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Sailmaking in Anguilla

Thursday May 27, 2010

After Picton Castle sailed into Anguilla on Monday, the Captain immediately ran into an old friend of his, Captain Kevin Gray who has been working and sailing around the Caribbean for decades. As the two of them were catching up, the idea came about that our crew could help to make a sail for the Mermaid, a Carriacou sloop owned by John Smith, currently stuck in Panama without a mainsail. Kevin got to work right away, ordering materials to fly into Anguilla from Doyles in Barbados. The sail would be made of dacron, a stiff synthetic sail cloth material that which most yachts use today instead of cotton canvas. While we waited for the dacron to arrive on Wednesday evening, we got the big old Singer sewing machine and all its parts assembled on deck and in working order.

First thing Thursday morning, we used the stay tackle to load the big heavy sewing machine into the skiff to take ashore. The sail cloth had arrived Wednesday evening as scheduled, customs had been cooperative “ship supplies in transit”, so the plan was to do the first layout, seam it together and do the second layout all in the same day. In order to lay out a sail, a large, clear, flat space is required. Thanks to Roy and Mandy Bossons of Roy’s Place in Sandy Ground (a very lovely Caribbean grill and pub) we had a perfectly good parking lot in which to lay things out, and a big room in their restaurant patio to do the stiching. The skiff made a beach landing in front of Roy’s to unload the sewing machine and the other required tools – weights, heaving lines, nails, sharp knives, pencils, markers and rulers.

Using the dimensions emailed to us by John, we started by measuring out the shape of the sail, which was outlined by heaving lines, hammered into the ground at the corners. Once we were satisfied that the size and shape was correct, we rolled out the dacron in panels, cutting each length just larger than the marks on the ground. Each panel overlapped the previous one by an inch, allowing space for the panels to be sewn together. Once all the panels were cut, they were labeled and carried into the building where the sewing machine was. Starting at the leech, the first two panels were laid out side by side and double sided tape was stuck first to one panel, then the second panel was pressed on top, overlapping the first by an inch. The tape holds the panels together while they are sewn, otherwise the dacron would slip and the seams would be uneven. We rolled both panels up lengthwise, toward each other, then a team of people positioned the rolled material with the seam in the middle behind the sewing machine. Mate Rebecca was in charge of operating the machine and regulating the stitches. Together, the ten or so people carrying the material had to respond to her orders to slow down or speed up, to move to one side or the other. At each panel joining point there are three seams within the one inch space that run the whole length of the sail. By this method we joined all six panels together, rolling the finished panels into a larger roll in order to be able to expose the seam that needed to be stitched while still controlling the rest of the material. Captain Sir Emile Gumbs former master of the famous schooner Warspite looked and approved as to the goings on saying, “This is how we used to make sails for the trading schooners”.

We started at about 0800, all of the panels were seamed together by about 1300. After a short break for lunch, it was time to do the second layout. Unfortunately it was raining lightly at this point, but with the dacron it is less important to keep it dry than if we were working with cotton canvas. We took the seamed-together panels out to the parking lot again and laid them over the original template of lines. Because the panels were cut a little bit longer than the pattern, we had to mark the corners of the sail. Because it was raining, we took the sail back inside and did the rest of the second layout under shelter. There wasn’t enough space to lay out the whole sail at once, so we worked on one side at a time. Laying out each side flat, we took a line and held it tight between the corners that we had marked outside. This created a straight line between the corners. Lining rulers up with the rope, we penciled in the straight line. However, the sides of a sail are rarely straight. For the leech, we worked in a hollow of two inches by finding the middle of our straight line and measuring two inches into the sail. The middle of the rope was held at that spot, then led out to the corners that were previously marked. In order to have the hollow be gradual instead of a sharp angle, the rope was adjusted until it made a nice curve. This was also marked in pencil, then marked over again in permanent marker. The same process was followed for the other three sides of the sail, except that instead of adding hollow, we added roach by measuring the prescribed amount out from the centre of the line on that particular side.

While the second layout was going on, other crew members were breaking down the sewing machine and getting it ready to transport back to the ship. We took one brief photograph in front of Roy’s, then got all of the people and all of the equipment back into the skiff to go back to the ship. The rest of the work on the sail, which will include finishing the edges, adding grommets, adding reef points and roping, will be done on board while the ship is underway as the sail doesn’t have to be laid out flat to do that work. This project will be a quick one as we intend to hand the sail over to John and the mighty and famous cariacou Sloop Mermaid in Panama.

laying out the sail in the parking lot
Logan, Nadja and Rebecca tape the seams
Rebecca sews with help from the team
starting a new seam

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