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Sailmaking in Cape Town

By Lead Seaman and Sailmaker Aspirant Amy Barlow

Monday January 26th, 2015

When the Picton Castle was alongside Jetty 2 in the V&A Basin of Cape Town, just next to the ship was a fine, small and empty shed about 70 feet by 40 feet. It was clean, dry and with a smooth floor. This would be a perfect sail loft. The Harbour Master generously allowed us to take this shed over for the duration of our stay and the sailmaking gang went to work. Sailmakers Tammy and John, and helpers Amy and Bruce and others, got a good head start on getting a bunch of sails laid out, seamed up and ready to finish once back at sea. It was a boon to have such a spot to lay out sails and also just to leave all the gear and canvas every night and not pack it up as we must on the ship. This is Amy’s story.

D. Moreland

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After a busy few weeks in our own sail ‘loft’ we have laid out and seamed four new sails with our trusty Industrial Singer 31, straight stitch only, weighty machine. We have also laid out and marked up a fifth sail to be entirely hand-seamed while we are at sea.

We’ve used ‘#6 Canvas’ which is a lightweight cotton sailcloth because the new sails are all light-weather sails: royal, flying jib, outer jib, and main t’gallant staysail. We bought the canvas in 36 inch rolls, which are very wide, so we have sewn two ‘false seams’ in each cloth to add strength before seaming the edges of the cloths together to build up the body of the sail. The false seams are marked up with pencil and ruler, and a ‘bight’ of cloth folded over to the line and rubbed in with a wooden seam rubber.

Through Ryan, a friend of Georgie our South African former shipmate, we were invited to visit Ullman Sails, a large loft in Cape Town (the largest loft in Africa and third largest in the world) to see how sails are made on an industrial scale. This loft hires between 60 – 100 people and productivity is down if 13 sails aren’t finished every day! A sail passes through several work spaces. First a computer guides a laser cutter over the Mylar sail cloth, then the seams are taped together and stitched, much as we do, but with the machine set up at floor level with the machinist sitting in a pit. It makes it much easier to make a straight seam when there’s room to spread the whole sail out on the floor next to the machine.

All the finishing work – fitting metal grommets, sliders and bolt ropes are done in another floor area so each worker becomes skilled at their part of the process. Finally the sails are taken to the finish room where they are cleaned up, threads are trimmed, and they are packed into sail bags and packaged up ready for shipping.

We then moved into the high performance sail loft – where carbon fibre and kevlar sails are made. Here they glue strands of fibre onto plastic sheeting laid out on the floor: the angle and density of criss-crossing fibres making different patterns in different parts of the sail, and calculated using computers, so that the sail is strengthened and reinforced exactly where it will be under most strain when it is set. A top layer of plastic sheeting finishes the sail and is sealed in place with vacuum tubes – a world away from our heavy, cotton canvas!

It was a very interesting field trip for John, Tammy, Bob and I to see a different side of sailmaking – the basic format is the same, with just a little technological help.

Finishing two yacht mainsails
Finishing two yacht mainsails

High performance sails
High performance sails

Seaming a spinnaker
Seaming a spinnaker

Picton Castle's sail loft
Picton Castle’s sail loft in Cape Town

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