Maine’s sailing community is working to turn cast-off sails into life-saving shelter for some of the 770,000 Haitians left homeless by January’s earthquake.

The effort aims to capitalize on the resourcefulness of the Haitian people, for whom a discarded sail can become desperately needed shelter from the heat and downpours of the tropical rainy season, which will start soon.

“Every sailor has used sails kicking around in the basement, attic or garage somewhere, and there’s very little we can do with them,” said John Eide, who has spent the past 50 years sailing the Maine coast.

“We get rid of sails before their life as a fabric is over because they’ve lost their shape. They’re still mostly waterproof and can be used to block sun and rain,” he said.

Sailors who cruise the coast might get 10 to 15 years out of a set of sails, but serious racers might get new mainsails and genoas every other year, he said.

Eide returned a week ago from sailing in the Caribbean. While he was there, he met with medical professionals who had been working in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. What Haitian people need most is food and shelter, they said.

Eide concluded that he wasn’t likely to get 10,000 tents donated, and the ubiquitous blue poly tarps apparently don’t last long in the tropical sun and rain.

So Eide, who helped Bruce Schwab prepare his Ocean Planet for the Vendee Globe Race and has participated in four Marblehead-to-Halifax races, decided to leverage his ties to the sailing community.

He started putting out the word Tuesday, and got responses almost immediately. A sailmaker in San Francisco wants to contribute, as does a yacht club in Rhode Island.

“I think people are jumping on this,” he said.

Amy Geren, retail sales manager for Sail Bags in Portland’s Old Port, knows a little about reusing sails. The company makes bags with the material.

“We were reaching out in the very beginning, but at that time there weren’t any organizations that I could find that could facilitate getting the sails to (Haiti),” she said.

Geren said her company should have enough material to continue production while gathering used sails for shipment to Haiti.

Eide has arranged for a truck to haul the donated sails to Shake a Leg, a nonprofit group that is collecting sails in Miami.

From there, Haiti-Life will ship them to the Haitian capital. That nonprofit group has been making deliveries to Haiti since the earthquake, and works with local groups to make sure donations are not diverted to the black market, he said.

Another nonprofit, Project Medishare, is covering the shipping cost.

The sail collection is on a tight deadline, so the sails can be delivered to Miami and then Haiti before the worst of the rains hit, Eide said.

Several Maine businesses have offered to serve as collection points. Donated sails can be dropped off until March 19 at Maine Sailing Partners in Freeport and Pope Sails and Rigging in Rockland.

Sea Bags in Portland will collect used sails through March 21. Sails also can be dropped off at Portland Yacht Services, in Building 11, during the Maine Boatbuilders Show March 19-21.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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