To part One
Option #3.1: Buy an unfinished blank from a used sail broker.
This may not deserve to be its own integer option, but it's pretty cool when it works out. One big broker of used sails is Bacon Sails. When I was looking for sails for my schooner rigged proa I looked on their site:
for small fully battened mains. There were a few, but no perfect matches. I thought that if I held out I could eventually get two small fully battened mains from a fast dinghy class that would be about right, but the prices were a bit beyond my pain threshold, something like $150 each. I agonized. Then I found two unfinished dinghy mains about the right size, identical and something like $120 for both of them. I got them and sewed on corners and luff pockets. Ok, that didn't work, they were much too full:
So I ripped off the luff pockets and the luff tape, reduced the luff curve by half:
Sewed the luff tape back on, sewed on batten pockets and put slugs on the luff, and had the sails I wanted:
This shows an advantage of doing at least some work on the sails yourself; you can modify them if you find you need to.
Right now on Bacon, for example, there's this:
Catalog Number: 159-HOL-104 Luff: 15' 4" Leach: 15' 8" Foot: 10' 1" Head: 0' 0" Price: $75.00 UNFINISHED LATEEN, TANBARK 8 OZ. DACRON, SINGLESTITCHED. LUFF GROMMETS HAVE SHARP EDGES, NEED REPLACING. NO GROMMETS ON FOOT. NO BAG. NEW/UNUSED.
That's a pretty good deal, I think. Fixing this would be less than half the work of building a new sail. And it's the easy half, it's all on the edges, and you have some assurance that someone who knows something about sails shaped the thing, which is nice if you're a newcomer to building sails from scratch, all you have to do is the gruntwork of pulling out the old grommets, maybe sewing some patches on the edges and setting new grommets, there's virtually nothing to mess up.
Option #3.2: Get a kit
This probably isn't worth an integer option either, but it's something to think about. Lots of sails for lots of classes are available in kit form now. One place to get Dacron sail kits is:
You'd want to make sure you were getting a kit intended for a boat that's about as fast as yours will be, though. A 16' multihull will take a mainsail that in its luff/leech/foot dimensions is a lot like a 16' dinghy, but the dinghy sail will be much too full for the multi.
Option #4: Buy a used sail.
I tend to think this is a very overlooked option for us in the homebuilt boat community. There are a lot of used sail brokers around the country. Here's a list, somewhat out of date and with some dead links but still very useful:
And don't forget about ebay. Quite a few sails come up there, if you're starting your boat now keep an eye on ebay and you might score a deal.
Of these, I've used Bacon quite a lot. Take a look at the Bacon listings here:
Now, be careful. You can idly click on "mains", for example, and frighten yourself quite badly. $750! This guy's crazy! Ok, calm down, I'm not saying you should pay $750 for a mainsail for your plywood boat, I don't want you to get a divorce. For myself, $100 is a very high pain threshold for a sail. But for $100 on Bacon you can get some very nice stuff if you use the search engine and read the descriptions carefully.
Speaking of reading carefully, for any used sail broker read the return policy before you buy. Usually you can hoist the sail to check fit once you get it, but if you sail with it or do anything to it it's yours, which I find reasonable. A modest restocking fee seems reasonable to me. A $25 restocking fee, though, would put me off the broker, since my sails may have only cost two or three times that.
Some listings from the SailingTexas list are for smaller inventories, but can be useful if you want a particular type of sail or if you're willing to spend the time and effort to track down how big a Jet 14 jib is or how big a Hobie 16 main is, or perhaps more exactly, what class has a main or a jib that's the correct size for your boat. Establish the size and character of the sail you want (area, amount of roach, bolt rope vs slugs, loose footed or not, roller furling jib or not, etc), then go look for a class with sails that might suit you. If you think that a Hobie 14 main would be perfect, haunt the Hobie lists. If you want a Star jib, look for that on the used brokers' listings, but also on any forums devoted to Star boats. Laurent Coquilleau got a nice A-cat rig for his proa this way:
Then he bought a new A-cat sail not too much later, for reasons we need not go into here. It's nice when spare parts are available, isn't it?
The reason this works out so well for us can be summed up in two words: racing classes. Once a racing sail has lost a little of its shape it's useless to the racing skipper. In competitive fleets the top sailor spends a lot of money to stay on top of his competition, each of whom is also spending a lot of money to stay on top of him. Small differences in sail shape and so on make big differences to these guys. So they use a main or a jib for a year or less, then they sell them. They're useless as racing sails but they're still great sails. The only way to know they've lost a bit of shape is to be sailing right next to someone in an identical boat with brand new sails up. I'm not going to do that, I'm going to put the thing on an oddball boat and sail near other oddball boats. I wouldn't even notice the difference if someone replaced the sail with a new one that cost five or six times as much. Used racing sails are a great price/quality point for me.
One thing that's important here is to either get the mast with the sail or try to match the sail to a mast that's about as stiff as the one on the boat the sail was intended for. You don't have to be obsessive about this, but if you can't bend your mast at all a sail intended for a bendy mast won't set well. If the sail is intended for a very stiff mast and you put it on a noodle, it won't set well.
Another thing to think about is how fast the sail is intended to go, compared to how fast you want to go. I mentioned earlier that I bought mainsails intended for a dinghy and put them on my proa; they were too full. Faster boats need flatter sails. So consider how you'll flatten your mainsail, for example, if you're buying it from a class that's slower than your boat will be. Many dinghy sails are shaped largely with luff curve, so you can do what I did and rip the luff tape off and reduce the curve. Or you can put the sail on a bendy mast and downhaul, that will flatten it nicely.
So used mains and jibs and lateens are obvious sails to look for. Another good place to look for sails for a small boat is under "staysails" on Bacon or another used sail broker. These are light, fairly full jib-like triangular sails set flying on a wire, intended to be set from the head of the mizzenmast to the foot of the mainmast on a large ketch or yawl as a light air sail. But they make great cheap downwind/reaching sails for small fast boats; for example, right now I see this sail listed on Bacon:
Catalog Number: 401-WEL-101 Luff: 18' 3" Leach: 22' 4" Foot: 16' 8" Head: 0' 0" Price: $50.00 SPINNAKER STAYSAIL, 1.5 OZ. RIP-STOP NYLON. FREESTANDS ON COVERED WIRE LUFF. SOILED. STAINED. GREEN BAG. FAIR.
$50 for a professionally built downwind sail? Wow. So it's a little bit dirty, so what? Build a little bowsprit from an old windsurfer mast, put a block at the head of your mast, run the halyard back to the transom to act as a backstay and the next time you go sailing with your buddy whose boat is always a little faster than yours downwind you can have a little surprise for him in an unobtrusive bag in your bow…
Option #5: Order a new sail from a sailmaker.
I bought a new sail once. It was lovely. Lovely! It was a lateen sail for a Sunfish-clone I had. The original sail had to be taped together in the parking lot every time I wanted to go sail. I think the new sail cost me about $120 from Mariner Sails in Dallas in about 1987.
Mariner Sails is still in Dallas, and it's likely you have a sail loft close to you if you live near any water at all. So you can still go to an in-person bricks and mortar sail loft.
Or you can order a sail online if you know what you want. Duckworks has a sail loft they work with, and charge by the square foot:
So you might be able to save some money that way.
I haven't ordered a new sail from a loft in a long time. For one thing, I can find what I want used. For another, just as I'm not really a sailmaker and thus am inclined to not build my sails from scratch unless I have to, I'm also not really a boat designer, and thus I'm disinclined to spend a lot of money on new custom sails unless I'm sure to the inch what I want, which I'm never sure of. On the other hand I am a boat builder, which lets me move things around on the boat a bit, which helps me fit a sail that might be a few inches too long or short one way or the other. Being careful of where the Center of Effort goes, of course.
One reason you might just spring for a new sail is if you want something that's not likely to come up used. A tanbark gaff main, for example. Some used sail brokers have rectangular or gaff sail sections, but if you don’t see what you want it's not likely to show up soon, the flow of traffic is pretty low. Or a Gibbon's Rig, the windsurfer-looking thing on my boat in the second and third pictures. There, the choices were either to build it myself or call a sailmaker.
As I said at the start, this article is aimed at people trying to go fast for cheap. So on the one hand I think polytarp is too cheap, and on the other I think this is too expensive unless you can't find another option.
One might try now to compare these options, just to get an idea of what the scale is. For example, if I want a Hobie 16 mainsail but am not concerned with being Hobie 16 class legal, the Sailrite kit is about $400, I can get a used main that needs a bit of patching right now from Bacon for $275, a main and jib went on ebay a week ago for $265, a new sail ordered from Duckworks would be about $700, and a new sail from Mariner Sails in Dallas is $915. For a smaller sail the prices will be lower but the multiples of cost will be about the same, or the used prices will be even better, beachcats are often sailed with old sails for fun so they don't have the same nice effect of buying new sails every few years that pure fleet racing classes do.
So what's the summary? It's traditional in an advice article like this, which offers many options, to say, well, different people have different answers, or something like that. But I have opinions; I said that at the start.
My opinion is, I'll tear or blow out a polytarp sail too quickly to make it a good idea, brand new made to order sails are too expensive for me, and building from scratch is hard, not as cheap as you would think, and gives variable results. Used sails are a great price/quality point for me. I look for a sail that's about the right size and shape and that's intended to go about as fast as I hope my boat will go, and I try to match it to a mast that's about as stiff as the sail was designed for, and use out/downhaul and vang to tweak the shape. If I have to I alter the luff curve to reduce the sail's shape or sew on corners or batten pockets or reef points, but that's about as far as I go in altering the sail.
This seems to me to be a pretty foolproof way to minimize risk in powering cheap fast boats.