Wind greater than 10 knots, and the sails are ready to dance. Not the twerking kind or a drunken flail (one hopes). But the ballroom dancing kind, or the Aikido sparring kind. In other words, there is an equally opposed connection between a man-made shape and the wild air that achieves grace through a precise blend of instinct and intention.
Then there’s light air. I imagine the sailmaker in our loft who builds the sails for those whispers, those puffs, those breezes that make the downy hairs tickle. I imagine her with a giant brush held against the sky as she fits a ship with a sail as generous as the curves of a Renaissance muse and as boldly colored as an 80s wardrobe. Like frienemies on a good day, a sailor and the wind twine fingers and glide.
Not that I would really know, since most of my sailing experience is on historic ships that do not have the likes of a spinnaker in their inventory. But, that is how I think of it.
Last month, our master light-air sailmaker continued to introduce me to her craft. She primarily works with rip-stop nylon that can weigh less than one ounce per square yard. Our working sails, made from Dacron, usually weigh more like eight ounces per square yard. The lightness makes the nylon tricky to work with, because you can easily change its shape by pulling or pushing on the fabric in the wrong way as you build the sail.
The photo shows one corner of a sail I helped build last month. The different-colored panels taper from the center of the sail to its three corners in a cut known as “tri-radial.” The heavier, working sails we build are “cross-cut” and have more or less rectangular panels. The light-air sails are also much larger than the working ones by hundreds of square feet. All of those differences make learning this new skill very challenging. Still, the reward is clear. It takes a seasoned sailor to fully appreciate the fine details of our working sails, but as soon as a giant Tweety Bird face, or a lady bug, or the Little Prince flying his flock of birds blossoms from the bow of a ship, everyone notices.