Folks who remember my old schooner Windfall remember her black hull, white trim and tanbark (dark red) sails. When I first acquired the boat in 1985 she had a white hull and white sails. My ideal dream vessel in those days was the Baltic schooner Lindo (later Alexandria), a three-masted beauty which just happened to have a black hull, white trim and tanbark sails. Immediately upon purchasing my new schooner I painted her black and ordered red sails.
My sail maker tried to talk me out of the red sails. “It was a 70’s thing,” he said, “Get over it.” He was right, of course. Sail makers are always right. Whatever you may know about sails, you don’t know diddly squat. Ask any sail maker.
It’s true that in the 1970’s lots of boat owners began to sport tanbark sails. Some insisted they were traditional, dating back to the Age of Sail when men-o-war with darker sails were harder for an enemy to spot at a distance. Others argued it was just the opposite: in the late 19th Century when steamships were making their appearance, a fishing schooner with dark red sails would be less likely to be run down in the fog than one with fog-white sails.
Hell, I don’t know. My own argument was that I spend a lot of time staring into my sails in bright sunlight in order to keep them trimmed properly and there’s less glare from tanbark. But truthfully? I was smitten by the Lindo and it was, after all, my boat, my money.
And speaking of money, some of the purveyors of tanbark sails in the 1970s claimed that the darker sails were more UV resistant than white sails and would last as much as 40% longer. I found that somewhat plausible. If you’ve ever kept a nylon American ensign past its prime, you might have observed as I have many times that the white stripes begin to deteriorate faster than the red stripes.
“Horesfeathers!” said my sail maker. “If anything, the dyes used in the tanbark sails render them more vulnerable to UV rays.”
Either way, there’s no getting around the fact that tanbark costs more. The three new sails I just purchased for my schooner, Windfall II, would have cost $400 less if I’d settled for plain vanilla. Cheap bastard that I am, I would have done just that had my wife not weighed in. “White sails on the schooner Windfall?” she cried. “That’s like Coca Cola painting all their red signs blue!”
If I was enamored of the old black hull/ tanbark sail theme of my old boat I wasn’t nearly as much so as she was. In the spring of 2010 when I replaced my old schooner with the smaller Windfall II, a white fiberglass boat with white sails like 95% of the sailboats in America, Sundae insisted I couldn’t sail her home from New Jersey before painting her black. That was easy enough.
But replacing her perfectly serviceable sails with tanbark was going to require me to write another $5000 check on my sorely stressed bank account for nothing more than sentiment. I had read somewhere about staining white sails with Minwax so I asked my friend Steve whose opinion on such things I trust. “Why not?” he said and I never looked back (although I probably should have – kids, don’t try this at home!) It sorta worked but the sails always looked tie-dyed. People were always asking me if the sails were made of leather! Ah well, my mamma always told me that if I can’t be a good example I should at least be a terrible warning.
Having recently been charged with the task of ordering a new 1200-square-foot mainsail for the skipjack Wilma Lee, I was impressed with the price I got from an Asian sail maker and asked them for a quote for new sails for the Windfall II. They came back with an offer I couldn’t refuse. After all, there’s a limit to how many times a guy can explain why his sails look all weird. I was there and ready to move ahead.
My new sails shipped out of Hong Kong Tuesday evening. The Fed-Ex truck pulled into my yard this afternoon (Friday) at 1:30. The photo you see here was taken just after 4 p.m. I’m impressed.
Let’s go sailing!