Pros and cons of sail furling

Headsail furling has obvious advantages. For cruising, where convenience and safety is paramount, the cloth is removed from the cockpit when wind picks up, before mooring or in an emergency. Further, this winding technique, which is in use now for decades, conveniently adjusts the sail area. This is interesting for charterers, beginners, the occasional sailor, small crew or an older couple. Large yachts with corresponding sail area are simply possible thanks to furling.

For good reasons furling is common on raceboats as well. Aboard small keelboats like the Dragon, the swiss Lacustre or classic square metre boats, the furled jib or genoa is a natural choice. It is nimbly furled when the spinnaker is up and quickly deployed before the next upwind leg. So furling makes sailing generally easy. Ocean races such as Sydney-Hobart, The Ocean Race or the Vendee Globe are unthinkable without furling systems.

The drawbacks headsail furling

Does this settle the question? To my mind no, as headsail furling has serious disadvantages for cruising sails if used for reefing. The sailmaker on the trade fair stand will admit this as little as any salesman of a new yacht.

  • In strong wind, when you need a flat shaped sail, the furled genoa gets bulbous. The partly furled headsail is a disaster.
  • The furled sail creates windage decreasing up wind performance.
  • The cloth is wound around the furling tube. The pull from the sheet, irregular winding of the cloth with folds and overstretched leeches lead to enormous wear. A regularly furled sail is ruined after a few sailing seasons, to my mind the knock-out criterion.
  • The cloth of an awning can be rolled up evenly because it has no shape needed for propulsion. So a furled headsail is a big compromise adverse to performance.
  • With most systems, the safety of the boat in a strong breeze relies on a thin rope to recover the sail and hold the partly furled headsail. That rope chafed and tearing gets the boat and crew in trouble.
  • Commonly the drum is mounted on deck, which shortens the luff and reduces sail area.
  • Wear and tear with sluggish bearings in Caribbean or Mediterranean due to salt and sand.
  • Problems after careless operation and forgotten maintenance.
  • Weight and cost.
Clevere unter Deck Lösung von Bartels für einen Daysailer von Biehl
Clever below deck installation of furling drum and vertical battens in the jib – Foto Bartels

Today, modern boatbuilding has accommodated the winding mechanism in a space-saving and elegant way. There are smart below-deck solutions for small to medium-sized boats with cardan shafts in the deck (Bartels) or integrated into the deck (Furlex/Selden). Here the sail foot gets close to the deck. Reckmann is the expert for medium-sized to large yachts. The specialist builds high-quality systems where the furling rod is reliably locked in place by the self-locking worm gear. Some of the problems outlined are thus solved.

Shapely incorporated furler with drum below the foredeck – Photo Reckmann

What remains is the poor sail shape of the partially furled cloth, the wear and tear, costs and maintenance. The majority of boat vacationers accept this for obvious reasons.

Operation of furler as roll-away system

Modern racing yachts such as the Imoca 60, Comanche, or the Club Swan 125 Skorpios use multiple headsails arranged in a row that are either fully unfurled or completely furled. This furl away use helps to keep going at the limit.

Cutter-rigged cruising boats have long been underway with two forestays mounted one behind the other. Here, too, the roll-away feature comes in handy. A while back, I sold a Swede 41 to the Gulf of Lyon, a body of water known for its brutal mistral. To be on the safe side, the boat came with an extra stay for setting a storm jib, which is set behind the completely furled jib or genoa.

Upwind with flat cloth in fitting size in a breeze – Foto Michael Amme/Swedesail

The demanding cruising sailor who appreciates the comfort and safety of the headsail furling system and a good sail shape at the same time use it as a roll-away system. In the morning, they thread the appropriate cloth into the groove of the furling rod according to the foreseeable wind. In the evening, when approaching the harbor, the sail is then rolled up. During longer absences, the headsail is taken off the furling system and out of the sun. As weekend sailors, they do this every Sunday. It’s a few simple actions that significantly extend the life of the sail.

Nonfurled profile headstay

Now this is almost as tedious as setting and recovering the sail with a profile headstay. I have been sailing with such a stay since 1980. It took me a while to figure out the finesse of threading the sail into the profile. The distance of the prefeeder from the deck is important. It should not be too low, because the feeding strip on the luff becomes wrinkled and jams. If the prefeeder sits too high, the wind will reach under the sail when it is set. The ideal distance between the prefeeder and the stay also needs to be determined.

And yes, it is a bit of a hassle to set the sail in the morning, retrieve it in the evening and fold it up on deck with two people. The roll, which is about 30 cm thick, is stowed in a four-metre zip-top tube and placed on the cabin roof. There are two such tubes. One for the 30 sqm jib and one for the 20 sqm strong-wind jib (Yankee). With a little practice, this is no big deal.

The effort is worth it with many years to decades of service life of the headsails made of conventional polyester cloth/Dacron and an acceptable sail shape in the long run. Further you also don’t need to consider the furling system when choosing the sail size and cut. Long battens at right angles to the leech of the jib, the uppermost being continuous as with the mainsail, provide a good, durable profile. Any sailmaker will explain this – as far as you are interested in such aspects.

Swede 55 with storm jib
Unfurled sails matching the wind are lasting long – Photo Nico Krauss/Swedesail

Upwind joy and safety

It is a pleasure to go upwind with this, adjusting the nozzle between headsail leech and mainsail. Playing with height and speed, untainted by contemporary and comfy compromises, is wonderful with Swede 55. That is why I have been sailing Gamle Swede without headsail furling for decades. Even in strong winds, I never worry about the headsail. The headsail pulls the boat through thick and thin. A while ago I replaced the abundantly used 16 sqm stormjib from 1980 with a more versatile 20 sqm Yankee.

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