Headsail Furlers For the Trailer Sailor

I used to be a little envious of skippers with headsail furlers. They can just pull a line to roll up their headsail at the end of the day. Their headsail stays crisper longer because it doesn’t get folded up and stowed away. To set sail, they can just pull the sheets aft to unfurl the sail in seconds. No more snapping and unsnapping, hoisting and dousing, flaking and rolling. Just pull and go or pull and stop.

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I used to take consolation in the knowledge that by sticking with classic, hanked on headsails:

At that time, I had set up everything on Summer Dance to be as quick and easy as possible but I was still a little envious of the convenience of a furler.

I’m not envious anymore. I now have a headsail furler. But I installed a system that gives me the best of both worlds: furling convenience while keeping the ability to easily change headsails and step the mast for trailering. And I saved hundreds of dollars doing it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be the $tingy Sailor.

Furling 101

There are several different headsail furler designs to choose from. In order to understand the differences and to select the one that’s right for you, let’s briefly review how a headsail furler works.

The basic purpose of a headsail furler is to roll up the headsail while it’s still hoisted. To do this, a furler uses a swivel at the tack of the headsail that is built into a small spool of line. Pulling the line off the spool twists the luff of the headsail, causing it to roll up onto itself. Pulling the headsail sheets unrolls the sail and wraps the line back onto the spool. Think of a roll-up window shade and you’ll get the idea.

The biggest differences between the designs is how they twist the luff of the sail. Some designs use a long tube called a foil that rotates around the forestay, other designs do not. The foil transfers the torque from the spool along the entire length of the luff and ensures that, as the spool turns, the head of the sail turns at the same rate as the tack and the headsail wraps evenly all along its length.

All furlers with foils have grooves in the extrusions into which you bend on the headsail much like you do the foot of a mainsail in the sail slot of a boom. The headsail halyard attaches to a collar that also swivels and that slides up and down the foil to help change sails. The sail head is attached to the swivelling side of the collar.

Furlers without foils simply have another swivel at the head of the sail. The halyard attaches to the non-swivelling top part and the head of the sail attaches to the swivelling bottom part.

Rigid or flexible foil furlers

Some furlers use a rigid, extruded aluminum foil that slides over the forestay. The foil typically is built of multiple sections joined by connectors.

Example of a rigid aluminum extrusion foil

Other furlers use a single piece foil made of flexible, extruded PVC that snaps or slides over the forestay.

Example of a flexible PVC extrusion foil

A headsail for use with these types of furlers needs to have a kind of tape sewn into the luff that fits into the groove and secures the sail.  It doesn’t use traditional hank snaps or luff wires.

Luff tape required for rigid and flexible furlers

Because it remains hoisted most of the time, sacrificial canvas strips are usually sewn along the luff and foot to protect the sailcloth from UV light damage when the sail is furled. They’re considered sacrificial because as they become damaged by UV rays, they can be removed and replaced with new strips.

Furling genoa sail with UV cover sewn on the leech and foot

The advantages of a rigid or flexible furler are:

  • Even, reliable furling
  • Stiffer, flatter headsail luff for better sail shape in moderate to strong winds
  • Some models can be partially furled (reefed) to reduce the sail area in strong winds, if necessary

The disadvantages are:

  • More weight and work to step and unstep the mast for trailering
  • Difficult to change headsails
  • Rigid extrusions can get accidentally bent when raising or lowering the mast. Flexible extrusions can get bent if not stored properly while the mast is down.
  • Hanked on headsails that you already own must be converted, typically by a sailmaker.
  • More expensive

No foil furlers

Still other furlers use no extrusions between the swivels. This is the oldest furler design and it relies on the wire that’s sewn into the luff of most older sails. Newer headsails often use synthetic rope or webbing instead unless they’re made with a luff tape like described above. The furler swivels attach directly to the luff wire. When the furler spool turns the lower swivel, it twists the luff wire, which rolls up the headsail. This type of furler is often called a cruising furler because it doesn’t work well for racing. It’s also called a free flying furler because the headsail flies free of the forestay, similar to a spinnaker.

To protect the headsail from UV damage with this type of furler, you can either add sacrificial strips like described above, cover the furled sail with a jib sock, or lower and store the sail below deck.

The advantages of a cruising furler are:

  • Easier to adjust luff tension and headsail shape (either with the halyard or backstay tension), especially in light to moderate winds. However, it’s difficult to get the luff as flat as with an extruded foil or a hanked-on sail.
  • No change in mast stepping and unstepping
  • Easy to change headsails
  • No extrusions to bend
  • No modifications to the headsails you already own
  • Less expensive

The disadvantages are:

  • Cannot be partially furled
  • Less even furling
  • Difficult to get the luff tight

Furler buying guidelines

Your decision of which furler design is right for you should take into account how often you change headsails or trailer your sailboat:

  • Never – A rigid furler is the most reliable. Set it up and you’ll almost forget it’s there.
  • Sometimes – A flexible furler is lighter and resists bending when you raise and lower the mast and provides reliable furling.
  • Often – A no-foil (cruising) furler doesn’t require major changes but adds furling convenience when you want it.
  • Every time – No furler. You’ll hardly ever use it because you’re constantly changing sails or moving.

Regardless of the furler type, you might not be able to use your largest headsails with the furler. This is because the length of the top and bottom furler components reduces the maximum allowable luff length of the headsail. The luffs of some large headsails is nearly as long as the forestay, which leaves too little room for a furler. Before you buy, verify that the sails you already own will fit. Smaller headsails should fit okay.

Cruising furler installation tips

The furler that I chose is a vintage Schaefer System 250 all stainless steel jib furler like would have been originally installed on Summer Dance back in 1981. It was barely used and I picked it up for a song on eBay after months of patient watching since they are fairly rare.

If you don’t have that much patience or you would prefer a new cruising furler, the Harken Small Boat Cruising Furling System is very similar and a good choice.

Schaefer ad from 1981

If you choose a cruising furler, here are some tips for a good installation:

  • The furler needs to attach to your stem fitting on the bow in addition to the forestay. On Catalina 22s and similar sailboats, attach the furler to the aft-most hole. If possible, move the forestay to the forward hole to make space for the furler spool so it does not interfere with the forestay.
Sail tack attached to the top of the furling drum by a snap shackle for easy sail changes
  • If you don’t have enough space behind the forestay for the furler spool, you can replace the rear machine screws in the stem fitting with a stainless steel U bolt to provide a connection for the furler and also fasten the stem plate to the foredeck like in the picture below. Thanks goes to my friend and Cruising Captain of the C-22 National Sailing Association, Don Boyko for this one.
Stem plate screws replaced with a U bolt to provide additional clearance from the forestay
  • Consider adding a pair of straight, 4″-6″ tangs below the drum to raise it a little higher above the deck and to clear nav lights or make a fairer lead aft for the furling line.
  • Wind the furling line on the spool so that when pulled, it will rotate the luff wire in the same direction as the lay of the wire. For example, if while looking down the luff wire, its lay or twist is clockwise, wind the furling line on the spool clockwise also. That way, the luff wire will rotate with the spool (tightening the twist) instead of untwisting the wire.
  • After you become accustomed to the furler and decide to keep it indefinitely, consider taping down the hank snaps on your headsails with sail repair tape or removing the snaps entirely. You wouldn’t want one of them to accidentally clip onto the nearby forestay and prevent furling.
  • Connect the bail of the upper swivel around the forestay. It’s an important part of any cruising furler that you don’t want to go without. The bail keeps the swivel connected to the forestay when the swivel is detached from the headsail. Otherwise, the swivel can swing around in the air, injuring the crew or damaging the sailboat. It also guides the swivel up and down the forestay when you hoist and lower the headsail.
Sail head attached to the furler top swivel with a D ring and snap shackle. The halyard shackle is attached to the top swivel with a toggle.
  • If you already have a furler and the halyard sometimes wraps around the forestay, you can prevent it by installing a halyard restrainer on the front of the mast a little below the masthead like this:
A halyard restrainer keeps the halyard separated from the furler to prevent wrapping
  • After the furler is connected, align the furling line exit hole or fairlead with the first stanchion block or fairlead that will lead the line aft to the cockpit. Most furlers have a set screw for this purpose. Refer to your furler’s installation instructions for details. Lead the furling line aft to a convenient cleat near the cockpit where you can operate the furler without going up on the deck.
Furling line lead aft through a bullseye fairlead on the cabin roof to a clam cleat near the cockpit bulkhead

I really enjoy the convenience of headsail furling now. When I’m racing regularly, I remove the furler and hank my laminate racing genoa onto the forestay normally, which gives me optimal sail shape and minimal weight aloft. I use my Double Duty Headsail Downhaul to douse the sail from the cockpit. I loosely flake and roll the sail to store it below deck when not in use.

Before and after racing season, I attach the cruising furler and use it with either my Dacron 150 genoa or 110 jib, whichever is appropriate for the conditions. At the end of the day, I either unsnap the sail and stow it below deck or I leave the headsail hoisted. If left hoisted, I protect it from damaging UV rays with a DIY, one-size-fits-all jib sock rather than add expensive, heavy sacrificial strips to all my Dacron headsails.

If you’ve been confused by furlers up to now or put off buying one because you weren’t sure which one is right for you, then I hope this information helps you to make a more informed choice. There are no bad furlers, just some that are better than others.


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2 Comments Add yours

  1. steven Wallace says:

    As always, great info. thanks.

  2. raburk says:

    Been enjoying your blog. Refurbed a ‘68 Venture 21. Went with the CDI you spoke of and a Doyle 110% jib w/sacrificial strip. Couldn’t be happier. All controlled from cockpit. Furling control runs under the deck in a PVC pipe. Love it.

    Bob

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