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Sailmaking and Aase’s Birthday

28 June, 2012

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Firstly, Happy Birthday to AB Aase and thanks to Dr Jen and her gang for making the cream and berry layered cakes – yum!

I am sitting in the gymnasium of an old empty granite military barrack in Bristol, Rhode Island, USA. It’s a sunny summer’s day outside so the cool of this high-ceilinged hall is very pleasant. The Picton Castle is alongside the pier behind me, just a two minute walk along the water past the fishermen all lined up in the hot sun with their rods and chairs. Her sails are drying in the morning sun.

Five of my shipmates are here too – they’ve set up the huge Singer sewing machine in this big clean space and they’re busy stitching together the cloths of a new sail that we laid out this week. When they pause their stitching for a minute to move the heavy canvas to a new seam, the sound of the machine’s quick clunk is replaced by the mellow sound of Siri’s music drifting from her computer.

Seaming the cloths is one of the first stages in making a sail. The clothes or big strips of cotton canvas are rolled out onto the floor of the ‘sail loft’, cut a bit longer than the right length and sewn together with long seams the length of the fabric to make the strips into a big sheet of canvas roughly the size and shape of a sail, but with stepped edges where the clothes are cut off square at the ends. The next stage is to trim it all to a smooth sail shape. And then the sails are finished by hand with tabling, patches, grommets, roping and reefing points all sewn in. Finishing by hand takes a good deal longer than seaming with a machine, maybe we should re-name it middling and finishing.

These sails are made of a tan cloth called Duradon, contrasting with Picton Castle‘s sails of white cotton canvas. They are destined for a brand new wooden schooner being built right now in Lunenburg, Nova Scoia and due to be launched this August. The soon-to-be owner of this fine vessel? None other than Picton Castle shipmate extrordinaire, returning crew and star of stage and screen: heart throb Ollie Campbell! Swoon! (Editors note: you can tell a girl is writing this, yuck.) Ollie really wanted us to make them so there we go. We’re enjoying making these schooner sails – great learning experience for the Bosun School gang to be able to see how this kind of sails are made and satisfying to see the project to the finish.

The sail is designed on paper first with triangles and geometry and sharpened pencils and the shape marked out on the floor so it fits the vessel. We’re using masking tape on this floor so it comes off again afterwards – we don’t leave a permanent reminder we were here! In a real sail loft they use pins rather than tape, and sometimes just draw the sail on the loft floor.

For a fore-and-aft sail the straight edges of the sail are not straight lines, but curved slightly out at the luff and in at the leech to help give the finished sail its 3-dimentional shape. Ideally a cross section of the sail isn’t flat like a sheet of paper but moulded like an aeroplane wing with a flat leech (that’s the forward edge attached to mast or stay) and then has a belly about 1/3 of the way out towards the luff (that’s the aft edge that goes flappy if you sail too close to the wind). I find it fascinating that sails work like just like aeroplane wings: the difference in length between the long side and the short side of the curve affect the air pressure either side of the sail so it’s sucked forwards towards the side with lower pressure. If the sail is attached to a boat or a ship then it pulls the vessel along with it. Physics says so. In fact the only time that the wind pushes rather than pulls us along is heading dead downwind with the wind coming straight from behind.

This sailmaking is a fascinating skill to learn, too. I think it’s good for any sailor to understand more deeply how their beautiful, silent engines are built and how they do their work. The hand skills of stitching by machine and hand are pretty handy too – don’t have to sail too many miles offshore before being able to mend or reinforce an old or damaged sail become very useful. And in the unlikely event that you don’t carry on sailing after your trip on the Picton Castle at least you’ll know how to stitch your own curtains. And, of course, no one is better than a sailmaker for patching ones jeans.

Birthday Aase!
Cutting the cloth
Siri, Drea and Abbey seaming
The first cloth

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