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How I Built a Cheap Sail and Lived to Tell About It

The Tom Ridge Sail

Do you have extra duct tape and plastic? Try this sail


A sail on a kayak is risky business, the danger of flipping is high and adding sails and masts increase the danger of entrapment or entanglement!

There is something about a boat powered by the wind that is compelling to certain people even without their ever setting foot in a sailboat. Unlike other canoes and motorboats, I found it hard to try a sailboat. Sailboat rentals are not common away from the beach. And, I keep thinking that one might try sailing only to find that you can go with the wind, but not come back, a most embarassing situation! Most used sailboats in the classifieds start out around $500 and involve additional investments in trailers, licenses, insurance and so on. Then there are the bigger boats with cost of storage and marinas that are an alternative to college educations, retirement and eating.

Having been bitten by a similar urge to experience whitewater, I currently owned an Oldtown Discovery canoe and a Perception Keowee casual kayak. So it was natural to turn to a sail for one these boats. Checking internet sources, one finds that purchased sails can be obtained, but at a (seemingly) high price. These sails start around $200 and quickly go up in price.

After years of this frustration, one naturally comes to conclusion to build a sail for the kayak. Below is the way I went about it without doing research first.NOTE-DO NOT USE THE CHEAP STRAP HINGE LISTED BELOW- USE A HEAVY DUTY HINGE INSTEAD!

Sail plans for the Tom Ridge


The bottom end of the rope is tied to the eyebolt at the end of the boom spar . The other end is run thru the eyebolt at the top of the mast, down the mast and tied off on the cleat. I put a slip knot in the rope between the top of the sail and the top eyebolt in order that the rope could be tied off on the cleat tightly without pulling the sail up. In a gust, the sail is deflated by grabbing the boom and holding up against the mast. The sail can be lowered by loosening the rope off of the cleat. It is important to practice quickly getting the sail out of the wind! Use the lighter to melt the ends of the nylon rope to prevent fraying. 1 foot sections of rope are used to loosely tie the sail to the mast and boom thru the tarp grommets. Another piece of rope is tied to eyebolt on the end of the boom, used to control the sail by hand (it is not a good idea to tie this sheet down while underway.) The sail mast sits loosely in the drain flange/water pipe mast step. In an emergency, the mast and sail can be quickly pulled out of this mast step setup. My kayak has a heavy rope loop attached to the front and back. On the deck beside the cockpit, I added another rope loop by neatly burning two round holes and inserting a piece of rope. Melt the ends of the rope with a big enough bump on each end so the rope cannot slip out. This rope can be tied and untied to stow the sail rig- with one end of the mast slipped through the front rope loop.

Sail stowed for trasport or paddling.

Tom Ridge sail rigged

Right photo shows detail of the connection between the boom and mast and the cleat. Left photo shows the arrangement to mount the sail to the kayak ( and quickly remove same ).

Trip Diary

July 27, 2003

The nearest body of water to my house is the Susquehanna River above Harrisburg, PA. The river is large, draining 24,000 square miles. A popular spot is the Fish and Boat Commission boat ramp above Fort Hunter Park on the East Shore. The river is about a mile wide and relatively calm. On normal weekends, the water is full of fishermen in small motorboats, canoes and kayaks. This area is a popular ending destination for downriver canoe trips. On Sunday, July 27, 2003 the Harrisburg guage was at 5.7 feet after an extended rain on Thursday and the breeze was brisk with occasional gusts. 5.7 is unusually high in the summertime, 3 to 4 feet is normal. At this level, motorboats can travel from the Dock Street Dam in Harrisburg all the way up to the Statue of Liberty rapids at Dauphin Narrows. The water was cloudy and the current swift. Apparently because of the high water, the river was devoid of fishermen.

As the wind was blowing from the northwest, I first paddled across and slightly upstream to the West Shore. As the current was fast and the wind was in my face, this took quite some time but I finally reached the Marysville boat ramp (note to self, next time don't forget to take some water!). After rigging the sail, I headed out for its maiden voyage! Only a few hundred feet in this sail the wind started gusting. To say I started panicking is an overstatement, but it did produce some quick action to fold up the sail (I need to practice lowering it in a hurry). Even with the sail folded, enough area was exposed to cause some noisy sail flapping and kayak rocking. A flip would not be a diaster as I wear a life vest, can swim and the water is flat. But a big concern is other people trying to get involved and possibly getting hurt. A few weeks before, I watched a sudden squall capsize a daysailer on the Lake Clarke section of the Susquehanna. It took three fire department boats hours to tow the boat to shore ( it looked like they needed the practice however). Back in my voyage, while I was holding on to the flapping sail, the current carried the kayak well downstream. I finally pulled the sail and mast out of the sail step and stowed it to the kayak (this ability is important in designing a sail rig in my opinion). Another strenuous effort was required to paddle back to the boat ramp. While resting from this ordeal, a canoe float trip landed. My next trip would not lack a audience. This time the wind behaved for a while. I found that by sailing with the sail on the left and my paddle serving as a combination leeboard and rudder on the left, that the kayak tracked rather nicely perpendicular to the current, I was headed directly back to the boat ramp on the East Shore. After about three quarters of the way across I was rather well pleased with the sail. Then, the wind gusted again and a repeat of the hang on for dear life embarrassment started all over again. Either my skills, nerves, or sail design is not up to par with wind gusts! When the wind gusts subsided, I let the breeze push me downstream to sheltered water. I tied the sail to mast and paddled back up to the boat ramp. To me the day had been a great success, I was alive and the sail was intact.

August 10, 2003

Next trip was to Conewago Lake (Pinchot State Park). This lake looks to be about three miles long and from top to dam runs in a northeasterly direction. Putting in near the top, a light breeze was intermittently blowing in the general direction I wanted to travel. Without noticeable wind, the kayak plodded down the lake. When the breeze picked up enough to ruffle leaves, the speed was perceptible and when maple leaves turned over, something akin to an exciting sail was experienced. Overall, without effort, one can go from point A to point B (eventually)and generally steer from left to right. Others paddling in kayaks passed this sailing craft up like it was standing still. This lake had small sailboats stored up on the bank in one cove, but only two were on the lake. They were practicing turning and tacking and generally looked to be way ahead of my homemade rig. I will reserve judgement until a day with a little more breeze, but it looks like I ought to save up for a real boat.

August 18, 2003

Its official-this sail sucks! Another trip to the above referenced lake. Again, the weather was hot with little or no breeze. This time, however, several sailboats were present. Even with the minimal wind, the sailboats were gliding around the lake at will, while the kayak was barely moving. Back to the drawing board.

August 24, 2003

One more try, this time on Lake Clarke. This Saturday dawned bright and clear, the humidity of the last several weeks finally gone. Lake Clarke is the Susquehanna River pool formed by by the Safeharbor Dam. At Long Level, the lake is over 1 1/2 miles wide and from Columbia to the dam looks to be about 9-10 miles. The wind was between a gentle and moderate breeze according to my read of the Beaufort Scale. When the wind would gust, the water would ripple all over like it was shivering and turn dark. This day the kayak sail moved the kayak along at a good speed, however steering was limited as the wind wanted to blow me into the bank. Paddling back upwind was a chore, but well worth it for the downwind sail. The larger sailboats moved as gracefully as before, but a small catamaran was positively flying up and down the lake.

August 31, 2003

Another try on Lake Clarke. Starting at Wrightsville, I figured the wind would sail the kayak down the lake to Long Level (based on the wind direction the last time). When I got out in the lake, I found the light breeze directly in my face. So, I paddled to the Washington Boro side hoping to get a sail back up the lake. By the time I paddled the two miles or so against the wind, you guessed it, the wind more or less died. I finally paddled back up to Wrightsville. Lot of exercise, little sailing.

Fall, 2003

On a windy Sunday in September a trip on Lake Conewago proved more fun. I had read about sailing a canoe and put some of the tips in practice. I actually think this sail would be fairly good if I rigged a leeboard. In any case, I could sail at different points to the wind by moving the paddle in relationship to the sail.
A trip to Lake Alfred at Pequea PA on Columbus Day was also great. Again, a steady light breeze was key. At times the boat moved with excitement as I sailed back to harbor downwind.


Well, this rig is not so bad after all, it was the sailer, not the sail that was the trouble in the beginning. The rig is holding up with almost no maintenance. All of my trips this year has been to the Susquehanna above the Rockville Bridge. The most satisfying outing was in early July on a Saturday with a nice breeze from the south. I was able to buck the current and dodge the rocks in sailing upstream from Marysville to the Statue of Liberty at Dauphin Narrows. The water was so low in this droughty summer that I was able to wade up the first set of rapids and then paddle the rest the way up. Coming back down is a brief but pleasant plunge down a couple of ledges. The wind was still blowing from the south, so the sail was stowed and I paddled back down stream.

July 23,2005

It finally happened! I flipped the kayak under sail. It actually happened so fast that I do not know for sure of the cause. I believe the flip was the result of the strap hinge failing while the sailor was bracing back against the force of a steady breeze on the sail(you can't "hike out" in this craft). The strap breaking left the sailor holding onto a now loose boom and resulted in the top heavy captain and crew (me) flying backwards. This time I was lucky as I was only in waist-deep water. After picking up the waterlogged kayak and dumping most of the water out (three times) I was finally able to get in without flipping again, all the while watching the kayak's contents floating away with the wind and current. This leads to question of what would happen if water was over one's head. One might be able to get back in the kayak or not. Upstream from where I flipped is deep and it would be quite a distance to shore or shallows. I checked out an online source on kayak flipping and re-entry and found that the favored method is to have your companion(s) help. So that is the reason for the rule not to kayak alone! I lost one ball cap (Orvis- purchased in NY City) and some nerve. Next day, I bought a heavy duty hinge and I will try again.

Beaufort Wind Scale

Developed in 1805 by Sir Francis Beaufort of England

Force Wind
Appearance of Wind Effects
On the Water On Land
0 Less than 1 Calm Sea surface smooth and mirror-like Calm, smoke rises vertically
1 1-3 Light Air Scaly ripples, no foam crests Smoke drift indicates wind direction, still wind vanes
2 4-6 Light Breeze Small wavelets, crests glassy, no breaking Wind felt on face, leaves rustle, vanes begin to move
3 7-10 Gentle Breeze Large wavelets, crests begin to break, scattered whitecaps Leaves and small twigs constantly moving, light flags extended
4 11-16 Moderate Breeze Small waves 1-4 ft. becoming longer, numerous whitecaps Dust, leaves, and loose paper lifted, small tree branches move
5 17-21 Fresh Breeze Moderate waves 4-8 ft taking longer form, many whitecaps, some spray Small trees in leaf begin to sway
6 22-27 Strong Breeze Larger waves 8-13 ft, whitecaps common, more spray Larger tree branches moving, whistling in wires
7 28-33 Near Gale Sea heaps up, waves 13-20 ft, white foam streaks off breakers Whole trees moving, resistance felt walking against wind
8 34-40 Gale Moderately high (13-20 ft) waves of greater length, edges of crests begin to break into spindrift, foam blown in streaks Whole trees in motion, resistance felt walking against wind
9 41-47 Strong Gale High waves (20 ft), sea begins to roll, dense streaks of foam, spray may reduce visibility Slight structural damage occurs, slate blows off roofs
10 48-55 Storm Very high waves (20-30 ft) with overhanging crests, sea white with densely blown foam, heavy rolling, lowered visibility Seldom experienced on land, trees broken or uprooted, "considerable structural damage"
11 56-63 Violent Storm Exceptionally high (30-45 ft) waves, foam patches cover sea, visibility more reduced  
12 64+ Hurricane Air filled with foam, waves over 45 ft, sea completely white with driving spray, visibility greatly reduced