Regardless of the material used during manufacturing, all sails will eventually fail and need repair or replacement. There has never been a greater selection between sailcloth materials and production methods than we have today, and we get to choose from an extensive selection when we shop for new sails.
Recently, I replaced Ellidah’s old sails and spent an unreasonable amount of time researching materials and construction methods. One of my requirements was durability, as I hope to use those sails for a complete round-the-world trip, but I also wanted good performance.
I spoke to the biggest sail lofts like Quantum Sails, UK Sails, Precision Sails, North Sails, Elvstrøm, and several others and asked them about the lifespan I could expect to get out of the different types of sails
Here is the summary of what I found out:
- Laminate sails typically last 5-7 years before they start to de-laminate and need replacement.
- Dacron sails typically last 10-12 years, depending on material quality and use.
- Ultra PE sails like Vectran and Hydranet can last up to 20 years if they are well cared for.
Ultra PE sails come at a high price tag and may not be available for everyone. Dacron sails have high durability but aren’t necessarily the ones that will bring you adequate performance for the longest time. Laminates give you outstanding performance but might not be the ones you want to buy if you need durable sails to last for many years.
Let us dig a bit deeper into the different materials and production methods to understand how long we can expect each type of sail to last and how we can improve their lifetime.
Comparing the Most Common Sail Materials
The most common sails seen today are cross-cut, or tri-radial cut Dacron sails, followed by CDX laminate sails due to their relatively affordable price. Continuing the range, we find woven hybrids like Hydranet, Vectran, Radian, and other brands.
Then we have advanced laminates with Aramids, carbon, and more exotic materials. At the top of the spectrum, we find the latest technology in DFi membrane sails like Elvstrøms EPEX or North Sails 3Di, which comes at a premium price tag.
We will focus on the average cruiser’s most common choices and leave the racers with the most exotic options. The numbers used are based on the assumption that the average cruiser sails 2500 nautical miles a year, which is the average on my journey so far. I have broken this comparison into the following:
- Woven Polyester sails – Dacron
- Woven Hybrid sails – Ultra PE
- Laminate sails
Common for woven sails is that they can be easily repaired and patched worldwide. The ease of repair, high durability, and excellent UV resistance make these sails a popular and safe choice for cruisers. However, the traditional Dacron cloth is prone to stretching, which is negative for sailing performance.
Explaining the Difference Between Cross-cut and Radial-cut Sails
Cross-cut and radial-cut are terms that indicate the way the panels of the sail are cut and manufactured together. A cross-cut sail uses panels of sailcloth stacked on top of each other horizontally, spreading the load along its stronger fill yarn. You will find that cross-cut sails are the most reasonably priced but have the lowest ability to keep their sail shape over time.
A radial cut sail has a higher number of panels put together radiating from its three corners, effectively spreading the load across the sail. We used to see only laminated and membrane sails in a tri-radial cut.
These days, modern technology has given us warp-oriented woven cloth, making it a good option due to its increased ability to keep shape over time without stretching as much as traditionally cross-cut sails. ProRadial, made by Contender and Dimension Polyant, is a good example.
Lauren and Kirk from Sailing Soulianis made an excellent video explaining the difference:
The Expected Lifespan of Dacron Sails
The most common and affordable sailcloth has been used since the early 50s when DuPont introduced it under the name Dacron. There are several manufacturers of what we refer to as Dacron, as the name merely indicates that the cloth is vowed by polyester fibers.
A quality cross-cut Dacron sail can last for 10-15 years or around 25,000 – 30,000 nautical miles with moderate use but lose its initial shape over the first 1-2 years. Radial-cut Dacron sails will last almost as long but keep their form much better over their lifetime due to the use of warp-oriented sailcloth.
North Sails advises that good quality Dacron sails typically last for one circumnavigation. The World ARC route is 26.000 nautical miles as a reference.
The Expected Lifespan of Ultra PE Sails
Technology has brought us hybrid options where the yarn is reinforced with Ultra PE fibers (Dyneema/Spectra) to make them stronger and more stretch-resistant. Contender and Dimension Polyant has a selection of hybrid clothes like Hydranet and Vectran that last longer than traditional Dacron.
A sail made with Ultra-PE fibers can last 15-20 years or 37,500 – 50,000 nautical miles and has extreme durability and ultra-high tensile strength. Popular clothes like Hydranet and Vectran are much less prone to stretching than Dacron, and they can be produced in either cross-cut or tri-radial cut designs.
Speaking of extreme durability:
Dimension Polyant has a Hydranet sail they claim to have sailed 240.000 nautical miles with! They also completed a circumnavigation of 27.000 nautical miles, and the Hydranet sails were still in peak condition. It is safe to claim that the Hydranet’s can last longer than 50.000 nautical miles with proper care.
The Expected Lifespan of Laminate Sails
Laminate sails are typically made by attaching woven fibers, aramids, or carbon panels to a Mylar base layer and are much more lightweight than Dacron and Ultra PE sails. Unlike Dacron sails that become worn out over time, laminate sails often fail suddenly and explosively. Repairing a laminate sail is difficult. When it dies, it means replacing the sail with a new one.
A quality cruising laminate sail typically lasts 5-7 years or 12,500 – 17,500 nautical miles with moderate use and keeps its original shape throughout its entire lifespan. Laminate sails have low UV resistance, and cruising options typically have a taffeta of Dacron to protect the laminate from UV exposure.
Racing laminate sail generally lasts 2-5 years or 5,000 – 12,500 nautical miles due to the lack of UV protection. The extra weight of a protective taffeta is unwanted when performance is the priority.
With the latest technology, DFi membrane sails last longer than traditional laminates and close some of the durability gaps between laminate and Dacron sails. A few examples are North Sails 3Di, Elvstrøms EPEX, and Quantum’s Fusion series.
8 Tips to Make Your Sails Last Longer
Giving the sails proper care is essential to make them last as long as possible. We can achieve this by servicing the sails regularly and caring for them while sailing.
Here are a few good tips to make your sails last longer:
6 Signs Showing That a Sail Needs Replacement
My old Dacron sails from Quantum were about 15 years old when they needed replacement. The fully battened mainsail was blown out to the point where the battens kept falling out of the pocket under sail. The genoa didn’t have UV protection and was basically falling apart. The sail was cross-cut and looked like a big bag at the end! Those are definitive signs that the sails need replacement.
Here are a few good indications that you may need new sails:
Bonus tip: If you are OK with sailing lower angles and the sail is not falling apart, you can try to add some pre-bend and rake to the mast and tighten the aft stay to flatten the shape and bring out a little bit of extra lifespan! I got this tip from a rigger and got an extra season out of my sails this way.
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How did it go with my sails?
As I mentioned earlier, I was in contact with many sailmakers and ended up ordering from Elvstrøm Sails. I bought a tri-radial cut 120% genoa made with Dimension Polyants ProRadial cloth and a Sunbrella UV protection strip along the foot and leech.
The mainsail was also made with Dimension Polyant’s Dacron, but I chose cross-cut because the battens help keep the shape for a longer time. These sails are now only one year old and still look like new without any sign of stretch.
I expect the genoa to hold up better than the mainsail over time, but they will both hopefully survive a circumnavigation. As a cruiser, I am not obsessed about speed, and sail conservatively, which significantly helps the lifespan of the sails. And even when they lose their shape, I am happy with a bit of reduced performance, knowing that the sails can easily be repaired anywhere in the world.
As with everything else sailing-related, sails are a compromise, and we want to find the right tool for the right job in our price range. A racer will choose very differently than a full-time cruiser, and a weekend cruiser will have its own priorities.
Summarizing what we have learned
It isn’t easy to decide the lifespan of sails based on the type of material it is made of. Some Dacron fabrics are much more durable than other Dacron fabrics. Modern DFi membranes stand better up against time than classic laminates. Ultra PE sails have proven highly durable but are also very expensive compared to the other options and may not be available to everyone.
The key factor to making any sails last as long as possible is to use them with care. Sails want to be protected from UV and moisture to prevent mildew which causes rot or de-lamination. The harder you push the sails at sea, the sooner they need replacement.
You want to give your sails a good service every year and keep them stored away from the sun when they are not in use. A UV strip on the genoa is worth the investment, and so is a lazy bag for the mainsail unless you have in-mast-furling.