Historic Balclutha Sails & Today's Options

James Brink

I am a traditional sailmaker working in the real world with a bent toward museum ships and the study and use of historically accurate sailmaking techniques. Since I am the only person here talking about sails, I will jump quickly through a range of information.

Primary to me being at San Francisco Maritime is a documentation of 23 sails that we believe were all set on the Star of Alaska (Balclutha), in the 1920's.

I will also give some insights into the present day picture of traditional sailmakers. There are more than we might realize in this country and abroad. We do work spanning many types of vessels and purposes. There are museum ships that never sail but want display sails with very accurate historical materials and craftsmanship. Other museum ships want display sails that are a visual representation with more easily maintained and used materials. Some museum ships actually sail. Some with historical materials, others choose compromises for various reasons. Other sails are made for a large range of non-museum vessels with traditional type hulls and rigs that are replicas, restorations, training ships and creations. Some pursue some form of historical accuracy in their sails out of aesthetics or because it works well. For others the sails are an after-thought and they put a modern sail on a traditional ship.

Most of my work is done for actively sailing schooners and square-riggers. My early training was on working square-rig vessels. This began with 3 years aboard the wooden brigantine Romance, owned and operated by Captain Arthur Kimberly. From 1975-77 I was ship's sailmaker on her 1st circumnavigation. We made all hand sewn sails on deck using flax cloth from Francis Webster Co. in Scotland.

Other on board experience was with the training ship Oanmark in 1983 for 6 months as sailmaker and sailmaker on the 4 masted barque Sea Cloud in 1992 & 1995. Other vessels I've sailed with as sailmaker include Ernestina, Eye of the Wind and Elissa . Some years were spent journeying in sail lofts and museums in this country and England.

These days I sail less and do more sailmaking and rigging ashore. I don't do modern yacht work and find myself more often than not involved with museums and museum ships. My techniques are very traditional, but I cross over to modern materials most of the time for practical reasons. Most active vessels, even traditionally built, rigged and operated ones prefer a sail that is easier to maintain, is lighter in weight and holds it's shape better than cotton or flax. I can be as strong a purist as anyone and do still like to make a cotton or flax sail with hemp boltropes, and occasionally a customer wants it. I will push the case for cotton sails in a few minutes. Cotton and hemp are available, although not with the quality that was readily found sixty or more years ago.

For many years now, Duradon has been a good choice for traditional sails as it has the look and feel of cotton, has less stretch, is stronger by weight and doesn't mildew easily. It has polyester fibers and was developed by Francis Webster in Scotland to replace their flax cloth.

Just this year North Cloth has developed a soft synthetic cloth called Oceanus, aimed at the traditional market. It is strong and stable and is nice to work with. It does look a bit more like Dacron than Duradon does, but it is a good product and is quickly becoming a popular choice for American schooners and square-riggers.

There are basically 5 choices of cloth (Duradon, Oceanus, Dacron, flax, cotton) and about 5 choice of boltropes (spun dacron, Roblon, Hempex, hemp, manila) that can be used appropriately with reasonably accurate and historical techniques. At least a half dozen sailmakers on this country alone operate businesses using various levels of traditional sailmaking, not just for historical reasons, but because these techniques are good and well suited to large schooners and square-riggers.

In general terms we commonly refer to traditional sailmaking as: vertical cut with cloths running parallel to the leech, a style of reinforcement patches passed on from the days of working sail, hand sewn grommets, hand sewn boltropes (on large square sails some edges have wire boltropes marled on and covered in canvas) . Older style hardware for corners consists of spectacle irons and large steel rings spliced into the boltropes and fiber cringles either soft or with metal or wooden thimbles. All these traditional methods are strong, can and are still being used appropriately today.

Sewing machines came into use around the turn of the century for sails. These were large straight stitch Singers. Three rows of straight stitch was the accepted norm on big sailing ships if a machine was used. Hand seaming certainly remained also, until the end of working sailing ships. Now we've added the zig-zag stitch, as it has become the expected standard on modern sails . There are still sailmakers with the skills to nicely hand stitch a sail, myself included. I seamed flax sails for 3 years before ever sitting at a sewing machine. These days hand seaming is pretty much a question of time and labor costs. Occasionally someone has the time and money to pursue handsewn sails. It is not yet a lost art. The "Danmark" made hand-sewn flax sails on board into the late 1970's, as well have several other European training ships. Here is a situation where labor at little cost is available. A sailmaker and 4 cadets can hand sew a sail in reasonable time. The museum in Marieham has hand sewn many sails. This is another situation where a museum can attract workers at low cost to facilitate a historic project. Other projects with various levels of hand seaming have been done recently. Mystic Seaport has done a nice sailmaking project.

The actual skill of hand seaming hinges on the opportunity to practice and develop it like any other skill. Most seamen in an earlier time acquired a reasonable level of quality on their hand stitch. Working in sail lofts was one of the jobs open to sailors ashore. Again it is just a matter of desire and resources to organize a hand seamed suit of sails.

I will get back to preserving these skills of the sailmakers trade and a bit of a plug for the use of natural fiber cloth and boltrope.

Here at San Francisco Maritime, we are currently undertaking the documentation of a large number of sails that were aboard Balclutha when she arrived here finally in 1954. There are 23 of these sails made approximately from 1900 into the 1920's. Balclutha as Star of Alaska, made her last commercial sail in 1929. She was the last of the 19 Alaska Packers to sail, so we see these 23 sails as a mixed bag of recuts and repairs from various ships. In these last days, it is evident that very little money was spent on new sails. All are heavily repaired and worked over. Some are basically intact and suprisingly sound. Others have bolt ropes on whole edges pulling away and cloth is tearing easily. About half of the sails are hand seamed, the other half straight stitch machining. Repairs are a combination of both. All are in a similar style with some individual variation. There was a company loft in Alameda for the Packer Fleet that did the work.

These are sails for commercial vessels with a fairly high quality of workmanship, not unlike yacht workmanship of the day, just a larger scale.

Our intent right now is to document the sails on film, measure and make complete spec sheets for each and make accurate drawings for each. We haven't opened them all yet, but there appear to be 11 tops'ls (both upper & lower), 1 topgall'nt, 1 royal, 1 mains'l, 2 fores'ls, 1 spanker and 6 stays'ls & jibs. These sails are all at least 70 years old and are one of the largest and best collections of actual sails from a large merchant square-rigger. They are museum artifacts and this project is in it's beginning phase of documentation for museum archives. Right now we are doing the field work which some of you saw yesterday. Each sail has a story of the tradesmen involved, the ships, recuts and repairs. There will be research into the sail lofts, cloth manufacturers, ships purchasing accounts, and any family descendants of people involved.


Research and ideas concerning the future of these sails has also begun. What level of preservation and for how many of them is being looked at. Do we take steps to environmentally control a few prime examples? Do we in some fashion repair or provide a backing for fragile sections? The sails are large and what scale of preservation do we realistically choose? They are, as I have said, probably the best collection of what were the engines of these ships. We have many photographs and accounts of the sails in use as seen at a distance, but far fewer close up studies of how they were made. And they are the real product of the sailmaker' s trade 70 years ago,

Looking at these sails is interesting for me, as I see that the work of several of today's traditional sailmakers is very similar to the work of 70 years ago. And technically there is nothing stopping us from reproducing this work. It is often said that cotton and hemp is unavailable. With a bit of searching these materials can be obtained of reasonable quality. The hemp and manila is not cheap, but cotton cloth can be obtained at a competitive price. It isn't Egyptian cotton sail cloth, but there are people who will custom make cotton or flax cloth with a high thread count if the quantity is enough.

In fact, the last time I visited England the loft of James Lawrence in Brightlingsea was making more cotton sails than in Duradon. Tops'l schooner Shenandoah in Martha's Vineyard has cotton sails. Schooner Lettie G. Howard at South Street has cotton sails. Delaware Bay Schooner Project A.J. Meriwald has new cotton sails. There are others.

A cotton sail requires more maintenance than a synthetic as it is more vulnerable to mildew. A cotton or flax sail must be aired out after a rain if it is not being set. This is what is happening in the old photos of ships at a dock when you see the sails hanging in their gear. Cotton and flax on the other hand are less vulnerable to Ultra-Violet deterioration than synthetics, but the sun will eventually do in any but very high tech fabrics. A cotton or flax sail will lose it's original shape in time and not be as efficient. It is well established that a Dacron sail is faster than cotton and the softer synthetics. But sail cloth stretch is less critical on a large square-rigger. Natural fiber sail cloth is also heavier than synthetic .

It is a choice . If commercial sail had continued to evolve, no doubt we would have seen the use of the most efficient materials. But if we are looking at museum work and reproducing an accurate sail with accurate materials, it can and is being done. If a vessel wants an accurate look with more stable and more easily maintained materials, that can an is also being done.

When safety comes up there is an interesting twist. Although the synthetic fabrics are less prone to blow out, this is the very reason a natural fabric is safer. As we all know, on a large ship in strong wind, the sail used to be the weak link in the rig. A blown out sail can save a ship from dismasting and is in most cases easier to replace. Today's cloth requires constant vigilance to be taken in before overpowering wind.

Through excellent examples of actual sails from the past such as these in San Francisco, and the handful of real world sailmakers still practicing the trade in a fairly accurate form, we still have a strong link to this essential trade of the age of sail. We can make the choice to be conscientious and careful to preserve not only artifacts, but the traditional sailmaking trade in an accurate present day form.

And I would like to thank San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, the National Maritime Museum Association and other museums for helping independent tradesmen like myself. Without your support and resources, it would be even harder to stay above water in an increasingly difficult trade to pursue.

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