Sailrite & the Mainsail

By: Heather Francis

Our passage from French Polynesia to the small island nation of Niue was supposed to be just another downwind leg on the long voyage that was taking us slowly across the South Pacific. We were hoping the two dominant weather systems that often collide here like a meteorological roller derby would do as predicted and call a truce. But they didn’t play nice, and our mainsail got caught in the fray.

Most people have never even heard of Niue. On the charts it is just a speck in the vast Pacific Ocean somewhere between Bora Bora and the Kingdom of Tonga. It is nicknamed “The Rock of Polynesia” and lives up to its name, being little more than a tall, jagged protuberance some 20 miles long by 10 miles wide.

There are no coves or bays to shelter in. The only anchorage lies in the shadow of the small island itself and therefore is only protected when the wind blows from the right direction. When the wind shifts the Niue authorities order small craft to abandon their moorings. History has proven that boats are no match for a stiff westerly breeze and the vicious coral teeth of the island.

It was, of course, 0300 when the last knot in a string of mishaps occurred. Earlier in the day our GPS, chart plotter and depth-o-meter had stopped working, probably a wire connection that got water damaged when we shipped a wave and turned the cockpit into a swimming pool that leaked into the cabin. We managed to round the island before dark and found a little respite from the 30kt winds and the boisterous seas that had been chasing us for three days. However, without our instruments or working harbor lights, we were hesitant to approach the anchorage.

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A beautiful shot of Niue.

We decided to hove-to, reducing and then back the sails so that the boat would stay almost stationary. This maneuver would allow us to stay in the lee of the island, out of the wind and swell, but also stand a safe distance off the unknown shore until daylight. We set the sails and I went below for a rest while Steve sat watch. All was going well until late into the night when I was alone on deck.

As the boat came around in a slow and controlled gybe there was a soft ripping sound, like overused Velcro® being pulled apart. Then, there were light flapping noises above my head. Shining my flashlight upwards I saw a gash of black where white sailcloth should have been. The headboard and a scrap of sail hung limply from the halyard; the rest of the sail was a crumpled heap on the boom. The mainsail had ripped from leech to luff, intersecting the third reef points. Now the only thing connecting the two pieces of sail was the delicate leech line that danced freely in the breeze.

I lowered the sad bit of sail and tied the whole mess to the boom as the rain started, saturating my well-worn rain gear in a matter of minutes. Soaked and defeated, I bounced from foot to foot to keep warm, hoping that dawn would shed some positive light on our predicament.

In the morning, after fighting to sail directly upwind with only a headsail, we picked up a mooring, happy to be safe and calm after such a hard passage. Unfortunately, our rest would be brief as there were too many repairs to make to ensure we were shipshape and ready to put to sea if the weather changed. Steve tackled the electronic problems and I got to work on repairing the mainsail.

I dug out my Sailrite® sewing machine and a bag of leftover fabric scraps from previous projects. None of the pieces of Dacron® I had were big enough to cover the almost 6-foot tear, so I decided to use the next best thing I had: Sunbrella®. I knew Sunbrella was considerably heavier than sailcloth but it is UV stable and would give the sail the strength it needed to see us to the next island, over 500 nautical miles away, where I might find a sail loft that could make a proper repair.

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Cutting the Sunbrella with a hotknife.

I measured two long strips of fabric, six inches wide and a few inches longer than the rip. Using a hotknife I cut the Sunbrella, at the same time sealing the edges so that they wouldn’t fray in the wind. I made sure the sail was dry and free of as much salt as possible before using seamstick to adhere the patch across one side of the ripped sail. Then, carefully turning the sail over, I repeated the process on the opposite side, trying to match the edges of the Sunbrella through the layers of Dacron. With the patch temporarily in place, it was time to get to the business of sewing.

After changing to a size 22 needle and V-92 thread, I practiced on a multi-layer piece of fabric to get the tension correct. I wasn’t worried about whether my Sailrite machine could sew through so many layers of thick fabric, I had already put it to the test doing a few minor seam repairs on the heavy luff of the headsail. However, there was a lot of extra sail material that had to fit under the arm of the machine to sew totally across the patch. Not to mention the weight of the rest of the sail that now took up most of the cabin space. I employed Steve to help me wrestle the sail through the machine.

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Using the Ultrafeed® LSZ-1 for repairs.

Using a wide zigzag stitch, I first outlined the top edge of the patch, checking to see that both front and back patches were being sewn at the same time. We got halfway across the repair, me pushing and Steve gently pulling on the sail, when we could no longer fit any more material under the needle and arm. Carefully, I reversed back along the same seam, Steve now feeding the sail back towards me. I did a similar seam on the bottom edge to anchor the patch to both pieces of sail.

The seamstick had done its job as a third set of hands and now the patch was secured to the sail. I sewed a zigzag seam along both edges of the rip at the center of the patch, reversing back over my work after reaching the same middle point on the repair. With one side of the repair complete, I turned the sail around and sewed in from the opposite edge, matching all the zigzag seams in the middle. Then I trimmed and secured the edges so there would be nothing to catch the breeze and open the wound.

We hoisted the repaired mainsail before lunch, not long after Steve had all our navigation equipment up and running again. Despite using grey Sunbrella, the scar of the repair was plainly visible, but only time would tell if it was as tough as it looked.

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The finished sail!

There was no sail loft in our next port of call, but it turns out we didn’t end up needing one. Thanks to my Sailrite sewing machine, our repaired mainsail carried us another 1500NM, and a few more windy nights at sea, without so much as a loose thread. A new mainsail was on our wish list but until then we wore our patch as a badge of honor, a testament to our ingenuity and self-reliance as sailors.

Heather Francis is originally from Nova Scotia, Canada. She and her Aussie partner, Steve, bought their Newport 41, Kate, and their Sailrite sewing machine in 2008 and have been sailing full time in the Pacific ever since. They are currently in the Philippines and you can follow their adventures at www.yachtkate.com

Sailing & Sewing in the South Pacific

Amanda Witherell’s story is one of adventure, perseverance, serendipity and the kindness of strangers. She met her husband, Brian Twitchell, in San Francisco where they were both working. Brian, a union electrician, spent half the year working and the other half sailing his 1974 Morgan Out Island 41 Clara Katherine up and down the Pacific Coast from California to Mexico. When the financial crisis hit in 2008 and Brian was laid off, he convinced Amanda to quit her job as a reporter and cruise the South Pacific with him until the economy recovered. Having learned to sail when she lived in Maine, she had worked for a few years as a sailmaker and would be able to contribute with sail repair and maintenance on board.

Inspired by Brian’s enthusiasm and her own wanderlust, she agreed. “I quit, gave away all my stuff, packed a bag and bought a one-way plane ticket to Puerto Vallarta. We sailed around Mexico for a few months and decided to keep going south until we ran out of money. We cruised the west coasts of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.”

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Clara Katherine at anchor in the Society Islands in French Polynesia.

In Costa Rica, they met a couple on their third circumnavigation who’d made a life of sailing the world. The friendly couple urged Amanda and Brian to sail the South Pacific, but they were short on money and didn’t know how to sustain their new sailing lifestyle. When the other couple learned that Brian was an electrician and Amanda could sew sails and canvas, they insisted that they go. “‘Just go!’ they urged us,” Amanda recalled. “‘You’ll make money along the way.’”

They were right. “I could have opened a full-service sail loft in Panama City with the amount of work that’s generated by the thousands of boats passing through,” Amanda stated. The couple sailed from port to port while Amanda made money along the way repairing sails and taking on other sewing jobs.

When she was in her 20s, she talked her way into a job at a sail loft in Brooklin, Maine, where she learned how to build a sail from start to finish. Being that it was a small business in a rural community, the sail loft still did things the old-fashioned way. “We literally lofted sails on the wooden floor, using pins and string, rolling out cloth, and hand stitching the hardware that would connect the sail to the rig.” Those skills served her well in her new life, as she had limited resources and even more limited technology on those remote South Pacific islands. “I fixed sails in the Marquesas, spinnakers in Tahiti, built canvas enclosures in Tonga and dinghy chaps in New Zealand.”

Acquiring an Ultrafeed

In Bora Bora, they met a solo sailor who needed to fix his sail and was having a bit of trouble with his sewing machine. Learning that Brian was handy, the sailor asked him to take a look at his Sailrite® machine. Not knowing how to adjust the timing on a sewing machine, Brian couldn’t help. Amanda repaired his sail using their own sewing machine and the three parted ways.

A few months later, they ran into him again, this time in Whangarei, New Zealand — which goes to show how small the sailing community can be — and fate intervened. They’d arrived just in time to rescue his Ultrafeed® LSZ-1 from imminent doom. Fed up with the machine, the salty sailor was just about to chuck it into the harbor. He asked Amanda and Brian if they wanted the sewing machine, and they eagerly saved it from a saltwater funeral. It wasn’t in the best condition, however. The sailor had stored it in his cockpit locker and the sewing machine had been routinely doused with saltwater.

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Amanda putting her rescued Ultrafeed to good use repairing the genoa sail on Fanning Island.

“The case was covered in mold and all the metal parts were showing rust,” Amanda explained. “I cleaned off the mold, wiped clean all the metal and oiled everything, then packed it away because I didn’t have time to deal with it at the moment. We’d just been approved for work visas and decided to stay in New Zealand, so we were transitioning from cruising full time to working full time. We sailed the boat down to Wellington and got jobs that had nothing to do with sewing or sailing.”

The couple didn’t know much about the Ultrafeed or repairing sewing machines in general, so they took it to a repair shop in New Zealand. “One hundred New Zealand dollars later it was running fine and has continued to run perfectly ever since.”

They already owned an old Italian Necci home sewing machine, but it couldn’t always sew through some of Amanda’s thicker fabric assemblies, such as canvas and genoa sunshields. The Ultrafeed never hesitated to power through anything Amanda was working on. They still have their Necci, but Amanda now uses their secondhand Ultrafeed for all projects and repairs.

“Because it was given to us, I consider it ‘the people’s machine’,” said Amanda, “and I keep it overstocked with needles of all sizes and lend it to any cruiser in need. It’s been ashore in countless countries as we worked our way across the South Pacific from New Zealand back to the U.S. I’ve rebuilt our dodger twice, our bimini three times, made a new sail cover, sewed on a new genoa sunshield, stitched new salon cushions, built a foredeck sun awning/rain catcher, repaired our mainsail, and on and on.”

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Foredeck sun awning/rain catcher Amanda sewed using her Ultrafeed.

Homeward Bound

In 2015, after years of sun, surf and sailing, they decided they were done with New Zealand and made preparations to cruise back to the U.S. “We picked the ping pong route,” Amanda explained, “bouncing between South Pacific islands against the trade winds and revisiting many of the islands we saw on our first pass through.” They also decided to sail up to Micronesia and visit places they skipped the first time. “It took two and a half years, and we put about 12,000 miles under our keel, almost all of them hard on the wind in a boat that was not designed to go to windward efficiently.”

All that cruising was hard on the sails, and by the time they got to Tahiti their genoa was on its last legs. “It was over 10 years old and had sailed something well north of 25,000 miles. I’d already replaced the sunshield twice and, running my hands along the tired cloth, I could feel that it was sun rotten and approaching the point of no return in terms of repair. But we only had 2,000 more miles to go to Hawaii, and then another couple thousand to California. We were practically home! I made some repairs in Tahiti and we set off for Fanning Island, Kiribati. Along the way, it tore just inboard of the sunshield — a sure sign of sun rot.”

They stayed on Fanning Island for two months enjoying the remoteness of the island and the friendliness of its inhabitants. While Amanda worked on repairing the genoa sail one last time, the locals kept the couple fed and hydrated with fresh fish and coconuts. “The key to a good sail repair is being able to stretch the cloth and pin it out as flatly as possible,” Amanda noted. “For a 150 genoa from a 41-foot boat, I needed more space than we had on the boat, plus a porous floor to pin into.”

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The genoa sail spread out on the ground (top) and laid out on the floor of a hut on Fanning Island ready for repair (bottom).

The couple befriended a French expat who ran the only guesthouse on the island. He offered one of his sleeping huts, which provided enough flat space for Amanda to pin out and sew an enormous window patch repair across every seam of the genoa from head to foot. “I used up every bit of sailcloth I had squirreled away on the boat, and then I reinforced the inboard section with sticky Dacron®, but I knew we were running out of time with this sail and hoped it would just stay together long enough to get us to Hawaii.”

With just over 1,000 miles from Fanning Island to Hawaii did the sail hold? “It almost did. The next tear occurred by the luff, just outside the head patch — a sure sign of sun rot. Game over. We made it to Hawaii using our two spare, elderly, hank-on sails run on our Solent stay. On a grassy lawn in Waikiki, we spread out our genoa, took some measurements, cut off every useful bit of hardware, then put the old thing to rest in a dumpster. My next project will be to build a new one.”