May 3, 2023

Why are sails white?

Sails are often white, or off-white, mainly because throughout history the natural fibres used to make them (cotton, flax or hemp) are white, off white or beige.

When I started sailing as a teenager I was keen to learn as much as I could as fast as I could. I don't want to give my age away but there was no internet then! So I used to go to the library and read as much as I could.

My focus then was to learn how to sail but now I'm older I find that I'm far more interested in the history of sailing than I ever was. So in this article I cover the history of "why sails are white" and information on the other colours used and why that is.

History of Sails

Material: Historically, sails have been made of natural fibers such as cotton, flax, or hemp. These materials are usually beige, off-white, or white in their natural state, and sails made from them would naturally be white or off-white.

UV Resistance: White or light-coloured sails reflect sunlight more effectively than darker colours. This helps to reduce the amount of UV radiation absorbed by the sail material, which can degrade and weaken it over time. By reflecting sunlight, white sails stay cooler and last longer.

Visibility: White or light-coloured sails are easier to see against the water and sky, which can be important for both safety and communication with other vessels. High visibility can help prevent collisions and make it easier to spot boats from a distance.

Heat Management: White sails help to reduce heat build-up within the boat as they reflect more sunlight. Darker sails would absorb more heat, which could make the temperature onboard less comfortable.

While white is the most common colour for sails, they can be found in other colours as well. Some modern sails are made of synthetic materials like Dacron, which can be dyed in various collars. However, many sailors still prefer white or light-coloured sails for the practical reasons listed above.

First sails ever made

Back in the earliest times when man mastered sailing the 7 seas, sails have been white or off white. Think back to that days of the Viking invasions, or Nelson defeating the Spanish Armada. Great big white sails have sailed majestically across the seas and oceans of the world.

A local fisherman on a small lake trying to catch enough fish to provide for his family or ancient Greeks, Phoenicians or Arabs navigating there way across from Egypt.

Archaeologists can't pinpoint the exact time or who or where the sailboat was invented but it is known that sailing was undertaken by man over 6,000 years ago.

Back then they couldn't have dreamt of the bright colours and materials available to modern sailors today.

In those days just realising that they could harness the power of the wind, rather than row or paddle a boat was a giant step forward.

Being able to craft sails from the materials available to them was a feat in itself. They would have used whatever material was available to them and that would be cotton or hemp. So white/off white.

If, like me, you're fascinated by the history of sailing then you should enjoy this article "how large sailing ships left port?


So, sails are usually white due to our history, the costs of making them and being easily visible. It is also so much easier to spot damage and any areas of wear when maintaining them.


  • John Sixthsmith

    I'm a freelance writer and avid sailor who loves to share my passion for the sea with others. I've written articles for various sailing magazines and websites, covering topics such as sailing destinations, boat maintenance, navigational tips, and marine wildlife. I went on a short sailing trip whilst on holiday as a child and was instantly hooked. I've been sailing ever since. Although I've done a fair amount of lake sailing in my time, my real passion is the ocean. I hope you enjoy reading this blog about sailing as much as I've enjoyed writing about it.

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