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Sail Cleaning Made Easy

Updated on February 15, 2016
This hot tub saved me more than a thousand dollars.
This hot tub saved me more than a thousand dollars.

 Sails aren’t cheap to replace, so sailors should own a hot tub.


I think I better explain myself here: the Dacron, Mylar, or Kevlar responsible for creating the vertical lift that makes our boats glide through the water is usually the second most expensive replacement item on a boat, second only to the engine.


Anyone who’s been out for a good blow will appreciate the tremendous pressure the sails are constantly under, and the outright abuse they endure from saltwater spray, luffing, chafe, etc. With every hoist, tack, reef, or day under the sun, the sails age a little bit more, and need TLC to keep them going. Replacements for the ’92 Catalina 34 we call our second home run in the neighborhood of $3100, and I, being the thrifty type, am keen on getting them to last as long as possible—after all, they’re only 14-years old.


And to do this you have to keep them clean (and patched, but that’s another subject). According to Maine Sailing partners of Yarmouth, ME, the most important reason to wash sails is to “…get out salt and other soluble microscopic dirt contaminants. Salt crystals in the fibers of sailcloth can abrade and weaken the fabric over time. They are also hygroscopic, which means they tend to absorb water out of the air, making an excellent growth medium for mold and mildew.” So far so good, especially the part about the mold stains which can permanently stain sails and make them smell bad.


But alas, like everything else associated with things that float, cleaning sails aren’t cheap. The going rate for a main and genoa wash hovers around $4.25-4.75 (boat length, not sail length) per foot. For me, that’s the equivalent of a year’s worth of diesel. But before you penurious do-it-yourselfers out there head for the family washing machine to do the job, consider an old yarn out of DiMattia Sails in Milford, CT before you act: Seems that a desperate customer once came into the loft with a washing machine on the back of his truck. Amazed employees gazed inside to see a spinnaker permanently embedded in the agitator, neither of which were ever usable again. All but one that day had a good laugh.


Which brings us back to the hot tub. One cold December night after a late decommissioning of the Catalina, I lounged in our hot tub with a cold beverage and considered the annual trip to the local sail loft. Better get them in there before the spring rush I thought, and don’t forget the Mastercard.


Just then, in a Newton & Apple moment, my better half walks out of the house and waves a bottle of laundry detergent in my face. “We’re almost out,” she declares. “Pick some up after work tomorrow.” My eyes bugged out when I realized the obvious: I was sitting in my own personal sail washing machine. “Everybody out,” I hollered, “Tub’s closed for the next few days.”

The forecast was good for the weekend and I carefully loaded the main and genoa into the soapy water of the now multi-purpose hot tub. On went the jets and the cover, and I let it go for the night. Next morning I hauled the sails from the giant bubble bath, spread them on the yard, and hosed them off. The sun dried them quickly, and the results, I feel, were as good as any I had seen at my sail loft. The dirty water I drained into my garden for some extra nitrogen fertilizer.

Now, there’s one thing from the spring commissioning list, done on the cheap no less, that I can check off—only 99 more to go. Happy sailing.


Homemade Squeaky-Clean Sails

Hot tubs can save you money (a weak argument to buy one, but try it anyway). To convert your hot tub into a sail cleaning machine:

  1. Crank the heater to max for 24-hours (usually 97*F on most US hot tubs).
  2. Remove the filter and shut off the system.
  3. Pour in 1-cap of detergent per 15-gallons of water—a little more if sails are really dirty, hold the bleach.
  4. Remove battens and feed sails into water the same way you douse a jib into the forepeak, starting with tack or clew and completely unfurled.
  5. Cover tub, turn on, and let soak for at least 24-hours.
  6. Remove, spread on lawn and hose off both sides.
  7. If day is calm, hasten drying by tying a line to the headboard, throw it over a tree branch and run it up like a halyard.



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