A sailmaker’s advice on winter storage

The days are getting shorter, the leaves are painting the hillsides in vibrant colors, and the boats are leaving their harbors for winter storage. It’s officially autumn in Maine. The annual decommissioning of a boat is bittersweet as you say goodbye to summer and begin planning for spring, but properly winterizing your boat will ensure your investment is protected from the harsh cold, avoiding unexpected expenses later.

Just like any other piece of equipment aboard, the sails must be properly cared for.  Sails can easily fall victim to sunlight, debris, and critters over the years. To learn more about off-season care I spoke with a professional sailmaker about winter maintenance and storage:

Tell us a little about yourself and the history of Bohndell Sails and Rigging.

My name is Robin Chace Payson. I grew up in Rockport, traveled around for a while, and last winter my husband Jake and I bought a house in Lincolnville. After a long career in the ski industry, I’m really excited to be working with my parents full time at Bohndell’s.


Bohndell Sails & Rigging started in 1870 here in Rockport, and the business has been open ever since. My dad, Bob, worked for the original owner’s grandson, Henry Bohndell, until he bought the company with his business partner in 1980. Bohndell’s is well known for a very long tradition of producing high quality, handmade sails and rigging. We take pride in the fact that some of our customers have been coming to our loft for generations.

Why is it important to remove the sails from a boat for the winter? Can I just stuff them down below?

Absolutely not! The end of the summer sailing season marks the time of year when little animals start looking for a warm place to build a nest for the winter. Any sails or covers that are “stuffed down below” will certainly be destroyed by mice, chipmunks, and any other critters who find their way inside. Animals are attracted by the leftover salt and the promise of nesting material.

Winter storage at Bohndell's

Storage at Bohndell’s Sails and Rigging

When cleaning sails, what type of cleaners should be used? Are there any that should be avoided?

We do not recommend bleach.

[Tweet “If you’re going to store your sails at home, be sure to put them in a sealed container, like the tubs with a tight-fitting lid.”]

This is a good time to inspect the sails, but what should I be looking for?

If you’re inspecting your own sails you should be watching for broken stitching, all sizes of holes or tears in the fabric, signs of chafe, and look for any missing hardware. Be careful doing your own repairs though- most sail fabric will ruin a basic home sewing machine and repair materials from home are not effective. Sailmakers use heavy duty industrial machines as well as particular adhesives, fabrics, and techniques to make repairs.

Where is the ideal place to store sails for the winter? 

Somewhere dry and animal-free. If you’re going to store your sails at home, be sure to put them in a sealed container like the tubs with a tight-fitting lid that you can buy at most department stores. Some people toss a few moth balls in there for added protection.

What is the advantage of having a professional clean, inspect, and repair sails over the winter?

The advantage to leaving this type of maintenance to a professional sail maker with the proper facility is that you can rest easy all winter knowing your expensive equipment is being treated with the care it deserves. At Bohndell’s, each customer’s sails are washed, inspected, and repaired one at a time. Every stitch, seam, panel, and all hardware are checked and repaired if necessary. The inspection is also an opportunity for our staff to evaluate the overall condition of your sails. Sail fabric has a life span that directly relates to the amount of use and/or age of the item. UV rays deteriorate sails and the thread that holds them together over time. It’s best to leave this type of evaluation to a professional.

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A common repair needed on the leech of this mainsail

How much should I expect to spend on cleaning and inspection services?

Our company charges $2.50 per dry pound for sails and covers that are washed and inspection is included in this price. All repairs are charged at $60 per hour plus the cost of any materials used.

Will clean sails last longer or perform better than dirty sails?

Cleaning your sails and catching repairs early definitely extends their usable life. For instance, one broken stitch caught early enough to be repaired can keep the entire seam from ripping open in a stiff breeze or a little tear on the leech of your genoa if patched appropriately can save it from getting caught on the spreader and ripping the entire length of the sail. Some sailors who don’t want to spend money on this type of routine, preventative maintenance actually end up spending much more to replace a sail that wore out faster than it should have.

What is the most common mistake you see people make in caring for their sails?

The most common mistake we see is people who let critters get at their sails over the off-season as well as people who ignore small tears or holes until they get significantly more expensive to repair.

Whether you decide to clean and store your sails at home, or at a sail loft remember that they are a vital and expensive part of your sailboat. Treat them with the care they deserve and they will provide many happy seasons of sailing. Follow Robin and the great crew at Bohndell Sails and Rigging on facebook or visit their website here.
If you, like me, are mourning the end of the summer sailing season here in Maine, join our online community in the Maine Sailing and Cruising Facebook group where we are talking about Maine sailing all year long.
Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.