension, vang, outhaul, that sort of thing. Maybe if you're clever you have a sprit boom, so no vang, so less stress. Maybe you have other clever ways to rig your sail to reduce stress. Ok. Still, to flatten the sail I bet you have to downhaul or outhaul or something. To control the shape I bet you have to pull somewhere, and when you do polytarp's performance starts to suffer when compared to Dacron or more modern sail materials.

An exception to this might be a sail that's very supported by spars on its edges like a crab claw, or perhaps a very battened sail like a modification of a junk rig. If you know enough about this to argue with me then ignore me and build your sail. What have you got to lose? The worst thing that can happen is your boat isn't as fast as you'd like. Ok, next year you can get a better sail.

If you're determined to try polytarp, you might look into this:

They say they use a stronger material than the blue Home Depot stuff, so maybe that will help. But it's still polytarp you're spending all that time and effort on.

If you want a more or less standard looking main or jib, I really think polytarp isn't a good choice for a fast boat. Ok, what is?

Option #2: Build your own sails from an old (larger) sail.

Not a bad idea. If you can find an old jib or main, for example, that's bigger than the sail you need and is cheap or free you can cut off all the edges, which often contain the reasons the thing is being tossed, and make a sail out of the center. If it's a jib it will likely have a lot of shape in the middle, but perhaps you can deal with that by pulling on one or more corners, or bending a spar or something. That's what I did to build this when I was broke:

The great big jib this was made from came from the dumpster of my local sail shop in Dallas. It did indeed have too much shape for my purposes, but I was able to flatten it some by bending the spar. One bends the spar by outhauling to the ends. This sail did that fine. Polytarp would not have.

I would say doing this was about half the effort of making a new sail from scratch. Material cut from the middle of an old sail won't lay as flat as nice new Dacron, it's more trouble to work with. But the center is done, lots of seaming is done, and all you have to do is sew some stuff onto the edges and set grommets. And of course I wanted a weird sail, so I either had to build it myself or call a sailmaker, there weren't any used examples around or any kits to order or anything like that.

Option #3: Build your own sails from actual, real honest to gosh new sailmaking material.

Very straightforward. Order stuff from a sail supply place (like Duckworks, for example), lay it out and get to work.

You'll save a lot of money over having someone make sails for you. But you have to build the thing. You have to have a sewing machine that will zigzag through several layers of Dacron. You have to have a place big enough to lay it out. Oh boy. Don't underestimate how much of a pain that's going to be. I've built several sails. The most recent sail I've built from scratch was this:

Sorry for the bad picture. It's a 165 square foot Gibbon's Rig, rather like a big windsurfer sail. So I got the sail I wanted, but it was a lot of work.

I also had to learn and think while designing it, which was painful. There are sail kits available, but not for my oddball sails, and maybe not for the sail size and shape you want either. If you have no kit you have to design the sail yourself. What is broadseaming, anyway, and why do I need to know about it? Where does the maximum draft go on a sail? How do I get it there? How big can a sail be and still be adequately shaped by just luff curvature? If you don't know the answers to these questions then you have to learn them, or don't go this way. There are some good books on sail design and construction. This, for example:

The Sailmaker's Apprentice

But, really, how good am I ever going to get at this? I've built about five sails from scratch. A real sailmaker has built hundreds or thousands. I got a pretty good shape in the Gibbons rig shown above. But if I want a good mainsail for a sloop rig, am I ever going to be as good at the guy at the Sobstad loft who built this sail, which is for sale right now on Bacon:



It's not perfect, it's not new, but if they say it's in "good" condition it's been my experience that it will outlast most of the rest of my boat. I have yet to buy a used sail online and get something I think is trash. Usually I get the sail in, stake it out on the yard and spend fifteen or twenty minutes dancing around it, gloating and chortling and sending pictures of it to all my sailing buddies with message titles like "I GOT THIS FOR FIFTY BUCKS!"

But I get ahead of myself. Next, we have...

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