If your sails aren’t black, you’re wearing a polyester leisure suit or a miniskirt
I have dreams about sailing. My boat is named Main Street, which may be why I sometimes dream I am sailing it on a street, weaving through motor vehicle traffic under a spinnaker. That’s really weird, but at least it’s not scary, unlike my dream about showing up at a regatta with goldenrod-colored Kevlar sails, which leaves me in a cold sweat. Once I dreamed I came to a race with white sails, and that was a certifiable nightmare.
Sailboat racing can be a high-pressure game, what with having to fight for an advantageous spot on the starting line in an aggressive fleet and match wits, strategy and tactics with gung-ho, take-no-prisoners competitors. On top of that, there’s the pressure to keep your sail inventory in style.
Racing sail fashions change like human sartorial fashions. These days, if your sails aren’t black, you’re wearing a polyester leisure suit or a miniskirt.
Think of the racing photos you’ve seen in this magazine, Key West Race Week, for example. That Key West water, as gorgeous as ever in its patented milky turquoise hue, glows in dazzling contrast to menacing black triangles, the black genoas and mainsails that cut its surface like giant shark fins.
Why are these sails black? Because black is cool.
They aren’t naturally black. Today’s racing sails are chemical constructs, laminated with polymers like aramid and polyethylene fibers like Dyneema. Color is added and it doesn’t have to be black. In theory, you could have sails dyed in the color of Key West water. Stealthy for sure.
Black was a likely candidate to become the in-style sail color du jour because it has the power to provoke a Pavlovian response among sailors. Racers think of one thing when they see black—carbon fiber.
They salivate over the thought of tricking out their boats with as much black carbon fiber-reinforced plastic as they can afford—spars, sprits, winch handles, blocks, battens, even heads. No kidding. I’ve heard tell of custom racing boats that have heads made of carbon. This is to save weight while making a fashion statement with a toilet.
Black sails aren’t pure carbon. Some don’t have any carbon at all. In others it’s just one of several ingredients in a laminate sandwich. Carbon fibers are super strong but when used in sails are not as resistant to wear caused by flexing as some other man-made fibers. But what matters is that black sails look like they’re made of carbon.
The black sails craze doesn’t jibe with the romance of sailing. White sails billowed in the poems, paintings, novels and photographs of yore, not just as objects of beauty, but symbols and metaphors that enriched perceptions of human existence. When the term “clouds of sail” made its frequent appearance in literature, readers envisioned towering, white cumulus clouds.
A cloud of sail today would more likely be a threatening, low-hanging, black-bottomed roll cloud.
I came of age as a sailor in the white-sail era and thought of bright-white Dacron as a scientific wonder. Little did I know that even as I fussed with trimming cross-cut sails that would last forever but, like an aging athlete, lose their muscle tone and sag a little more every season, chemists were working to make white sails obsolete.
It is hard to imagine a more putrid color for a sail than the dull brownish yellow of Kevlar. Yet racing sailors found it a lovely hue when they saw what the stuff that made flak jackets bulletproof could do when used in advanced sail designs.
It wasn’t long before sails the color of rotting vegetation were the haute couture of racing sailboat dress.
Like all fashion, this was a passing fancy, and stylish racing sail colors morphed to dark crosshatch patterns and earthy browns as various synthetic fibers were added to the exotic product that had once been quaintly referred to as sailcloth. One sailmaker’s offering for a new trendsetting sail color was battleship-gray sails. This was the penultimate stage in the evolution to pure black,
A mercifully short-lived aberration along the evolutionary way were sails made of a liquid crystal polymer called PBO. These came in an appalling color that might be called scorched orange. Only briefly popular, PBO sails deserved to fail for aesthetic reasons, but it was their inability to tolerate UV rays that did them in.
The history of sail fashion fads suggests that black sails will go the way of yellow and orange sails. So what will be the next fad?
I predict that a new generation of fabulous sails, manufactured with an improved mix of space-age fibers (perhaps some newly invented), ultra lightweight but almost as firmly structured as a wing sail on an America’s Cup catamaran, will be the must-have sails for stylishly equipped racing sailors within the next three years. These sails will be pure white. White will be cool.
Remember you read it here.