How to clean sailboat sails

Updated April 17, 2017

Sailboat sails can be subjected to all sorts of maladies when they have been exposed to the atmosphere or during storage, such as oxidation, dust, salt, mildew stains, fish blood, oil, gas and other harmful debris. Keeping sails clean and strong can be achieved with regular maintenance and inspections. The sailboat owner should know precisely the fabric design and make-up of his sails to insure the proper cleaning method. Dacron, nylon and canvass have their own peculiarities, and must be cleaned in different ways with different chemicals. The sailboat owner can achieve satisfactory results if he pays attention to the different cleaning methods that apply to his sails.

Remove the sails from the boat, including clips and rigging. Find a large, clean surface to lay the sails upon. Do not lay the sails on a heavily porous surface, sand or gravel. Locate a car wash that has a large surface area within the cleaning stall. Sweep the stall area if mud, sand and gravel appears. Stretch the sail out to its full length.

Wet the entire sail with fresh water; a hose works fine that has a high pressure nozzle. For Dacron sails, use a bucket filled with a mixture of mild dish washing soap. For harder stains, mix a small amount of Woolite (two tablespoons) and 1 to 2 cups of vinegar for each gallon of water in the bucket. Use a long handled bristle brush to scrub a large section of the sail (one third sized area). Use back and forth sweeping motions to lift dirt from all sides. Wear soft-soled sneakers or bare feet so you won't grind the fabric. Rinse with clean water after every section has been cleaned. Let it air dry until all moisture has disappeared.

Clean rust from Dacron sails by using a 5-percent solution of oxalic acid mixed in a bucket of hot water. Use the soft bristle brush to scrub away the rust stains. If the stains persist, use a solution of 2 per cent hydrochloric acid mixed with warm water, then brush the surface thoroughly. Rinse with clean water and let air dry.

Use cleaner's benzene for any spots on the sail (Dacron material) that have glue, silicon or any other adhesive. Dab a clean rag with benzene solution and scrub the area until the adhesive material lifts away from the fabric. Wash with mild soap and water, then rinse. Let air dry completely.

Use a diluted solution of trichloroethlene in a bucket of warm dish washing soap if you have to remove oil, tar, paint or varnish from Dacron sails. Use a soft bristle brush, scrubbing back and forth over the stained surface. Once the stains have been removed, rinse thoroughly and let air dry.

Clean mildew on Dacron sails by using a very diluted solution of sodium hypochlorite, with a 3 to 5 per cent mixture in a large bucket. Wash the sails swiftly with this solution since it contains bleach and can eventually damage the sail material. Clean smaller sections with the brush and rinse immediately.

Clean nylon sails by immersing them in a bathtub, letting them soak in a mild solution of dish washing soap. Scrub them lightly with a soft bristle brush. Flush-rinse with plenty of clean water. Let them air dry completely.

Clean canvas sails as you would for Dacron sails, only dilute the chemical mixtures another 30 per cent to reduce damage to the fabric.


Never used high-pressure washers on sails or place them in commercial washing machines. Always clean by hand. Use a particle mask and gloves to ensure your safety while cleaning sails. Don't fold sails on the same crease line or over the clear plastic window.


Do not use bleach or any other caustic chemicals on nylon, as it will damage the fabric permenently. Heavy concentrations of harsh chemicals are also not recommened for Dacron; use only very dilute solutions.

Things You'll Need

  • Dish washing soap
  • Bleach
  • Bristle brush (soft bristle with long handle)
  • Large bucket
  • Deck sneakers (soft-sole)
  • Particle mask
  • gloves
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About the Author

Chris Stevenson has been writing since 1988. His automotive vocation has spanned more than 35 years and he authored the auto repair manual "Auto Repair Shams and Scams" in 1990. Stevenson holds a P.D.S Toyota certificate, ASE brake certification, Clean Air Act certification and a California smog license.