Winterizing your sailboat is a massive undertaking, especially if you’re relatively new to boating — so you’d almost be forgiven for having to idea what to do with your sails, and neglecting them in your effort to keep your boat safe.
Storing your sails for the winter will greatly prolong their lifespan. Storing your sails properly will ensure that, when the birds and fresh leaves usher in the spring and the open water is calling, your boat will be ready for a new adventure.
Did you think this was going to be a very quick bullet list of things to do to store your sails? Think again — storing your sails the right away is a labor intensive process, and many angles need to be considered.
Following the general motto “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right”, we’ll consider them all.
- Deciding When It’s Time to Put Your Sails Away
- Considering Whether You’re Planning Any Sail Maintenance or Modification
- Prepping Your Sails for Winter Storage
- Picking the Right Place to Store Your Sails
- Storing Your Sails
- Paying Someone Else to Store Your Sails
- Alternative Options for Storing Your Sails
- How to Store Your Sails for Winter: A Quick Summary
Deciding When It’s Time to Put Your Sails Away
If you are indeed planning on winterizing your sailboat and taking it out of action for the season, deciding when to take this step is always tough. On one hand, the tail end of the summer and the very beginning of fall makes for some of the most wonderful boating trips — and you definitely want to be able to enjoy this time in the boating season. On the other, leaving it too long can saddle you with a whole heap of challenges that you’d rather skip.
Many experienced boaters recommend relying on the Farmer’s Almanac to set a date, because it breaks expected frost dates down by state, city, and even zip code and is surprisingly accurate in its predictions. Alternatively, you could rely on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Frost and Freeze Maps.
Once you’ve been sailing a few seasons, you will also develop a feel for impending winter, along with a more realistic sense of how many days on the water you’re really still going to squeeze in.
Now that you have set a date, you can go about winterizing your entire sailboat right on time — and start planning storage solutions for your sails, as well. If you have put storing your sails, and every step the process entails, on your to-do list, it will be less daunting and more efficient, which ultimately means you will be taking better care of your sails.
Considering Whether You’re Planning Any Sail Maintenance or Modification
Advance planning is the key to enjoying a pleasant boating season — many boaters have the experience of having their time on the water cut short by unexpected sail maintenance or modifications they decide to make. Why not make the most of the time your boat is off the water anyway, and use the winter season to have any repairs and modifications made?
We’re not just talking about cleaning your sails — which is also essential, because failing to do keep your sails clean is practically guaranteed to shorten their useful lifespan — but about smaller and larger repairs, and sail modifications such as adding radar dome chafe protection, adding a reef to your mainsail, or making modifications for roller furling. Don’t cut into active boating season, and get that stuff done during the winter!
(Pro tip: don’t ever attempt to go to down on your sails with a sewing machine unless you are 100 percent sure that you know what you are doing. Even if you’re a proficient sewist, sails are challenging! When it doubt, let a professional handle your repairs and mods for you!)
If you do decide that repairs and modifications are in the cards, you’ll want to proceed with prepping your sails, but delay storage.
Prepping Your Sails for Winter Storage
Whether or not you’re planning mods, always check the condition of your sails before storing them for the winter. You’ll want to inspect your sails for damage and dirt. Salt, grit, and mildew can significantly shorten the life of your sails, which are typically made of polyester, nylon, Dyneema, Kevlar, Mylar, or carbon fiber — though other materials also offer advantages.
To give your sails a thorough once-over:
- Inspect all seams, especially if you have polyester sails.
- Have a look at all the edges, including support tape.
- Assess the condition of the sail windows.
- Take a look at your sails’ entire surface to see whether there are any rips or and holes, as well as an accumulation of salt crystals, grit, and mildew.
- Slides, grommets, and shackles are vulnerable to damage and should be inspected.
- The spreader patch can be damaged easily as well, so pay attention.
- Leechline velcro or cleats should be inspected.
- Take a look at the corner rings, too.
If you’re done with that inspection, and haven’t noticed any issues, your sails will still need cleaning before you store them. It is best to use a very mild commercial detergent diluted with water for this purpose. OxyClean is a popular choice among boaters. Caution — don’t apply bleach, borax, and other chemicals to your sails!
So, how do you clean your sails? If you can, submerge them in water and allow your sail to soak for up to 24 hours (and no more!) If you can’t, instead lay the sail flat on a clean surface and give it a good scrub. Make sure all problem areas have been tackled before you move onto the next step of hosing your sails down with clean freshwater to remove all the dirt and detergent. Next, sails should be hung out and allowed to dry completely before they are stored for the winter.
An extra tip — if you do have mildew, it will spread like wildfire until you do something now. Kevlar and nylon sails can, however, never be cleaned with bleach, because you risk irreparable damage. Solutions like MDR Mold Away don’t contain bleach but still allow you to fight mildew.
Picking the Right Place to Store Your Sails
Deciding where to store your sails for the winter can be tricky, and the space you have available will limit your options. You can:
- Hanging your sails is the best option, as it prevents damage and wrinkles, but that’ll only work if you have space.
- Sail bags are another solid choice. Usually made of nylon, sail bags offer a handy and secure way to store your sails for the winter, and allow for convenient transport.
- A dock box is arguably the best and most secure manner (because they can be locked) of storing your sails, and it has the added advantage of being suitable for use on your sailboat.
- You can also choose to have your sails stored professionally by a sail loft, in which case you can essentially skip this guide entirely — because everything will be taken care of for you! This is the most costly, but least time-intensive, choice.
As you decide where to store your sails, regardless of the storage option you choose, keep in mind that:
- You will ideally use a temperate location with relative humidity levels of no more than 50 percent to store your sails. Depending on where you live, that means attics and garages might be out. Take this seriously — high humidity levels are mold magnets, and you’ll be ruining your sail.
- Pests — including rodents like mice and rats, moths, and even spiders pose a threat to your sails. You’ll want to store your sails somewhere where that risk is minimized. Ultrasonic pest systems are fairly decent at repelling rodents, but not foolproof by any stretch of the imagination. That’s why you don’t want to stash sails away and forget about them for the winter; actively monitor what’s going on nearby.
- Theft is another potential worry, especially if you store your sails on your boat. Make sure your dock box has a lock, if you plan to store your sails in one.
When you take all of these factors into account, it quickly becomes clear that storing your sails somewhere within your heated living space, away from pests, thieves, and humidity, is a great choice.
Storing Your Sails
If you are hanging your sails up, you may simply mount a 2 x 4 to the wall of an appropriate space with the right temperature and humidity conditions, and hang the luff from there. This step requires an abundance of free space, and not everyone will have this luxury.
If you’re choosing another option, you will have to make your sails more compact to prepare for storage. New boaters may think that sails should be folded, but this can’t be further from the truth. Here’s what you do instead:
- You have already cleaned your sails completely, made any necessary repairs and modifications, and allowed the sails to dry fully in the previous steps. If you have done all this, your sails are now ready to be stored for winter.
- Your second step lies in “flaking the sail”. Everyone has their own way of doing things, and some boaters would argue long and hard that flaking sails isn’t necessary, but most follow this step, which involves accordion folding the sail to get it ready to be rolled up. If you are not sure how to do this, we would strongly advise you to make full use of the resources you have — videos of generous sailors demonstrating the process can be found on YouTube. Doing it wrong can increase creasing.
- Now roll your sails. Some people do still fold their sails gently, but the general consensus is that folding is a superior option. By folding your sails, you will prevent creases and wrinkling, so that when you take your sails out of storage in spring, they will be ready to sail.
Paying Someone Else to Store Your Sails
Are you new to all of this? The improper storage of sails can cause damage and prevent you from hitting the water when you want to, after the winter is finished. You’ll want to learn more, of course, and be able to do as much as you can on your own, but for now consider outsourcing the care of your sails to a sail loft. This will cost you at least $200 per season, but you’ll gain peace of mind in return.
Joining a boating club is the best way to connect with people who will teach you everything you need to know, and to tell you who’s best placed to store your sails for winter. Sailing might be a solitary activity in some cases, but being a boater is a lifestyle choice — and it takes a village to become a pro. Make use of that village!
Alternative Options for Storing Your Sails
Some folks leave their sails on their sailboats for the winter. For many reasons, this isn’t recommended, but because it happens, we have to put it out there. Others become proficient at winter sailing and never winterize their boats or store their sails.
If you’re fully committed, however, you also have another choice. Eliminate the need to winterize your boat and store your sails by skipping winter. Sail to warmer climes and enjoy a boating season that lasts 365 days a year.
How to Store Your Sails for Winter: A Quick Summary
Did that guide fall into the “too long; didn’t read” category? No worries. Here’s a very quick look at how to store your sails for winter. Just make sure to follow it up by reading any sections you’re not fully caught up on!
- Set a date, and stick to it.
- Use the winter to make repairs to your sails, as well as carrying out any modifications you were planning!
- Make sure your sails are clean, dry, and in good condition before storing them for winter.
- Choose where to store your sails — sail bags and dock boxes are good options, but hang your sails if you can. Choose a secure location, away from humidity and pests.
- Rolling your sails is generally recommended over folding them.
- If you are a complete novice, have your sails stored at a sail loft instead.
Winter will be over before you know it, and when spring rolls around, your sails will be ready to take you wherever your heart desires!