Choosing the right Cruising Fabric
There are four main considerations when choosing the right fabric for you next sail: size, durability, performance, and of course price. The importance of each one of these will vary depending on the type of sailing you do. The choice of fabrics fall into three main categories; Dacron, cruising laminates, and woven Dyneema or Spectra.
Dacron cross cut sails continue to be by far the best value when looking at price and durability. In general use a Dacron sail will last from 10 to 20 years; we have seen many Dacron sails that have sailed over 50,000 miles. While Dacron will last a long time it also has the most stretch, and except in boats under 35 feet it will be the heaviest. Cruising laminates come in a wide variety of constructions but generally are fabrics that consist of some type of primary yarns laminated to a mylar film with a light Dacron taffeta applied on the outside of both sides. The primary yarns will run from Dacron or Pentex for smaller sails up to carbon, spectra, or Vectran yarns in the larger sails. The advantage of cruising laminates are that you can choose a fabric with the base yarns that match loading and shape holding ability you want. The disadvantages are cost, weight, and mildew. The woven Dyneema sails (Hydra-Net) give excellent durability, close to a Dacron sail, and shape holding that is very near the top end cruising laminates.
Size: For boats under 35 feet Dacron is the first choice because the loads aren’t that great, they are the least expensive, and have the best life. If you are doing some casual racing, or just enjoy having the best shaped sail and a 5 to 10 year life is acceptable, then the cruising laminates and woven Dyneema are worth looking at. For boats in the 35 to 65 foot range Dacron is still an excellent choice. On the larger sizes they do start to get fairly heavy and at higher loads they will not maintain their designed shape nearly as well as one of the higher end options. There are new Dacrons on the market specifically designed for radial sails that are woven with “crimpless warp yarns”. In a radial cut sail these fabrics offer a very good alternative to the cruising laminates because they are less expensive, have better shape holding than a cross cut sail, and don’t have nearly the mildew problem of the laminates. As you get larger in size the high end fabrics come in to their own. They will be significantly lighter and hold their shape much better.
Durability and Performance: Dacron sails can last from 10 to 20 years or more but their shape degrades over time as the fabric softens up and becomes more stretchy. In general use a cruising laminate sail will last 5 to 10 years and throughout its life will have better shape holding than a Dacron sail, with the higher end base fabrics of carbon or Vectran they will hold their shape nearly as well as a top end race sail. As with any laminated sail the mylar film will break down slowly over time and the light taffetas on the outside break down over time from UV degradation. Cruising laminates come in two styles, either rolls of cloth that are cut and assembled into tri-radial sails or load path type membranes that are individually laminated with the type of yarn and yarn densities to provide the strength desired in an individual sail. The Hydra-Net woven Dyneema fabrics have gained greatly in popularity as their shape holding and durability are proven over time. Although they haven’t been in wide use long enough to say they will last for 20 years it is safe to say they will last at least close to a Dacron sail, and their shape holding is close to that of a high end cruising laminate. Since they are made of Dyneema they have the best UV resistance of any of the fabrics and since they are not laminated they don’t have nearly the mildew problem of the laminates.
Cost: Differences in cost come from both the cost of the fabric and the cost of production. Dacron woven fabrics are the least expensive followed by cruising laminates using Dacron or Pentex base yarns. The woven Dyneema Hydra-Net and the higher end cruising laminates are fairly close in cost. A cross cut sail is the least expensive to build because it has the fewest panels that have to be cut and assembled, and the less waste than a tri-radial sail. A tri-radial sails will have 3 to 4 times as many panels and because of the size and shape of the radial panels that are cut from a rectangular piece of fabric the waste is quite high. It can be as much as 25% and that adds a lot of cost to a sail that is made of fabrics than can cost from $30.00 to more than $60.00 per yard. The load path type membrane sails have very little waste in their construction but the cost to produce the membranes are higher than the cost of producing laminated fabrics.
In the end it is up to each customer to balance these factors in deciding on what is best for their boat and the type of sailing they will be doing.