Why Do Sails Have Different Colors? Sailing History Explains
Sails have been a normal sight since the early days of sailing ships cruising the seven seas. It was common to see red sails on the old Viking ships and the Chinese Junk rigs, but white or yellow sails were the most dominant color generally and still are today.
The color of a sail is normally the result of the type of fiber used in the manufacturing process. Some types of sailcloth can also be colored or painted to achieve the desired appearance.
Let us take a trip back through history to learn how it has impacted our traditions and trends in sails of different colors.
Historical sailcloth and how it was colored
There was a reason for the colorful sails back in the old days. While the Vikings wove and colored their sails from wool until the 14th century, Linen eventually became the preferred material in the western world.
Linen was used until the 19th century but was a heavy fabric to use as sails grew. They started implementing cotton, which later became more popular since it made the sails lighter. However, it didn’t replace Linen because of its higher strength, and the two fabrics were continuously used for different purposes.
Wool, Linen, and Cotton were often sealed with a composition of tar for protection which often resulted in sails appearing yellow or brown. Ochre or silk was sometimes added to the mix to color the sails differently.
In the late 20th century, synthetic fibers were introduced and have since been used up until this date. Polyester woven fabric, or Dacron as trademarked by DuPont, was introduced in the 1950s and was far superior to Linen and Cotton. As a result, it was pretty much the only reliable fabric used in sails up until around 1980.
The history of laminate sails and their colors
An inventor, textile engineer, and local sailing legend called Russ were playing around with Mylar panels sometime back in the 1940s and 50s. He made a template of wood with the shape of a mainsail and glued together the Mylar panels to form a sail for his dinghy.
The prototype worked well, showed no signs of stretch under sail, and kept its shape perfectly. It did have a big drawback, though. Since Mylar is transparent, Russ suffered from the glaring sun magnified through the sail, and he could only endure it for short moments at a time.
Little did he know that he might be the founding father of what later became sailing laminates. Later on, others took over his work and eventually managed to glue Dacron and Mylar together, making the first known laminate sail. In the 1977 America’s Cup, the racing team onboard Enterprise sported a genoa reinforced by Mylar, making them the first racing boat using a laminate sail.
This was just the beginning of what eventually became the industry standard.
Back in the early 1970s, there was high demand for more stretch-resistant sail cloth, especially in the racing industry, and the companies in the business started experimenting with laminates.
Many attempts with various fibers failed in the beginning due to unreliability, but by the 1980s, the manufacturers were on track with their developments.
In 1992, again during America’s Cup, America3 was the first boat to fly North Sails’ 3DL laminate. It had taken them three years and $12 million to develop the technology which would later dominate sailboat racing. The original sails were almost transparent like Russ’ sail, but North’ eventually changed the color to dark grey.
Ten years later, North introduced the 3Di sails in matt black, and most other manufacturers followed the trend.
Some related and frequently asked questions
Why are sails black?
Some laminate sails are black due to being manufactured with carbon fibers or black-pigmented aramid fibers, others have a black taffeta to make the sail appear black.
Carbon is exceptionally strong and lightweight and gives the sail excellent performance. Since most racing boats these days have followed North Sails’ example with black sails, it has become a popular trend and a symbol of speed.
Carbon sails don’t have to be black, but they sure look awesome and trendy!
Why are sails yellow?
Laminate sails can appear yellow or golden when constructed with yellow aramid fibers such as Kevlar®, Twaron®, or Technora® with a light-colored taffeta on top.
Carbon fibered laminate sails have a high price tag, but there are many cruising laminates at a reasonable price, and they have become more regular in the leisure market in the last few years.
Why are sails white?
Today’s most commonly used sails are white because they get manufactured using a fabric called Dacron, made by spinning naturally white polyester fibers into a yarn and then woven into cloth.
Technology has advanced over the years, and many stronger woven fabrics are available today like the Hydra Net weaved with Dyneema. However, Dacron sails are still the most popular choice today due to their extreme durability and relatively low price
The benefits of white sails
- It is easier to see the telltales and shapes on a white sail at night.
- A powerful torch can light up a white sail like a giant lamp, making it easy for anyone nearby to see you in case you want to make yourself visible.
- White sails are cheaper to buy than colored sails. Some sailmakers can deliver sails in various colors, but they usually keep the stock in the fabric’s natural shade. Making a special order can get pricey.
- It looks great and traditional to fly bright white sails, just like the ships in the old days. Others might not agree, but I think a white sail carries some symbolism and can, in a way, honor our ancestors’ sailors.
The drawbacks of white sails
- Dirt and mold show quickly and don’t look good. You should clean and service your sails, of course, but at some point, those stains will stick.
- Colour degradation happens over time, and the sails will look yellowish with age. I can testify to discolored old sails as I recently replaced my Mainsail and Genoa and was almost blinded by how bright the new ones were.
- Bright white can get blinding in the sun. Wearing sunglasses makes a short process of the problem, though, and I think the benefits of a white sail outweigh the downsides.
Why are some sails colorful?
Light-wind sails, such as spinnakers, often get seen in many combinations of colors. These sails are usually made of nylon due to the fabric’s low weight and high tensile strength. Since nylon is easily dyed, you often get to choose from various patterns and colors when you order them.
My gennaker, aka “Big Red,” is…well, red. And it looks awesome!
Others even take it a step further and have their logo printed on the sail, which I think looks excellent. Seeing the big colorful ballooners fly in front of the boat on a sweet downwind sail will probably bring out smiles in most of us.
How long do sails last?
Sails can last anything from 2-20 years, depending on the type of sail, sailcloth used, and how well it is cared for. Laminate sails usually have the shortest lifespan, while dacron and hybrid cloth last a good while longer.
How long your sail will last depends on what type of sail you choose. What type of sail you choose depends on what you want to use the sails for, and so on. I actually wrote an article about the expected lifespan of sails and included some ways to make them last longer!
Whether you prefer white, black, or colorful sails, you will find something that suits you. Maybe you are like me, who likes traditional white over trendy black, or perhaps you want to chip in a few extra bucks and get yourself sails in blue.
History has taught us a lot about sails. Not just in the sense of technology development but also in the way the most extreme sailors in the business have influenced the trends.
What type of sail do you prefer, and in what color?
Leave your comment below!
Sources: Wikipedia, North Sails, Scuttlebutt, Afloat, Boat Design, itBoat