[We just got an interesting and very well reasoned email from Lane Finley, a very experienced voyager who sails out of New Zealand with his wife Kaye on their beautiful classic Luders designed Annapolis 44 cutter Mai Tai, pictured above.]
By Lane Finley
Most people will believe that anyone advocating hank-on sails over roller furling in our modern world is certifiably crazy. Just look at the local marina, a sea of masts, all with roller furling systems on at least the head stay. It is very rare to find a boat today with hank-on sails. They are seen to be “old fashion”. But have they really been surpassed by modern furling sails? I think not.
There is no question that furling systems have improved with age and they definitely have their place on local harbour and coastal sailing yachts. They are just so easy to use in a day-sailing situation. However, there are compromises that skippers need to consider if they are heading offshore with roller furling:
Furling systems create windage aloft when they are furled. When sailing offshore they would only be furled in heavy winds and this is the time to reduce windage aloft, not increase it.
Furling systems carry the weight of the sail up high in the rigging when it is furled. This is exactly where you don’t want the weight in a storm. The weight issue is different than the windage issue but together they exacerbate the problem of furled sails in heavy weather.
Reefing, or not
The makers of furling sails suggest that headsails can be “reefed” by rolling them up part way. The reality is that doing this creates a “bag” affect with increased draft towards the aft part of the sail. And in heavy winds, you want less draft, a flatter sail. So reefing a furling sail does the opposite of what you want to achieve.
If you are just outside the harbour and only have an hour to get in, it may be an acceptable compromise. However, if you are several days from port, this situation is often untenable.
Some may argue that pads in the luff help keep the shape as the sail is rolled in. However, this has not proven sustainable for more than a few hours as the foam padding compresses under the load of the sail and becomes useless. There is also the chafing factor when the sail is reefed.
One Size Fits All, or Not
Sails have different shapes for different wind directions. They are also are made of different material thickness for different wind strengths. But when you use a roller furling system, it generally removes your choice of sails by giving you a one-size-fits-all sail. This may be acceptable inshore but it could get you into trouble offshore.
For example, if you are sailing off the wind in the trades, you would probably choose a Yankee. Its high-cut clew makes the leach and foot similar lengths, which keeps the leach from folding in and collapsing the sail when off the wind. The Yankee also works well in partnership with a staysail because of its shape. On the other hand, a jib designed for windward work tends to be a flatter cut.
Also, generally speaking, a furling head sail is around 130% of the fore-triangle in area and because the sail maker has to plan for the sail being used in both heavy as well as light wind, he or she must use a fairly heavy fabric. The same size head sail with hanks will be considerably lighter because you will only use it in lighter airs when it will set better than the heavier furling sail.
Difficult to Change
You may be thinking that you can just change your roller furling head sail, and you would be right. However, the difference between hank-on and furling sails is that in order to change a furling headsail, you must first fully unfurl it. In a rising wind that can be dangerous to the sail, the vessel and to you.
To further complicate the changing of furling sails, as you let off the halyard, your 130% genoa spills out the bottom of the furler and is loose all over the foredeck. That may present problems if you are offshore in a wild sea (which is generally when you will try to change head sails).
On the other hand, dropping a hank-on sail is fast and easy: By turning your course downwind and blanketing the headsail with the main, you can simply walk forward to the mast and release the halyard. The sail drops like a rock on the foredeck (most of the time) and is always attached by the hanks to the head stay, so it cannot fly off the foredeck.
I keep a few sail ties on the lifelines to tie up the sail if we are in comfortable weather conditions. If the weather is brewing into something more sinister, I bag the sail and then take it off the head stay, one hank at a time, and stow it in the sail locker. Then I bring out the storm jib or whatever sail I think the weather dictates. Hank-on sails allow you to always have the right sail up no matter what the conditions (as long as you have the inventory). Hank-on sails are cheaper as well.
We have designed special sail bags that stay on the head stay while the sail is up, with ties that fasten to the bow pulpit and help form the bottom of the bag into a big basket. All we do is roll the sail up on the deck and dump it in the “basket” and then zip the flaps over the top—simple and fast.
Dangers of Roller Furling Sails
I have had a couple of friends lose their rigs in storms because the roller furling lines chafed through and the sail unfurled. Just a few days ago here in the marina a roller furling sail came loose in strong winds and beat itself to death before some helpful sailors from down the dock got it down.
I am certainly not trying to change anyone’s mind about furling sails. However, the many excellent comments about the Model T cruising boat got me thinking about how modern boat builders have convinced many of us into thinking that the only way to go sailing is with roller furling. That is simply not the truth.
Hank-on sails have many advantages and with a little innovative thinking, they can be easy to handle as well. But there is so little written about the advantages that I thought it time to put forward my two cents worth.
I (Lane) look forward to your comments.