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The Importance of Telltales

If you have watched a sailing race you may have noticed what looks like narrow ribbons attached to the boat's sails. You might have thought that those red, or green strips of fabric blowing in the wind were simply colorful adornments.

Actually, they are called telltales and they are a sailor's best friend. In a good way, the telltale is a bit of a tattle tale. They help sailors see how the air flows across a sail and signal if a sail is set for optimum performance.

Telltales being used while sailingTelltales are often red and green ribbons of yarn or lightweight fabric that are spaced usually six to eighteen inches apart. Larger sails have more telltales. The green telltales are attached on the starboard (right) side of the sail. Red telltales are attached directly opposite on the port (left) side. Most often sailmakers decide where to attach telltales because they understand the aerodynamics of sails they are making.

The most experienced sailors keep their eyes on streaming and stalled telltales at all times and adjust or 'trim' their sails accordingly and quickly during races. "Maximum performance is key during competitive sailing," says Carrie Mack, an experienced sailor and Sea Bags Vice President of Sail Acquisition. "If your telltales are flying almost parallel to the deck, you are on a great course."

Reading telltales correctly comes with experience. In the world of competitive sailing, it's imperative to understand telltales’ movements. Erica Beck Spencer, captain of Sea Bags Women's Sailing Team, is a master of reading telltales on the sails of the team's J/24. “Telltales are one of the most Telltale on Sea Bags recycled sail bagsimportant features of a sail. They show sailors if the wind is flowing equally on both sides of the sail. If one telltale begins to act differently than the other, it’s a sign that the sail is too tight or too loose and it needs trimming.”

Erica and her women’s sailing team are among the most experienced racers in the J/24 class and they can feel if their boat and the sails are trimmed properly, "but we still look at the telltales."

Because telltales are affixed in a way to remain on a sail through rigorous conditions, it’s common for our crew to find telltales attached to old sails after they’ve retired and come ashore. Though no longer useful off the water, here at Sea Bags, we think of telltales as “good luck” and love when they find their way onto our recycled sail totes.

Are you lucky enough to have a telltale on your Sea Bag? Share your pictures and story with us on social media using #taleofthesail.