Cleaning Yacht Sails: What To Use + What NOT To Use

When you’ve got a yacht, the sails are almost always the first things that people will notice. Those things are pretty big and make up more than 50% of the yacht visual. So yes, people are going to notice when they’re dirty. But there are more reasons to cleaning yacht sails than just that initial impression.

Dirty sails become home to all sorts of bacteria growth, and mold and mildew. And although you might not come in direct contact with your sail, just having that stuff overhead can prove to be a health hazard. But how exactly can you clean those humongous sheets of marine-grade fabric? Here’s how to do it.

What are Your Sails Made Of?

We know why yacht sails are black, but what about the materials. Knowing first what kind of material your sails are made of can help you determine the kind of cleaners you can and can’t use. In general though, you’re going to want to look out for two specific kinds of material - polyester and nylon.

Polyester is the most common of the two. They’re durable and resistant to the typical culprits for marine gear damage like UV exposure. But even then, they can get stained by mold and mildew which would require unique care and cleaning.

Nylon on the other hand is much less durable, providing a stretchy texture that expands the material when faced with strong winds. That’s also why they’re typically used for spinnakers.

What You’ll Need

Lots of sailors might feel like they can just grab anything from their home cleaning closet and get started on the job. But there are a number of products you use for cleaning your home that aren’t suitable for cleaning yacht sails. So before you run amok and clean your yacht sails the way you know how, make sure you’ve got the right cleaning products in your arsenal:

A Bucket

You’re going to be making a bunch of cleaning solutions with the products you have on hand. Better make it two or three buckets so you don’t have to keep tossing left over cleaning solution and rinsing the buckets after each use.

Soft Bristle Brush

soft bristle brush to clean yacht sails

Just like any other part of your yacht, your sails require delicate care. Avoid hard bristle brushes or rough rags that could scuff the material and damage the plasticizers that coat the surface.

We use the trusty Scrub Brush from JIESHKE.

Mild Liquid Laundry Detergent

liquid laundry detergent

Sails, especially nylon ones, don’t respond well to harsh, abrasive cleaning agents. Choose a mild liquid laundry detergent that doesn’t have any solvents in its formulation.

Try using the ECOS Hypoallergenic Liquid Laundry Detergent.

Canvas Cleaner

sail and canvas cleaner

If you’re willing to spend the extra green, canvas cleaner can help you get rid of dirt and stains with greater ease. Just remember that most of them come in a concentrated form, so they might not be ideal for use directly out of the bottle.

We recommend the Star Brite Sail & Canvas Cleaner.

Mold and Mildew Stain Remover

mold and mildew stain remover

Mold and mildew stains won’t come off with traditional cleaning products, and require their own unique formulation. Some choices are intended for use on different parts of your boat, making them a great cleaning investment.

Check out the Better Boat Mildew Stain Remover.

Vinegar and Baking Soda

While they’re definitely not essential, they do provide distinct cleaning properties that can make them a better choice for getting rid of certain types of stains. Keep them at the ready in case your other products don’t work. Just see our guides on cleaning pontoons with vinegar and boat seat seats with vinegar to see how the effectiveness.

Oxalic Acid

oxalic acid

Your sails are likely to have rust stains from where they come into contact with metal hardware. Since you might not be able to remove rust with any of the mentioned cleaners, it’s ideal that you keep a bottle of oxalic acid at the ready.

We like using the FDC Pure Oxalic Acid Powder.

Fabric Guard

marine fabric guard

Once you’re done with the cleaning job, it’s important you make sure that your sails are protected from future stains. Sure, fabric guard isn’t going to prevent stains 100%, but it can slow down their development and strengthen your sails.

We highly recommend the 303 Marine Fabric Guard for your sails.

How to Clean Yacht Sails

Proper sail cleaning requires that you follow the right steps to make sure your removing the right stains with the appropriate products. So before you get started on the job, familiarize yourself with these steps:

1. Find a Proper Space

You can’t wash your sails just anywhere. Find a wide open space where you can lay that sail out flat so that it doesn’t fold on itself. This should help you perform a more thorough cleaning.

If there isn’t a concrete area big enough for the job, you can lay out a tarp over some grass and then place the sails over it. This should protect the material from any potential damage from the spiky, abrasive texture of grass.

2. Perform a Preliminary Cleaning

There’s probably going to be some accumulated gunk on your sails that you can get out with just a basic wash and rinse. Getting it out before you go to the actual cleaning can help improve the results of the products you’re going to use later on.

Take your mild liquid laundry detergent and dilute 1/4 cup in a gallon of water using your bucket. Splash it on the sails and gently scrub darkened, discolored, and stained areas with your soft brush, then rinse when you’re done.

3. Target any Specific Stains

Once you see the state of your sails after a wash, you should be able to target localized stains. For rust stains, take out your oxalic acid. Remember though that you will have to add hydrochloric acid to the oxalic to get it to work.

Work on each rust stain individually, and don’t move on to the next one until you’re done getting out the first. Apply oxalic acid, then hydrochloric, and then rinse. You might not have to do any brushing, but in case you do, see to it that you avoid applying too much pressure.

For stubborn mold and mildew stains, you can use your specialized remover. Some of these products can be concentrated, so it’s important to dilute the formulation before you use it. Typically, you’re going to want to mix together one part stain remover with four parts of water.

It’s important that you don’t let the solution dry up before you can get to it with a brush. Work in areas and finish up cleaning your target stain first before moving on to the next one. Then when you’re all finished, rinse with clean water.

Then, finally, if there are still stains that just aren’t coming out with either of the solutions mentioned prior, you can try vinegar and baking soda. Vinegar works undiluted, but if you don’t like the smell, you can try one part vinegar with four parts water.

Splash it over your target areas, let soak, and then rinse. Of course, you could also brush the stains away while the solution is in effect. For oil-based stains, you can try baking soda. Just dust on a generous amount of the stuff and wait 5 to 10 minutes before washing it out with water.

4. One Last Wash

When you’re done getting rid of all of those stains, it might help to pass over the sails with one last cycle of general cleaning. This time, you can use your canvas cleaner. Depending on the product, you may have to dilute the solution in water first. Make sure you read the instructions to find out how to properly use it.

When you’re done cleaning your sails, find a place where you can hang it to dry. See to it that the sail is spread out as wide as possible and that it doesn’t fold on itself. Any creases or folds that don’t dry up properly could be susceptible to mold and mildew in the future. Also make sure that the sails are completely dry before you proceed to the next step.

5. Apply Protectant

After every cleaning, your yacht sails can lose some of its ability to repel water. That’s why you should make it a must to apply protectant when you’re done. Apply two coatings to maximize protection and see to it that you get into all of those little hard-to-reach areas so your sails don’t have any weak points.

When applying, don’t oversaturate your sails. Instead of applying thick coats, see to it that you apply a modest amount or a thin coat of protectant spray. Allow it to completely air dry before you apply the next. It also helps to find a well-ventilated space to do the job since the fumes can get irritating.

How Often Should You Wash Your Sails?

how often should you wash your sails

Overwashing your sails could degrade the plasticizers and make it more prone to stains and discoloration over time. That said, experts recommend that you wash your sails a maximum of twice a year to keep them clean without compromising the integrity of the material.

Another thing to remember is that if there aren’t any rust, mold or mildew, or grease and oil stains, then it’s not necessary to perform the steps to remove them. A simple wash down with liquid laundry detergent can be more than enough for routine cleaning, especially if that’s all you need. Just don’t forget to protect when you’re done.

What Not to Use

It might be tempting to pull out those cleaning products you have at home especially if you’re all out of supplies and you really want to get a stubborn stain out. But try to avoid these cleaning tools and products at all costs:

  • Bleach
  • Pressure washers
  • Hard bristle brushes
  • Alcohol
  • Strong solvents
  • Abrasive powder detergents

Anything that could abrade the surface of your sails spells trouble for its lifespan. Avoid harsh cleaning products and tools to maintain its integrity.

Time to Set Sail

Cleaning yacht sails should be a regular part of your yacht maintenance routine. Make sure you follow these steps to get the job done as efficiently and safely as possible to maintain the look of your sails while extending their lifespan for many more sailing trips to come.