Ever heard of a sprit sail or “sprits’l” for short? I like to call them wiener sprits’ls, but I might be the only one who laughs at that joke. In any case, a sprit is a spar. A spar is a thick, strong pole. A mast is a spar and so is a boom or a bowsprit or, for example, the stick that supports a sprits'l. We built a sprits’l for a sailing dinghy in October. That sail had four sides and its sprit was a wooden pole, tapered to a spike at one end. The top edge of the sail was cut at a diagonal so the corner furthest from the mast would stretch up higher than the corner attached to the mast. The sprit's spike fit into a loop at that highest corner, or peak, of the sail. The other end of the sprit was fixed below the middle of the mast. The sprit, in other words, holds a sail out and away from the mast so it may catch the wind.
We build very few sprits’ls at the sail loft. Most of our orders are for larger sails on more modern sailboats. So, when I saw the opportunity to learn new skills by building an old-world sail I called dibs. That is, I hoped the sailmaker who has built sails here for ten years was willing to take extra time to share her knowledge with me. Thankfully, she was.
The customer who ordered the sprits'l requested tanbark-colored sailcloth. That burgundy color is an homage to an era of sailmaking before the 1950s when sailmakers used fabric made of flax, hemp or cotton and sometimes treated it with a mixture of tannins, tallow, and ochre to extend the life of the fabric. Cloth made from natural fibers is much more susceptible to rot from moisture and exposure to the sun than today’s sails made of high-performance woven polyester. We built our sprits’l using modern materials and technologies. However, the look of the sail was traditional and the finishing techniques done by hand were nearly as ancient as the art of sailmaking.
While the tanbark color was novel to work with, it provided a stark contrast to the white thread of the stitching, As such, I had to be extra careful to ensure each stitch was even and each line of stitching, straight. Even small imperfections could have been too conspicuous to pass inspection.