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3 Basic Maintenance Skills Every Dinghy Sailor Should Know

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For nearly 50 years, the Laser has been an exceptional racing and recreational sailing dinghy. Speed and simplicity of design are in its DNA, and thus it’s the perfect choice for both the seasoned racer who’s looking for high performance, and the novice who just wants a boat that’s easy to transport, rig, and sail.

But there’s more to the joy of sailing small dinghies than knowing the fundamentals of tacking and jibing or learning to recognize the signs of sea and sky. Sailing is an art and a science. It’s a pursuit that fully engages both the head and the hands, and so becoming an excellent sailor means mastering the details, which means understanding your boat. And there’s no better way of getting to know your boat than learning to maintain it yourself.

For some, the idea of maintaining and repairing even a small dinghy seems daunting. Not everyone is naturally inclined toward working with their hands. If that’s you, my hope is that this post will inspire you to try. You certainly shouldn’t attempt every repair on your own, especially on difficult jobs or on larger, more complex boats. But minor repairs on a Laser offer the perfect introduction to basic dinghy maintenance and will give you a knowledge of your boat that will make you a better and more informed sailor.

In this post, we’ll focus on three maintenance fundamentals: patching damaged sails, locating hull leaks, and fixing simple cracks and chips in the gelcoat.

Patching a Sail

laser sail repair damage

Imagine you’re all set for a great day of sailing on your favorite lake or bay. You unload the hull from your trailer, set up the mast, unfold the sail…and find a hole or tear in the sheet that’s only going to get worse if it’s not repaired before you get out on the water.

DIY emergency repairs are usually a pretty simple matter, and if done properly they’ll easily get you through your day without making matters any worse. Of course, tackling that problem in the moment first requires that you be prepared, so it’s always helpful to have a basic sail repair kit on hand. For small issues like this, your new best friends are an adhesive-backed sail repair tape like Dacron and a pair of scissors.

Just apply the Dacron tape to one side of the tear or hole, use your scissors to trim any frayed material on the opposite side, then apply another length of tape to that side as well. You can find Dacron tape at your local marine supply store.

For permanent repairs, you can fix small holes and tears in relatively short order with your trusty scissors, a bit of the same kind of fabric that your sail is made of, some basting tape and thread, and a simple zigzag sewing machine. Just cut a patch of fabric that is at least one inch larger than your rip or hole, and then attach the basting tape to your patch and place it over the damaged area of the sail.

Once your patch is securely in place, use the sewing machine to make zigzag stitches around the perimeter. Next, turn the sail over and use the scissors to trim the frayed edges of the sail fabric. Properly done, this patch should last you a good long time.

Finding Leaks

Laser dinghy repair damage

Looking for potential leaks in your Laser is usually a pretty straightforward affair. Starting with the simplest solution first – just pull the drain plug from the transom and raise the bow of the boat. Any water in the hull will quickly flow out. Next, make a visual inspection of the hull and all hardware attachments, looking for obvious holes or breaches.

Another option for leak detection is to pressurize the hull. For this test, you’ll need a pump, a piece of electrical tape (or in a pinch, chewing gum will do fine), a sponge, and a bucket of soapy water. Locate the bleed hole under the toe strap near the bow and cover it with your electrical tape or chewing gum. It’s probably not necessary that I mention you actually need to “chew” this gum first, but I’ll make that clear in the interest of being thorough!

Once the bleed hole is covered, pump some air into the bung hole in the transom. You’re not filling up a tire, so don’t overdo it! Now get your sponge full of soapy water and walk around the dinghy, applying the soapy water liberally all over the hull, deck, and of course over all of the fittings. You’re looking for soap bubbles from air being forced through any tiny cracks or holes through your solution of soapy water. You may have seen this same technique used at your local car mechanic’s shop when they’re looking for a hidden leak in a tire. The principle is the same. Find the bubbles and you’ve found the leak. Just don’t forget to remove the electrical tape or chewing gum from the bleed hole.

Fixing Scratches and Chips in the Gelcoat

inspecting laser hull for damage

While fiberglass provides structure and strength to the hull, the gelcoat protects it and gives it its color, durability, and shine. Most gelcoat repairs are easy enough for the novice, but more extensive damage should be inspected and repaired by an experienced boat restoration and repair professional.

Step 1: Prepare the Surface

Begin by thoroughly washing the damaged area of the hull with soapy water and then rinsing it clean. If necessary, remove any existing oxidized gelcoat with a rubbing compound so you can accurately match the color. Wipe the surface down again and dry it completely, and then mark off the repair area with masking tape. Next, sand the damaged area with 220 grit sandpaper and then wipe it down with acetone.

Step 2: Match the Color

Using a white gelcoat paste to start, experiment by adding small amounts of the coloring agent until you get a pigment that’s as close to the color of the hull as you can manage. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to match it exactly. Once you’ve got a gelcoat paste color that’s pretty close to the hull color, mix enough to make your repairs.

Step 3: Fix the Damage

Use a putty knife and the gelcoat you’ve just prepared to fill in the damaged areas, making sure to overfill just a bit so that the paste will completely cover the damaged area as it dries. Make sure to cover the repair with wax paper or a curing agent like Evercoat.

Allow the final coat to cure for at least 4 hours, though it’s best if you just let it cure completely overnight. Then wet sand the repair starting with 220 grit sandpaper, finish up with 600 grit sandpaper, apply marine polish, and you’re done!

Conclusion

Lin and Larry Paraday, famous in the sailing world for circumnavigating the globe both east and west in small sailing vessels, had a saying: “If you can’t repair it, maybe it shouldn’t be on board.” Obviously, they were speaking as adventurers who often had to depend on their own skills and wits for survival, and not as most of the rest of us for whom sailing is just a weekend passion. But that quote does say something that speaks to the resilient and self-sufficient streak that runs deep in the heart of almost every sailor.

Do you need to know how to fix your boat in order to be a great sailor? Maybe not. But the real essence of sailing is about learning how to problem-solve in the moment. Solving the problems constantly presented by the wind, the currents, the crew, the boat, and not least of all your own limitations, is fundamental to sailing and to sailors. Knowing how to maintain your boat will add one more tool to your bag when it comes to problem-solving and grant you one more way to enjoy and explore what it means to be a sailor.

Article by: Colin Jordan, Writer for Ryan Schaap’s www.bigoceanmarine.com

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