Tanbark vs White Sails Part 1

When it comes time to picking sails for your boat, most people focus on sizes and shaped of the sails.

How high is the clew? 
How low is the tack? 
How full is the draft?

The sails will always be white, just like every other sail on every other boat. They do offer some selection of color when it comes to the UV strip on a furling headsail. What about the color of the sail itself?

There are two main colors of dacron available: White and Tanbark.

Back in the days of cotton sails, rot was a critical problem. To combat this, they would be tanned by soaking them in tannins from tree bark.The result was a stained sail called Tanbark that was more resistant to rot, mildew, and mold. The color these sails took on was a reddish brown. 

Then began the age of plastics and so cotton sails became a thing of the past, and so has the treatment process of tanning. Dacron is composed of polyethylene fibers which is white. 

White sails have many advantages:

They are cheaper
They can be seen from a very far distance
They are easier to see to trim for night sailing

Their cons are:

They are blinding to look at in the sun
They show stains and dirt instantly
They can't be seen in fog or haze

While they are less expensive, the price difference is only around 10-15%, which isn't much to pay when your eye comfort is at hand.

The argument about being seen from a distance is a good one to discuss. The idea is ships can see us far off on the horizon, but I don't think they actually look around. I have had them creep up on me multiple times, never contacting me on the radio or sounding their horn. I have spoken with friends who are ship captains, and they have told me that they don't look around too much because they rely on their radar screen where they can easily see sailboats on their display.  

The other argument is that if you are shipwrecked and need rescue, you can raise your main and they will see you to come to your rescue. If you are shipwrecked, you probably won't be able to raise the mainsail due to the damage sustained to the vessel. As far as being found, you should be carrying emergency rescue devices such as flares, orange fog, and an EPIRB. If you are solely relying on being spotted by your white sails for rescue, you many want to reconsider your emergency procedure protocol.

There is no discussion about trimming the sails by night. White sails will reflect the soft moonlight just as well as they will reflect the strong blinding sunlight. By night, the draft stripes will show up on the the white sails allowing one to properly trim the sails just as well as one could during the day. 

I know that I can't see my tanbark sails in the dark. They blend into the night sky and I am forced to either trim blind or blind myself by turning on a flashlight. This wasn't such an issue for myself and Maddie because we don't sail by night. We like to get a good nights sleep and continue sailing in the morning. In the bay, we anchor for the night, and offshore, we heave to for the night.

In Part 2, we will look more at tanbark sails and what they bring to the table.

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