Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Special report: "Fabricating" a main sail cover (or The Captain Sews!)

View through our old dodger (side piece)
This blog post needs an introduction.  The Captain was an aircraft mechanic in his former life.  One of his many specialties was fabricating ie. creating a repair or making a replacement part.  The following tale is about our adventure into canvas work after our phone inquiries went unanswered.  If the idea of my Captain sewing makes you uncomfortable, substitute "fabricating" for the word "sewing."  (Actually, in the sailing world, men sewing is quite common.)  

We knew when we bought the boat, that the canvas would need work.  The "windshield" or dodger plastic was in bad shape and difficult to see through.  This wasn't a problem, because on a nice day, we folded the middle part of the dodger up to take advantage of the breeze.  However, in the rain, forward visibility quickly went to "minimums".  We also closed it up at a marina or at anchor when it rained to keep the cockpit/electronics dry (which was a lot in July).  However, every time you moved the zippers, little pieces of plastic flew out and the seams were disintegrating.  

Part of the reason for stopping for a few months was to address the canvas.  However, after 2 weeks, our phone calls were unanswered.  I pulled the trigger & bought a Sailrite sewing machine (with zig-zag stitch for possible future sail repairs), a main sail cover kit (because it looked like a good starter project & had directions), 10 yards of marine-quality Sunbrella canvas and a spool of Tenara thread (highest quality UV thread--usually the first thing to give out on a canvas job).  Back to the blog...
Nav station/sewing room on our catamaran

Day 1 (July 17):  The sewing machine arrived at 10:30 am.  It took me all morning to get it put together, bobbins wound and threaded.  The Captain peeked around the corner and said, "What is that knob?  What is that knob?  How do you reverse?"  Then he snuck out into the cockpit with the roll of black Sunbrella canvas.  "Do we have a yard stick?  Did I see a chalk pencil?"  I stopped to measure some fabric for a pillow (because I was going to use the excess to practice) when I lost my spot at the sewing machine.  "I'm ready to sew my grill cover!"  I stood by dumbstruck as he said,  "You don't understand how much this is like what I used to do," comparing it to measuring/cutting/welding metal, and drilling holes in $5 million dollar airplanes.  Apparently his Mom taught him how to sew (so he could make a kite), and with a little help from me (I read the book), including "here's the seam ripper" he was off and running.  (Apparently not as intimidated by the new expensive toy as I was!)  With the British Open on in the background, and a beer within reach, he successfully covered the grill "by the end of the day even if it looks like a sock on a rooster."  Then a friend's sewing machine broke, so we headed up to the clubhouse for happy hour, and to see if we could lend a hand. The Captain began one of his new careers as a sewing machine mechanic ("Tell me what this does, and this, and this.  Hey, grab me a beer.  Gonna need my leather-man and some safety wire.")
The Captain sews :-0

The first finished project--a grill cover

Day 2:  I'm up early to head into town with a friend that has a car.  The Captain helped me move a picnic table over underneath a tree near our dock so we'll have somewhere to work later.  Next thing I know, he's unrolled the sail cover kit and started cutting.  I can't watch.  (I'm still contemplating my first hatch cover.)  By the time we get back he has fixed my friend's sewing machine and sewn half of the sail cover hem (16 ft boom, two-sided cover with a double hem is 64 ft of hem).  He finished a majority of the project/sewing before 3:00 pm.  I "rough in" a hatch cover before bedtime.
Cutting into the $200 Sailrite Main Sail Cover kit...

Two-sided sail cover for a 16 ft boom with a double hem is 64 ft of hemming...
Checking the fit...

Day 3:  The Captain got up early and marked out where the fasteners need to go and where to cut for the Dutchman lines.  He finishes up the details in a couple hours and throws it over the existing main sail cover.  He's waiting for the two Dutchman zippers.

Attaching fasteners to the sail cover.  Yep, that's a rock
Sail cover (waiting for zippers) with matching grill cover

I hop on the sewing machine and finish a second hatch cover.  When I look up, he has take the starboard quarter of our dodger off, laid it on MY 10 yards of Sunbrella and started tracing.  (He tells a passerby, "Because the canvas shop didn't call us back.  I'm having fun.")  While I'm out admiring my hatch cover, he's back on the sewing machine sewing a hem.  We prep a $500 order of accessories, plastic, phifertex (for window coverings), grommets and zippers.  (We're right at what the Captain thought we would pay the canvas shop--with a sewing machine that's paid for or could be resold.  I say it would have cost twice that much--and we've learned a new skill with the ability to do our own repairs.)
A "naked" hatch

Hatch cover provides shade & protects the glass from UV
Before:  Dodger from the outside

Tracing the dodger starboard side piece

The Captain has added to the First Mate's duties: ordering sewing supplies, loading bobbins/threading the machine & seam ripping.  I vetoed the second two and added "cleaning up the freaking mess" (Seriously, do you want thread in the bilge?  You can always threaten them with strainers or "the bilge.")  Two more hatch covers are measured out and marked for sewing (waiting on dacron leech line).
Roughed-in starboard side piece awaiting the plastic

Day 4:  The Captain heads out early, with coffee still in his hand, "before it gets so dang hot," and has the starboard piece of the dodger back in place (for troubleshooting).  The port side came down, was traced, cut, hemmed and put back up.  He's waiting for the plastic (which you sew on top, then cut away the canvas and hem).  It looks a little funny, but you can tell it's going to look FANTASTIC when it's done.  He takes the rest of the day off to watch the end of the British Open.

STATS:  Grill cover at West Marine $60--less than a yard of Sunbrella $20.  Sail cover kit $200--purchased already completed from Sailrite $400. Hatch covers at West marine $70--approximately 1/2 yard Sunbrella = $10/hatch cover (8 hatches)


  1. Wow, that is a great skill and machine to have. I have done a lot of things, but I am usually more timid about diving into a new skill. Good for both of you!