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Thread: Hemp Sails ?

  1. #1
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    Default Hemp Sails ?

    Who has used hemp canvas for sails? And what are the pros and cons? I'm sure this must be here somewhere, but can't find it.

    I see lots of talk about hemp, but who has a boat with hemp sails, and do you like them, or dislike them? Anyone?

    What weave count and weight?

    I've looked at the canvas at HempTrader.com.

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Your best source would be up the road aways - but you'd have to weave it yourself. (grin)

    Currently hemp canvas is far too expensive for use as sails, as you'd still have all the problems of standard cotton canvas sails: stains, rot, stretching, staying wet, etc.

    Todd Bradshaw has a number of posts here where he discusses sail material, and mentions standard cotton sailcloth issues. And since you can't get hemp canvas in decent widths, you'd probably have to sew sails on the bias, giving them a nice old-school look.

    But I'm certainly no sailmaker, and so we should wait for those with more expert opinions...

    My friends John & Pia have canvas sails -
    "The enemies of reason have a certain blind look."
    Doctor Jacquin to Lieutenant D'Hubert, in Ridley Scott's first major film _The Duellists_.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    smoke 'em if you got 'em

    I just could not resist.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Smoking 'em might help, but I suspect that tanbarking 'em would be more effective...
    "The enemies of reason have a certain blind look."
    Doctor Jacquin to Lieutenant D'Hubert, in Ridley Scott's first major film _The Duellists_.

  5. #5
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Hemp was put out of use not because of any quality-issues....but mainly to upfront artificial fibres ( and their producing industries)
    ""Smoke it"" ;-) or the topic of beeing illegal for doing so ....goes into the same direction. NOT going to discuss that here though.....
    but through time, artificial Fibres have in fact won the game.....
    I think the good old "Dacron" is much more easy to handle .... even though it is artificial.

    Jantje

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I suppose it's pointless to ask why you'd want to use hemp.
    Another excuse to grow weed?

  7. #7
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Thank you guys, you're very kind to us newbies.

    We are restoring the Golden Rule ketch in Eureka. Here in Humboldt County, there is no shortage of buds to smoke. That's not the question here.

    I live in Garberville, CA, the heart of the "Emerald Triangle". Some of the best herb in the world is grown here. But.....no Hemp. The hemp industry died out years ago.

    There is no really good reason to want Hemp sails. It is merely a question to discuss if it were feasible. The Hemp industry is trying to make a comeback. We like organic. What is more green that a wood ship, hemp sails and rope, and free wind? Merely a fantasy. We do not like plastic products, and do not wish to support mega corporations.

    Will will have a fine boat again, looking at everything and all angles. Thank you, all of you for your help and suggestions.

  8. #8
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    When I was visiting some relatives in Slovakia about 20 years ago they let me try on some work cloths that had belonged to my great grandfather. The unknown fabric was silky and white and hand woven. I don't speak the language but I knew the word for hemp so I asked "konopa?". "Ano,ano" (yes,yes). When got home I investigated getting the fibers out of hemp. It ain't like picking cotton, bunkie. You have to beat the fibers out of the rotten pulp. Women do it. They have a special treadle powered machine to do the pounding. It's so time consuming they have special songs they sing to make the work go faster.
    I imagine modern machinery can do it in a hurry but the processing has to run the cost up. The benefit to hemp is it outproduces cotton per acre many times over.

  9. #9
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Try searching some of the sail threads here. The Egyptian Cotton color dacron sail material is highly regarded for replica boats, although more expensive than regular white dacron.

    Just how authentic (and expensive) do you want to go? If you'll invest a lot of labor into creating period-look sails, you may want to protect that large investment with material that won't quickly rot and stain, and perhaps fail in high winds. But if you want to go with real canvas, this is the place for a serious discussion of that material.

    David "Thorne" Luckhardt
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    http://www.luckhardt.com/blmessabout.html
    "The enemies of reason have a certain blind look."
    Doctor Jacquin to Lieutenant D'Hubert, in Ridley Scott's first major film _The Duellists_.

  10. #10
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    If you don't dry your sails before putting them away, natural fiber canvases will mildew and rot. That is a tremendous extra commitment us modern sailors have never had to put up with. There's no way personally I could possibly justify how much that would cut into my recreational sailing time, which is limited enough as it is, no matter how cool I think natural fiber ropes and sailcloth are.
    If this post did not meet all of your needs, please consult this thread for more options.

  11. #11
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    The care required is not worth it.
    Rinsing w/fresh water, drying, folding and storage etc. takes a huge amount of time. (And the sails are not as good, nowhere near as good)
    The standard for work boats of old was to save your family urine to soak the sails. A low tech tanning. Yacht standard was, take the time to keep them white and crisp, but you had paid hands for that. If you have to ask how much that might cost, well...

    Sailcloth has come a long ways in the last 100 years.

  12. #12

    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I'd love to try some hemp sails sometime. To many of us, sailing is a very tactile experience. I bought some hemp rope recently for some marlinspike projects and WOW! Easily the nicest most satisfying rope I have ever worked with. I agree dacron sails are great in every respect except aesthetics, they do not feel good to the hand, the sound is awful, but like fiberglass boats they do take abuse..... Go for it man!

  13. #13
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Hmm. Nosing around a bit, it looks like hemp was historically used for just what you suggest, but it gradually fell out of favor due to issues pertaining to rot. I'd suggest another type of fiber if you're genuinely interested in making your restoration as "green" as possible (e.g. manila, cotton) but it certainly looks feasible.

    That said, I suspect you'll end up going with dacron, steel, etc. simply because of how labor intensive "green" technologies usually end up being in practice. Your call.

  14. #14
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I have a canvas sprits'l that was completely hand sewn for me by the Pommern sailmakers in Aland. I know the line around the edges is hemp, but I have no idea what kind of canvas the sail is.

    I used it for one summer, but it was so heavy it was never used again. It hangs on my wall now, as I love to look at the hand sewn broadseams!!!

    -Thad
    There is a joy in madness, that only mad men know. -Nieztsche

  15. #15
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Reference hemp fabric: several years ago, while living in Korea, I had a couple of shirts made of hemp cloth. It's a traditional material that's been used over there for a long time. I don't know if they make/made heavier weave suitable for sails but you might investigate in that direction.

  16. #16
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    jeez, what about sail shape? cotton sails for a racing boat used to have to be used a bunch of times, then an expert eye would say, yeah, the draft has moved aft just about where we want it.... the stuff never stops moving around and stretching.

    Gives me the heebie jeebies just thinking about it. Weighs a ton, rots, stretches, soaks up water, smells like mildew...

  17. #17
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Trust me, you have neither the time or energy needed to outfit that boat with natural fiber sailcloth. Unless you're really rolling in dough, you probably don't have, or wouldn't be willing to spend, the cash on them either. Despite the appeal on paper of the whole "go-green", "natural materials used in nature" thing, you would quickly find that you dreaded even being on that boat in short order because of the extra care your thousands of dollars worth of new sails would require to keep them from rapidly deteriorating into a stinking pile of very expensive mistakes. I don't mean to sound intentionally harsh, but I've been making sails for 33 years and when it comes to sails, the whole hippy philosophy is extremely unrealistic for anything you can't bring in at night and keep under your bed.

    The good news is that those folks who think all Dacron (polyester) sailcloth is stiff, shiny and crunchy don't know what they're talking about. That boat is big enough that you would have several possible cloices that might work. North Oceanus and Hayward Clipper Canvas would be two of them. These are a mixture of both extruded and spun polyester fibers. They look like natural canvas, feel like natural canvas, yet are more stable. Though dirty polyester sailcloth (of any type)can get mold on it and down between the yarns (attached to dirt, salt, etc. that wasn't properly rinsed off) it won't eat the fabric and the stuff won't rot from moisture. If I handed you a hunk of it, you probably wouldn't know on inspection that it's not a natural material unless I told you. Oceanus is probably the best candidate at the moment. The US distributor of Hayward fabrics is currently in a battle with the parent company for Hayward in England and at the moment (and possibly the future) they aren't being imported here.

    There are also some pre-fatigued Dacrons out there, made by Challenge Sailcloth that would probably work. They essentially run new Dacron over a beaded roller to soften it up and knock off excess resin. In the process, it gets a lot softer and more user-friendly than the normal Dacrons. Challenge also makes a no-resin heavy Dacron for tall ships that is softer. Whether or not it could be used on your boat would depend on just how big your sails are, because tall ship fabrics tend to be heavy. One of the main reasons behind the development of these types of fabrics was that regular, stiff, resin-coated Dacron sailcloth was horribly noisy when used on tall ships. It wasn't just annoying, it was a safety issue and a stress issue for the people who had to be working up in the rigging, handling the sails. Some of this softer-Dacron technology has filtered down into the medium-sized boat market and is available, but you're not likely to get it from most of the big sail lofts (or proper, traditional detailling on the sails). You're looking for the smaller lofts that specialize in those fabrics and traditional sail construction. The best place to start looking are those little ads in WoodenBoat Magazine.

    HEY MAN! OPEN THE DOOR....IT'S ME!..... I GOT THE NEW SAILS IN THE VAN!

  18. #18
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I don't know. Currently, you can pay up to as much as $10 per square foot from some popular sources for a rather plain Egyptian or Tanbark (but otherwise very modern) sail that really doesn't have much else on it that's traditional. Natural fiber with a combination of traditional handwork and the knowledge to be able to cut it properly is bound to be pretty darned expensive.

  19. #19
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Thank you Seayou7 for your help and offer of sails for our Golden Rule ketch. What a guy! I wish to thank all those who had given freely of advice and suggestions. I'm learning a lot. We will have lots more questions as we go, and I'm pleased so many of you are interested in our little boat.

  20. #20
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Hey Fredy, are you planning on storing these sails dry ashore? If it is a small dry sailed boat they're for, and you want a traditional material, than from what I read Hemp isn't a bad choice. Mr. Bradshaws concerns are valid, and he certainly is the expert. I have samples of all of Hemp Traders fabrics. Their plane weave Hemp canvas choices are OK, if you're looking for a light sail for the above mentioned use. It is available in 60" width and start at around $10.00-$15:00 a yard. They have some darn heavy stuff in 45% Cotton 55% Hemp, but Hemp appears to have some advantages over Cotton. Louie Bartos of LB Sails in AK used some of Hemp Traders stuff for his WASA sail replica. Hemp Traders claims hemp is stronger when wet than dry. They also say it will last longer against UV than cotton, and is naturally more rot resistant. Their words not mine, but there had to be a reason it was favored for sail cloth before synthetics.

  21. #21
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    OK Fredy Sorry I see you've a large boat to canvas. Late night,I'm grieving. The fiber Hemp is not the same variety as the smoking kind. The THC percentage in fiber Hemp is almost nonexistant. Read Hemp Trader's website. Sorry to disapoint the above posters who thought they were the same plant. As is usually the case in our country the law does not diffrentiate between the two species, so you can't grow fiber Hemp. Even though ,as stated above, it has a much higher yield per acre than Cotton and needs little fertilizer or pesticides. IMO most of Hemp Trader's offerings are too loose a weave in the lighter fabrics and heavier ones are tight, but heavy.

  22. #22
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Reminds me of my youth when all the yacht clubs had signs: "No sail drying on the lawns." I've sailed with Egyptian cotton sails and, while interesting from an historical sense, there's no contest at all between natural fabric and the new-fangled stuff. Not even close. The old stuff takes all the fun out of sailing and makes it a whole lot of work, not to mention expense. Today, "blowing out" synthetic sail (other than a chute) is a pretty rare occurence, aside from an old worn seam ripping, which is easily restitched. With the old cotton and hemp fabrics, it wasn't uncommon for a sail to blow to tatters in short order. The natural fabrics don't hold their shape like the new synthetics, either. No matter how nicely cut, the natural fabric sails would stretch and lose their shape after a season or three, while well maintained synthetics can last a lifetime if properlly maintained and cared for (unless you're one of those crazy racers that think they need a new set of mylars every other race.)

  23. #23
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    It is all about intended use, pocket book, asthetic, durability. Anything larger than a dry sailed daysailor, and it would be hard to argue against the merits of synthetic cloth. With tight weave and modern coatings, stretch and air leakage just about doesn't happen. If you were of a mind to experience a natural cloth sail with all it's inherent short commings, and could afford such a thing, might it not be an experience? I'm not suggesting a off shore passage, but there may be an acceptable application of this technology if for no other reason than to test all the notions about it?

  24. #24
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    The old canvas and cotton sails, with all that fine, fancy rope work and stitching were built that way for a reason. The material is so fragile it needs lots and lots of reinforcing and lots of small, low load stitching.
    Todd nailed it above, there are many (and have always been many) excellent, softer weave Dacrons out there that are perfect for classic boats.
    Even back when I was using Aquino sail cloth, they had excellent dacrons for this sort of sail and Challenge definitely have some current dacrons that are beautiful. We made gaffer sails out of some of the Egyptian cream when I was last working as a sailmaker in Sydney, they looked great. I handsewed all the rings in, rope corners, brass ring liners etc. I regret not taking photos.
    And forget two or three SEASONS out of non synthetic cloth, try maybe a season if you are lucky. I remember talking to an old guy who would shovel wet sand into his ails when they were strung up, to try to get the draft to come back forward....

  25. #25
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I made hand stitched vivatex sails for my boat originally. 80 hours for a 250 sq ft main. (the coat then was $125, the only advantage)' Vivatex is treated cotton, it is a bit poisonous, the sails lasted 2 1/2 years. I ain't a goin back.
    I now use a lotta used sails that I re cut, sometimes actually filleting the entire sail just to salvage cloth, ( make a 22" panel from a 24"panel) Re using old sails , I think, is more "green" .

  26. #26

    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Ok, it seems well documented that hemp sails are not very practical. But given hemp's limitations, are there certain sail designs whose performance would suffer less from the loss of shape, or would be the easiest to tweak? My guess is that older rigs (lugsails, gaff sails etc) were popular because they allowed one to overcome hemp/cottons shortcomings and that modern rigs are probably the worst at this.

  27. #27
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    When I was first around the Maine schooners in the late '70's, maybe half of them used canvas sails. They were brutally heavy when soaking wet, but in that use they held up for several (maybe 5-7) years. As I understand it, cotton was used for schooner sails, Egyptian cotton for racing boats and yachts, and Flax for bigger vessels. Flax is made from the straw of the flax grain, which is also used to make linen, and the grain makes linseed oil.
    A schooner in Maine windjammer service was a pretty good place for a natural fiber sail. The sails were bent on around Memorial Day, and the boat was underway 6 days a week until the middle of september, when the sails would be dried and stored away. The fairly low-peaked gaff of the typical New England schooner doesn't seem to generate nearly as much stretching force on the cloth as a jib'headed sail does, and the boats weren't intended to be going-to-windward monsters anyway. Besides that, by peaking up the gaff you can change the shape of the sail some.
    Also, with an old-timey schooner where the masts are slushed with vaseline (or whatever) the sails are pretty rustic looking anyway, no matter what they're made of.
    Despite all that, over the last 30 years natural fiber has pretty much disappeared on the Maine schooners. I think that at first the principal reason was cost. In 1983 I sailed on the "Pride of Baltimore" square topsail schooner, and by then all her working sails were "Duradon." At the time I was told that this cloth was developed in europe for use as truck tarps. But in the article linked below that author says that it was developed as a replacement for flax. By the way, this article is pretty interesting:
    http://www.maritime.org/conf/conf-brink.htm
    In any event, Duradon was cheaper, lighter, and didn't soak up water.
    For some applications I think natural fiber would be nice. Relatively low performance, small, with a boathouse right at hand where the sails could be hung up to dry. Maybe a little gaff or sprit-rigged sloop of 20' or less, on a lake, with a boathouse. For vessels that go out on the ocean, even rabid traditionalists have succumbed to the enticements of synthetics. The last big schooner I sailed on was the "Amistad," a Baltimore Clipper replica built by Mystic Seaport. Her sails were synthetic (Oceanus, I think) and her running rigging was all Roblon, except for the lanyards in her deadeyes, which were black polypropylene.
    Last edited by seo; 02-07-2011 at 08:46 AM.

  28. #28
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Just to play devil's advocate...

    I think size of the boat is key. I used cotton tarp sails on my little dinghy all last summer (I sense eyes rolling as I post this haha). After a daysail, I hang up the sail in the backyard to dry (though it doesn't seem to soak up much water at all, even in choppy conditions). Since I have a balance lug now, I just take the yard and boom off the mast and prop them up across the patio.

    The only advantages of natural materials, it seems, are ease of building and low cost. The sail can be sewn flat, the "scoop" will manifest itself in use. So it is very fast/easy to make a basic sail. And cost is less than 1/3 of dacron.

    However, you have no control (or as a previous poster noted here, limited control) over where exactly that "scoop" will be. The material is plenty strong, but needs extra stitching/reinforcement, since it doesn't hold stitches quite as well as dacron.

    Cotton canvas seems to work well in squareish, unbattened sails, probably because it is very easy to manipulate with downhauls/vangs/etc., being stretchy. Most of all, it allows me to experiment with different sail designs very cheaply and very easily. (I rigged up an experimental kayak sail recently in < 2 hours and for < $10). In fact, I will be rigging up a lateen sail to experiment with on my latest build. Most likely the lug will prevail, but I can build an 80 sq ft lateen for about $75 total including the yard, so I have little to lose, and alot to learn. Most of all, I will have first hand experience with an ancient sail type, and will be able to make informed commentary on the type.

    While performance has not been bad in my admittedly limited experience with the cotton, it is not as good as dacron, and I have added slightly more sail area than a comparable dacron sail would need to compensate for this difference. "High" performance in the sense of getting maybe a knot better speed on a reach or a few degrees better to windward just aren't as important to me as low cost and easy experimentation are, and I enjoy myself no matter what.

    Of course, this thread is really more oriented towards the utility of natural sails on larger boats, and in that case I think several posters have confirmed from first hand experience that on larger vessels cotton/hemp just isn't practical. I certainly defer to them. But for smallish boats I don't think natural materials, if they can be found cheaply, should be just dismissed out of hand. There is a place for them, alongside polytarp and the like.
    “The difference between an adventurer and anybody else is that the youthful embrace of discovery, of self or of the world, is not muted by the responsibilities or the safety-catches of maturity.” Jonathan Borgais

  29. #29
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Scott, Sails with a fairly low aspect ratio (not terribly tall and skinny) would generally work better. Tall, skinny, high-aspect modern-style sails tend to concentrate stress up and down the leech (which stretchy, unstable fabric does not do well) where the lower aspect sails tend to spread the stresses out a bit more uniformly through the sail. So, the more traditional shapes (lugs, gaff sails, squares, sprits, etc.) would be a better choice. Unfortunately though, that's just a portion of the equation. Much of what makes a sail set and work well is controlled by small, fairly subtle tweaks, put in here and there by the builder. Exactly where to put these shaping bits into the mix and how much of them to put in is mostly a matter of having prior experience with a particular type and weight of fabric. Somebody who is used to working with one type of fabric may not have a clue when it comes to a different weight or type of cloth.

    If you want truly good natural fabric sails, you're most likely already limited to just a small handful of sailmakers on the entire planet who have the experience and desire to do them (myself NOT included). By far, the best bet for such a sail would be to let that sailmaker pick the cloth, because he can, and will, pick a fabric that he is used to working with and one where he can predict the results. Walk in with a bolt of something he's never used before and the odds of all those little tweaks being accurate and making the desired in-use shape go way down. The labor charge will be about the same, but the results between his fabric and your fabric could be drastically different.

  30. #30
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    This is an addendum to post #30 above:
    This afternoon I talked to a friend of mine, "GG" who has been making sails since the '70's in Camden, Maine, after working for another sailmaker in Boothbay, Maine.
    GG tells me the following things:
    1) There are still several schooners in the Maine fleet using natural fiber, including the "Green Boats", aka Grace Bailey, Mercantile, Mistress, plus the Pinkey schooner "Summertime".
    2) The "Shenandoah" is still using cotton sails
    3) Flax is good for square sails because it's very stretchy, strong, easy to work, and because the fiber is naturally quite oily, it doesn't absorb a lot of moisture.
    4) Cotton canvas is cheaper than Duradon and all the others.

  31. #31
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Freddy, Dharma Trading Co. here in the SF bayarea has a testimonial on their web site from someone who sewed a Lug sail from their Hemp canvas.http://www.dharmatrading.com/html/en...av=fabric.html
    I have made several sails of painter's tarps. The fabric quality varies greatly, and I have learned to avoid the loose weaves. Any pinpricks of daylight between fibers will translate to stretch, shape loss, and air leakage. Given the cheapness, usually less than yardage prices for the same amount of cloth, I can always reuse it as a tarp.

  32. #32
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I don't know much about hemp cloth, but hemp lines have always been considered to be inferior to "Manilla Hemp," which isn't made of hemp at all, but instead out of something called Abaca, which is described as being "a species of banana native to the Philippines, grown widely as well in Borneo and Sumatra. It is sometimes referred to as "BacBac". The plant is of great economic importance, being harvested for its fibre, once generally called Manila hemp, extracted from the leaf sheath around the trunk."
    Working on old navy vessels I'd sometimes find stray lengths of manilla around, and one of the tankers I worked on used it in huge quantities for messengers, heaving lines, etc. I was sailing as bosun at the time, and so spliced and worked a lot of it. Very nice stuff. There was also some hemp around, but it would break down and become long-jawed very quickly, and then break.
    I think that Herman Melville wrote a passage in (maybe Moby Dick?) describing hemp as being a poor substitute for Manilla.
    From my observation, manilla had much longer and more flexible fibers, didn't soak up water so readily.
    On the basis of that, maybe woven abaca would make a better sail.

  33. #33
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Sorry guys but I think all this talk of natural sail bashing is BULLS**T!
    The Great sailmaker in Maine has made me this beautiful sat of sails for my RIVIERA
    [IMG][/IMG]
    it 5.5 oz cotton, and a weeks worth of his fantastic ropework. In fact all the cordage on the boat is either cotton or Hemp.
    Maybe you remember an article in WB on Peggy Baun from Ireland, she is sailing today with her cotton sails that are 50-75 years old.the fact is there is a preservative blended in to help keep them from getting mildew.
    Please someone show me their 50 year old polyester sails that can compete in a regatta!
    Nat Wilson has gone to a lot of trouble to get the correct weave done in Scotland with Egyptian cotton just so we can appreciate the joy of having cotton sails.

    The entire IDEM class is 100% cotton, some sails are 100 years old.
    I am honored to have cotton sails.
    the benefits?

    try ironing out the wrinkles in a polyester sail,
    try shoving a polyester sailing bag in a duffel bag and see what it comes out, I have accidentally destroyed a polyester sail because it flooged to death on my boat, in a trailer, out of sight while driving down the road-I am sure it has happened to someone else also
    my rig folds up nicely and gets put in a custom tube bag(like a huge ski bag) and is stored in my basement dry, the next time i hoist the sail the wrinkles will come out with a bit of water and a nice breeze.
    [IMG][/IMG]
    try rolling your polyester up like this!!
    [IMG][/IMG]


    To set the record straight, refer to them as cotton sails, not hemp sails.
    and to the others- If you never sailed with cotton, or dont know anything about it, dont bash them.
    There's one rich man onboard and there's twentyfive poor men and they enjoy it more then the rich man does -Jim Kilroy when asked if yacht racing is a rich mans sport.

  34. #34
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Quote Originally Posted by mike hanyi View Post
    and to the others- If you never sailed with cotton, or dont know anything about it, dont bash them.
    right on- don't knock it till you try it!
    “The difference between an adventurer and anybody else is that the youthful embrace of discovery, of self or of the world, is not muted by the responsibilities or the safety-catches of maturity.” Jonathan Borgais

  35. #35
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I wouldn't call that straight. Very nice sails! However, despite all that fine craftsmanship, your first photo clearly shows one of the biggest drawbacks to natural fiber sails - the instability of the fabric itself. The seams (and/or false seams) joining the panels and being multiple layers of cloth, have a lot less stretch than the single thickness of fabric right next to the seam on either side. This results in that washboard effect that you see across both sails, and was in fact, one of the major reasons for the gradual switch from vertically-paneled sails to cross-cut-paneled sails. They were trying to better align the non-fixable washboard problem with the in-use flow of the wind over the sail to get better performance.

    It's not a problem with the construction or craftsmanship, it's just the nature (and one of the major limitations) of the material itself. Where you have fabric prone to stability problems like the washboarding, other shape-holding problems also come with it and there is no way to get around them. It's the nature of the beast and anybody considering natural fiber sails needs to be aware of them, along with the potential for deterioration from mold, which can actually eat the cloth. That's not B.S. it's a fact, and any sail, from any material, is going to clearly reflect the care that it's given.

    Dacron sailcloth is far more dimensionally stable these days than any natural fiber. That's another fact, and it tends to produce smoother sails that are more efficient and hold their designed shape better. To some extent, sailcloth manufacturers have admittedly gone a bit overboard and many recreational sailors would sacrifice a bit of dimensional stability for somewhat softer, more user-friendly cloth. Unfortunately, to do that with reduced resin content means that it has to be done with tighter weaving and sailcloth is priced by how many times that little shuttle has to go back and forth weaving the weft yarns, so it brings with it a substantial price increase. Fifty-year-old polyester sails probably can't compete with modern ones, but compared to today's cloth, they're very old technology. I do see a few old ones from time to time though, that come in and are in excellent shape. They're probably as good and efficient as they ever were. Again, it's a matter of their use and care. Leave any sail out in the sun or to flap long in high winds and it's toast. Don't think for a minute that your cotton sail is the least bit immune to these things. Enjoy it, admire the fact that it was made by a true craftsman and take good care of it. But for most folks, natural fiber isn't the answer, and with any of these fibers, there is good cloth and poor cloth when it comes to suitability for making sails. Finding something off the shelf in any natural fiber that is actually a good cloth for natural fiber sails is about as likely as getting hit by lightning.

  36. #36
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    This is what Herman Melville had to say about Hemp and Manilla cordage in "Moby Dick" in 1851:
    "Chapter 60 - The Line

    The line originally used in the (whale) fishery was of the best hemp, slightly vapored with tar, not impregnated with it, as in the case of ordinary ropes; for while tar, as ordinarily used, makes the hemp more pliable to the rope-maker, and also renders the rope itself more convenient to the sailor for common ship use; yet, not only would the ordinary quantity too much stiffen the whale-line for the close coiling to which it must be subjected; but as most seamen are beginning to learn, tar in general by no means adds to the rope's durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss.

    Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.

    The whale-line is only two thirds of an inch in thickness. At first sight, you would not think it so strong as it really is. By experiment its one and fifty yarns will each suspend a weight of one hundred and twenty pounds; so that the whole rope will bear a strain nearly equal to three tons. In length, the common sperm whale-line measures something over two hundred fathoms."
    Dunno how this is relevant to a discussion of sails, but I thought it was pretty interesting.

  37. #37
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Yea, The first picture in post 36, those sails do not look very good to my eye.

  38. #38
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    This thread is getting interesting ;-)

    It is true, that there are two general kinds of hemp-plants....the one You smoke and the industrial-hemp for fibregaining. You can smoke both...but the industrial one won"t give You much of a kick.
    Anyhow.... gaining Hempfibres from the Plant can be done by machines since the beginning of the last century, and is not at all any longer a rough and tedious work.

    Most of the soldiers equipment like tents, Rucksacks Combatuniforms and similar in WWI and WWII was made from this material. In Germany Farmers had to pay a socalled "Hemptax" to the government if they did NOT plant hemp on a certain percentage of their crops to supply War-preparation-needs.( The remains of the plants were smoked anyhow even if it wasn't very strong....generally known as "Knaster". It can be found mentioned in many books from that time ;-) Hemp-ropes are the finest I know until today...while reading the upper threads I will have to correct that to the Manila-fibre NOT actually beeing HEMP ( didn't know that). Artificial fibre may be stronger and even longer lasting....but not as easy to handle.

    But as I said before, when it comes to sails, there are far more better alternatives today.....I didn't know them all myself or their names ( learned a lot here) but I've sailed on a boat with "soft Dacron" which was very good to handle and didn't even have this hard and shiny appearance, and most probably had a lower noise-level as well. I never compared THAT ...but thinking about it, the rattling of the sails when going through the wind was rather a ""puffpuffpuff" than a "Tacktacktack" .
    So even IF You want a "green" boat.....think twice when it comes to the sails ! Concerning that I agree completely with the professionals and sailmakers here.

    Jantje

  39. #39
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    It is true that most of the records set by vessels prior to the age of plastic sails stood until the very recent past. "Red Jacket's" Atlantic crossing time, "Cutty Sark's" noon-to-noon, etc. On top of that, it's true that some of the biggest fore and aft sails ever made were came from Herreshof's sailloft, and were used on the great single-sticker yachts like Reliance, that had a total rig height of 189 feet, and according to Maynard Bray "there was enough sail area in her rig for eight modern 12-meters."
    Which isn't to argue for canvas sails, much less hemp. But it can be done, it was done, and we may as well keep that in mind.
    I love the pictures in post #36, particularly the ones of the IDEM class boats racing.

  40. #40
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    For those who wish to, and can afford to use natural sail cloth, I say, Do it. A sailing vessel isn't the fastest way to get somewhere, and there are those who believe that wood is an unstable and perishable stuff to make boats from. Enjoy your journey.

  41. #41
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    There has never been an argument that the natural fibres work, just that they have been surpassed by much more durable, user friendly cloths that actually hold a shape for more than 12 months.
    We can still build boats out of hollowed logs, but choose not to........

  42. #42
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I think that JC 72's comment in #44 is right on the mark. In the vast majority of cases sailboats are recreational, and the enjoyment of them is esthetic.
    As an example of a similar situation, I own canoe/kayaks of: FRP, Aluminum, Royalex plastic, Rotomold, and wood/canvas composite. Only one of them takes my breath away with its beauty and grace. Only one of them moves silently through the water. Only one of them is ideally suited to floating in the middle of a perfectly still lake, at midnight, lying on the bottom of the boat, watching the Northern Lights.
    And that's why my Old Town gets more maintenance than all the others put together, enjoys indoor storage, and why I'm willing to lug its weight. It's a thing of beauty.
    If a guy with a sailboat, or a bunch of people with a class of sailboats, decides that their experience of being on the water is improved by having natural fiber sails, well, fine.

  43. #43
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I would add to things:
    1) Hemp, descended from the old farms in the midwest growing hemp for rope, is endemic in the Midwest. It is (IIRC) the second most common weed in Nebraska. I think it is now protected, as it is a major food source for birds. When I was in college in Illinois (this will date me...) we had a Christmas tree in the dorm which was a fourteen foot tall hemp plant - the stems were two feet apart on the stalk. Trust me, it was unsmokeable... or so I was told ... Also, riding around the northern Illinois countryside we found huge fields of 'volunteer' hemp in various places. So if you want hemp fiber, I think it would not be hard to get.

    2) When I was a kid, we had some special dish towels made of Ramie. These towels were amazingly strong. Ramie may be the oldest cultivated fiber crop, is still grown in China. It was used for the cloths to wrap mummies because it lasted so long. So it seems to me that it might be a good candidate for natural sail fabric. The wikipedia article mentions that it is 'not as durable' as other fibers, but those dish towels lasted through my entire childhood, through hundreds or thousands of washings, foldings and uses.

    This quote from the wikipedia article linked above provides some of the characteristics (good and bad):
    Ramie is one of the strongest natural fibres. It exhibits even greater strength when wet. Ramie fibre is known especially for its ability to hold shape, reduce wrinkling, and introduce a silky lustre to the fabric appearance. It is not as durable as other fibres, and so is usually used as a blend with other fibres such as cotton or wool. It is similar to flax in absorbency, density and microscopic appearance. However it will not dye as well as cotton. Because of its high molecular crystallinity, ramie is stiff and brittle and will break if folded repeatedly in the same place; it lacks resiliency and is low in elasticity and elongation potential.

  44. #44
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    In the '60's there was wild hemp growing all over Minnesota, particularly along railroad tracks. I guess riding in a train would thresh the seeds off? It's only utility to people who were interested in growing the smokable variety was that you could plant transplant the smoking plants out to the edge of a wild patch, and if the DEA descended upon you they'd be hard put to distinguish one from the other.
    I never knew what "Ramie" is. I once had a french dress jacket made out of ramie and silk. It was very nice, but I always thought that "Ramie" was French for "Rayon,"
    Shows what I know.

  45. #45
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Most of you seem to be ignoring the fact that the fiber itself is generally way less important than the weaving when it comes to natural sailcloth. Since very few are familiar with the process of designing and cutting sails and since the vast majority of recrestional sailors aren't used to, or trained to, look at a sail with a critical eye for faults, their causes and how to correct them, perhaps this just doesn't register with them. You don't just walk into the nearest fabric mill and order 30 or 40 yards of whatever you want in a weave that's suitable for making a decent sail. If you can even find such a weave, the initial minimum order is quite often a whole container full of it. Once you begin to understand these things, much of this discussion becomes pointless. Finding good natural fabric of any type that's acceptable for sails from a weaving standpoint, whether it's hemp, cotton, flax, linen or anything else will prove to be much more difficult than just finding some cloth made from those fibers. If the weave isn't good for sails, it's going to be a lousy sail and there is no way around it.

  46. #46
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    really Todd, "these people"!!

  47. #47
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I'd be very surprised if anyone ever again builds natural fiber sails like the ones found on "Ranger" or "Atlantic" or "Cutty Sark." But it's also true that forty years ago a marginally sane guy named Henri Vallaincort from New Hampshire decided to build a birch bark canoe, just like they did it in the old days. His story was told by John McPhee in "The Survival of the Birch Bark Canoe," and It was probably a lousy boat. Nothing compared to the great Canots de Maitre of the good old days, or the Canots de Nord. But it was notable because it was built, it floated, it moved when you paddled it, and John McPhee wrote about it. And the birch bark canoe has survived, and very occasionally you see them on the water. Not because they compare with a kevlar-epoxy Wenonah with a mylar batwing sail (which on a good day can cover a mile in the time it takes a JetSki to go down to the other end of the lake, drink a couple beers and come back screaming), not because it's as good as what can be built today, but because it's really cool. Being in a boat like that allows you to kind of reach your hand out and touch the past.
    For myself, my most memorable moment sailing, ever, was running a 65' schooner along the North Coast of Hispaniola, coming up on deck at night out of my burrow in the after cabin, with the sea running on our quarter, phosphorescent, and the mainsail bellied out and gleaming moonlit. The tropic breeze flowing over the deck, low voices of the watch on deck, the dark mass of the land up to windward with mountains and no lights, the hull swooping and rolling, yawing a little bit as she ran down the seas.
    We were making eight knots, maybe nine. A modern and efficient boat of our length would have run us under the horizon in a couple of hours. But so what? Right there, right then, it was like a hole had opened up in the time warp, and we could see back over to what it had felt like to run the coast of Hispaniola in a right found little schooner boat.

  48. #48
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    Valliancort's canoes were pretty authentic. I don't know whether he's still building or was eventually done-in by eating his home made green jerky, but there are a small handful of people who still build authentic birchbark canoes - they just don't get books written about them. In another month or so, I'll see Ferdy Goode at Canoecopia, who is one of the best. You generally find him in the WCHA booth, sitting there with a crooked knife carving ribs from hand-split cedar blanks. He makes some awfully pretty canoes.
    http://web.mac.com/beaverbarkcanoes/...rk_Canoes.html

    As to the big natural fiber sails for classic restorations and recreations, it's very doubtful for the very reasons we've been talking about - fabric availability, stability, ease of maintenance, etc. When you balance the tremendous amount of expensive hand labor involved in producing these sails verses these not-so-desirable characteristics, it just makes sense to build them from one of the modern substitutes designed specifically to mimic the old fabrics.

  49. #49
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    My point was that Vallaincort was one of the first of the modern era of birch bark canoes, and without someone going first, there's a real possibility that today nobody would be doing it. Maybe he built a great boat, first one off, and maybe there were really X number of other people building bark canoes in other places. When John McPhee wrote about Vallaincort, the possibility of making, buying, sell, owning, using a bark canoe became real to the world at large. When the book came out (1982) I had been around canoes all my 31 years. My father's summer job in college had been collecting mineral samples for a mining company, in northern Ontario, by canoe. We got started in canoes early. By 1982 I had made the pilgrimage to Old Town to get parts for my family's 1922 Otca, and learn how to put on canvas. I had paddled in Old Town, Seliga, and Chestnut canoes, and had been at Seliga's shop several times. I'd canoed at Camp Widgiwagen, which to this day still uses wooden canoes on trips to the Boundary Waters and the Quetico. Widgi was the original reason that Joe Seliga had a market for his repair work and for the canoes he built. So it's not as if I wasn't fairly familiar with wooden canoes. But until the McPhee book, I had no idea that anyone was building bark canoes.
    In a somewhat similar way, thirty five years ago it was remarkable if someone built a post and beam (P&B), timber frame house. It was so obvious that the wave of the future was stud-built or modular. (Parenthetically, I do not understand the appeal of Post and Beam construction, but that's beside the point). Back then, my local lumberyard would look at you as if you'd lost your mind if you went in with a material list for a P&B building. Today, they'd not only have the timber in stock, they'd also have the specialty products like insulated panels that are manufactured today, but didn't exist in 1975. In the same way, you'd have been hard-put to find a builder who really knew how to do build P&B. Today there are builders who do little else, and the specialty tools (like skilsaws with enormous blades) are readily available, because something going on in the U.S. persuaded Makita in Japan that it was worthwhile making them)
    Why do people want P&B houses? Damned if I know. I don't want one. But I guess it appeals to a desire for something that feels hand-built and in touch with the past, even if it includes indoor plumbing with hot tub, radiant heat, and a Viking stove.
    So for myself, I don't want a birchbark canoe, or a P&B house, or a natural fiber sail.

    (Oh, wait a minute. I just realized that the house I live in was built in 1815, and right above my head, there are the hand-hewn timber ceiling beams, still showing the adze marks. But never mind that. I bought the house because it was derelict and very cheap. What I meant was that I'd never build one from scratch.)

    Anyway, if it appeals to someone to have a natural fiber sail, it can be done. It will cost more than a synthetic sail, and take more fooling around, and not drive the boat as well. In the same way that a birchbark canoe will cost more, require more maintenance, and not be as good a boat as a kevlar-epoxy WeNoNah by any objective standard. But a boat (or sail, or oar) for pleasure is not judged by objective standards. Some people like wooden boats, when they don't make a lot of sense by any objective standard. Same thing for old British motorcycles, or open-cockpit biplanes, or ash and rawhide snowshoes, as opposed to the modern aluminum framed ones. I hate to say that modern snowshoes leave me cold. I love the SOUND of old-fashioned snowshoes. (although I wouldn't dream of fooling with the old-fashioned leather bindings.) I would never have guessed that telemark skiing would ever make a comeback. I remember back in about 1967 for the first time seeing someone with the old gear, making big sweeping telemark turns, and thinking it was kind of cool, but what I wanted was a pair of Lange boots and Dynamic VR17's, just like Jean-Claude Killy.

    So, yeah, canvas sails are a pain in the neck, and they cost more. I wouldn't recommend them on any objective level. But if someone wants one, well, okay. And if enough people want them, someone will start making them, and after a while someone with a loom might say "sure, I can make sailcloth." Because somewhere out there it's likely that there's some guy with a little specialty weaving mill that has a couple of looms left over from when the Wamsutta mill shut down, and even if the fiber he can get isn't ideal, well, he'll give it a shot.
    On that line, I'd recommend to anyone that they read a book titled "The Brendan Voyage" by Tim Severin. It recounts the process of building an Irish skin boat (with leather sails?) and sailing it from Ireland to North America by way of the Faroe Islands. Written in 1978. The remarkable thing (I haven't read the book in years, and my memory isn't entirely clear) was that in Ireland he found people who knew how to tan the leather correctly, and in the Faroes he signed a throwback Norseman on board who knew how to salt cod and hunt seals and live without taking a bath from one month to the next: all that good old timey stuff.
    If you'd asked me if it was possible to find anyone on earth who had any idea of how to prepare and tan hides for sails, I'd have said no. And maybe they weren't as good sails as they were in the good old days when St. Brendan plied the seas. And maybe these sails weren't as good as those great sails from the Golden Age of Sailmaking (800 ad-1240 ad) that ended when the last of the Irish wildcats died of old age and heartbreak in 1238, so it was no longer possible to wash the hides in the urine of pregnant Irish wildcats. Or something like that.

    But as my father used to say: "Things aren't as good as they were in the good old days. And they never were."
    Last edited by seo; 02-14-2011 at 08:19 AM.

  50. #50
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    Default Re: Hemp Sails ?

    I don't want to incite a lot or protest, but I just stumbled across this film:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_F6z...eature=related
    of the 1938 schooner race between "Bluenose" and "Gertrude Thebaud" Incredible footage, and the sails look incredibly good.

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