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HSH Yacht Articles

Roller Furling Headsails


Jeremy R. Hood

Question: Does your boat have headsail roller furling?

Question: Have you checked the bearings recently?

Question: Do you have a spare furling line aboard?

Question: Do you have a spare headsail?

If you answered YES to the first question and NO to any of the others then read on to find out what happened to me.

My first job as charter boat skipper in the Caribbean was aboard a Cal 46 taking sailing neophytes on a day sail to swim and snorkel at an idyllic island and on Sunday nights for a sunset cruise along the coast. My daily sails to Ilé Pinel were not without incident, what with a contingent of passengers getting sick, an engine that didn't always perform as it should, and a difficult berth that caused me more problems than anything. But more of these difficulties another time.

One sunday evening we set for with about 12 guests for our usual evening sunset sail along the fairly protected south coast, running in light winds and flat water until sunset and then turning to motor slowly back along the shore.

All was fine as we set off, our guests happy and relaxed, sitting at the bow, in the cockpit chatting and on the aft deck close to the wine cooler. Once out of the bay we turned west, opened up our genoa and headed off on a broad reach leaving the main furled. My crew then produced our regular trays of snacks and with more beer , wine and sodas we rolled gently downwind past the western cliffs protecting the harbor. As usual I passed the helm to one of the guests who was keen to sail and I sat close by watching for fishing pots ahead and telling some of my more exciting sea stories.

By sunset, we were close to the airport and ready to furl in the genoa and head back to port. I took the helm again and my crew handed me the genoa sheet so that I could pay it out as she pulled in the furling line to roll up the sail. But nothing happened; it just would not come though we had earlier performed the procedure successfully several times. Without alarm I passed the helm to the crew and took the line myself thinking that all it would take was a little muscle. But I was wrong; I couldn't get it to roll in either. Next I put the line on the sheet winch and started winding in but with the tension approaching that of a guitar string and nothing moving I released the line.

We slowly sailed on as I went forward to examine the roller furling drum but it revealed no obvious problems. Time for plan B. I went to the mast and released the genoa halyard so that I could pull the sail down onto the deck. With the halyard slack I went forward but the sail did not appear to want to come down easily. I sat on deck and pulled. Still nothing happened.

By now we were getting well beyond our usual turning point and so I explained to our passengers that they were getting a special bonus hour while I fixed the problem. Plan B(2) involved taking a line from the tack of the genoa, through a turning block and back to the sheet winch. With this I was certain I could get the sail down, but it was not to be. The sail was fully out and would neither furl up nor come down. With an extra round of drinks to the guests I announced plan C. We would motor round in circles until the sail was furled around the stay and we would then head back to windward. It worked but not before one more problem that I had to deal with: another vessel recognizing our charter boat and seeing us motoring in circles decided to issue a MAYDAY on our behalf which necessitated some discussion on the radio with the local Coast Radio operators on a nearby island and later, an explanation to the owners of the vessel.

It was never really an emergency yet had we been offshore in a rising wind and growing seas we would probably not have been able to easily motor in circles and we could well have ended up with the sail in ribbons yet so securely wrapped around the stay that it would have taken a sharp knife to remove it.

The second incident I want to relate occurred aboard a 54' steel boat during a passage from Key West toward Galveston. We had set out from port in fairly settled weather yet knowing a front was due the next day. Weather fronts in the Gulf are never that pleasant yet on a crossing of more than a few days it is often impossible to avoid at least one, and on a well-found boat and with an experienced crew they are manageable if not that enjoyable.

The front hit around 9.00 am. on our second day out and to my frustration the wind came straight out of the northwest which was the direction we wanted to go. We quickly reefed main and genoa, eventually fully furling the mainsail as the wind increased to a steady 40 knots with stronger gusts. We first headed off on starboard tack under a small portion of the roller furling genoa and the mizzen sail though later we tacked to port and found ourselves heading somewhat east of north into some pretty steep seas.

The conditions were rough, even for the Gulf of Mexico, and we were all getting tired. Two of the crew were seriously incapacitated with seasickness, two more were cold, tired and sick yet still able to carry on, while I too was feeling tired and a little sick. Then it happened. With a tremendous bang I found us sailing not with a pocket handkerchief of a headsail but with a full 150% genoa flogging madly in the strong winds. We later found that a heavy sea had caught a fitting on the roller furling drum causing it to chafe the furling line in a matter of minutes.

Aboard this fairly large boat a 150% genoa is not easy to handle in any conditions and in the ones we had to deal with, our only real option was to drop the sail for it would be in tatters before we could get it furled in. With safety harnesses clipped on and full foul weather gear on, the two still-able crew went forward and with considerable difficult managed to get the sail down onto the deck and keep it there despite the seas breaking over the bow. With great effort they crawled back along the side deck one pulling the sail, the other pushing, until we had it in the cockpit and were able to stuff it temporarily in a locker. The two crew, both fit men were exhausted.

Fortunately for us the sail came down easily and did not stick as in the incident mentioned earlier. With no headsail up and a fatigued crew we started the engine and, bearing off the wind a little more, proceeded to motor sail while we got some food and rest. But it was not until calmer conditions the next day that we could fix the furling line and re-hoist the genoa.

What to check with your roller furling

Roller furling headsails are great for bay and coastal sailing and are used often for ocean passages. But their disadvantages can quickly become serious problems. Because of this you need to be sure that your roller furling gear is in good condition and that you have any necessary spares aboard. Here are a few suggestions of what to do:

While at the dock, and in calm conditions, unfurl the genoa, release the halyard, and pull the sail down on deck. This will enable you to make sure that it comes down easily, that the top bearing is free, and that the genoa halyard has not been chaffing away up there unbeknown to you.

If you have another headsail then take off the existing one and fit the spare. This way you will make sure that all shackles can be released easily, that the spare will actually fit on the track and that you can fully hoist the sail and set it correctly.

If you have never replaced the furling line, now is a good time to do so. Take off the old line and buy a new one of the same diameter and a little longer than the existing one. Fit the new line and keep the old one as a spare. Now, not only will your roller furling have a new furling line, you will know how to replace it, what tools are necessary to accomplish this, and you will have a spare aboard.

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