Are the accent Phoenicians the keepers of the secret to sail cleaning? Does the chemical list look like a cross between jet fuel and DNA gene spliced material? Should sail cleaning only be attempted by the chosen few in purple robes?
Professional sail cleaners, if available in your area, do guarantee their work for about a dollar per foot. But a peak behind the curtain revealed a simple labor-intensive process with common household chemicals, not rocket science and exotic materials. And the labor was performed by a high school part-timer, not a degreed specialist.
The materials needed are a basin or bath tub where the sail can be emersed. Luke Warm water, laundry soap, laundry bleach, mild brush, and a place to hang them to dry. The sail cleaner used liquid Tide and Clorox bleach, but said any brand will do. I was concerned about the use of bleach, but a 1983 study by Howe & Bainbridge showed that if household bleach is used sparingly and rinsed properly, bleach will not damage dacron and cotton cloth or the stitching. The report also says never never ever use bleach on nylon or kevlar sails. Bleach will discolor your cloths, so keep this in mind when choosing proper sail-cleaning attire. You may wish to wear gloves as well.
Cleaning the Sail
It’s simple; soak the sail in lukewarm water and laundry soap for about 12 hours. How much laundry soap? Follow the directions on the box. Next spread the sail out flat and scrub with the mild bristle laundry brush. Treat the stained areas with a 2-4 percent solution of bleach and water. Rinse thoroughly and hang out to dry. I used the bath tub because the side of the tub offered a large flat surface for scrubbing the sail a section at a time. Since most of us no longer have cloths lines, I strung a line between two trees and hung the sail there. Fold the sail only after it is completely dry.
The biggest secret to removing mildew is to begin at the earliest opportunity. Otherwise it will spread quickly and set deep into the fabric and stitches. Household bleach and warm water are the chemicals of choice. If the mildew does not come out during the first scrubbing, further cleaning will only damage the fabric. That’s as good as it gets. Get over it. Rinse the sail thoroughly and dry flat and completely. Drying the sail in sunlight may further fade the stain. Storing the sail in a dry well-ventilated area will help prevent the mildew from reoccurring
The sail cleaner kept referring to a special citric spot remover by 3m, but further investigation revealed a spry bottle of Fantastic. Again, the treated area was rinsed completely after scrubbing. For blood they used Tilex which is a chlorinated cleaner with higher levels of chlorine, and they used acetone. I personally would rather put up with the stains than risk using these chemicals on the sail. Remember to rinse profusely with tons of water.
If sailing in salt water, rinse the sails each time to sail. And at the end of the season, use a soft brush on any metal rings to minimize corrosion.
So you don’t need ancient secrets or exotic chemicals. Just a few readily available materials, lots of elbow grease, and some common sense.
Suggestions from Andy Greenspon
Sailing is a very opinionated pleasurable past-time. How one sets up a boat and how they sail their boat is also very personal. I have other ideas as to how to care for sails.
When Debbie and I first moved to the Clearwater/ St. Pete area, we opened a sail cleaning and canvas cleaning business. I spent many hours on the phone with DuPont engineers as to the best methods of cleaning sails. Also, presently, I have a carpet and upholstery cleaning business. Most, if not all, the techniques I learned from experience are transferable between carpeting and sails, since they are both synthetic substances/materials.
Here's How I Do It
- Wash/rinse the sail with fresh water
- When using a "cleanser" opt for a product like Borax II or a product that has oxygenated bleach, not chlorinated bleach (the oxygen will not attack the fibers as chlorine can. When using two separate products, IE a cleaner and a "bleach" be careful that the pH factor is neutral (7.2) or else harm can be done to the cloth. If the cleanser has the bleach already in the product then chances are that the cleanser is neither acidic nor alkaline. Chlorine can turn white fabric yellow and destroy the fabric at the same time. Oxygenated bleach doesn't attack the threads and will bring the natural color back making it whiter and brighter. As always, rinse well after washing.