The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

The Case For Roller-Furling Headsails

Phyllis Nickel looks out into the sunset during a windward sail in The The Gulf of St Laurence, off the west coast of Newfoundland on `Morgan`s Cloud`.

We have long used roller furling on Morgan’s Cloud and would not be without it. The thought of changing headsails that can weigh over 100-pounds dry, and far more wet, doublehanded on a wildly tossing foredeck, every time the wind changes, gives me the horrors. I served my time as bowman on an ocean racer and I’m not going back!

That said, later in this book you will find a chapter by Lane Finley on the benefits of traditional hanked-on sails over roller furling. As Lane so rightly points out, roller furling is not without its disadvantages. Here is how we manage those disadvantages and the compromises we make:

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More Articles From Online Book: Sail Handling and Rigging Made Easy:

  1. Six Reasons To Leave The Cockpit Often
  2. Don’t Forget About The Sails
  3. Your Mainsail Is Your Friend
  4. Hoisting the Mainsail Made Easy—Simplicity in Action
  5. Reefs: How Many and How Deep
  6. Reefing Made Easy
  7. Reefing From The Cockpit 2.0—Thinking Things Through
  8. Reefing Questions and Answers
  9. A Dangerous Myth about Reefing
  10. Mainsail Handling Made Easy with Lazyjacks
  11. Topping Lift Tips and a Hack
  12. 12 Reasons The Cutter Is A Great Offshore Voyaging Rig
  13. Cutter Rig—Should You Buy or Convert?
  14. Cutter Rig—Optimizing and/or Converting
  15. Cruising Rigs—Sloop, Cutter, or Solent?
  16. Sailboat Deck Layouts
  17. The Case For Roller-Furling Headsails
  18. UV Protection For Roller Furling Sails
  19. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing—Convenience and Reliability
  20. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing —Performance, Cost and Safety
  21. The Case For Hank On Headsails
  22. Making Life Easier—Roller Reefing/Furling
  23. Making Life Easier—Storm Jib
  24. Gennaker Furlers Come Of Age
  25. Swept-Back Spreaders—We Just Don’t Get It!
  26. Q&A: Staysail Stay: Roller Furling And Fixed Vs Hanks And Removable
  27. Rigid Vangs
  28. Rigging a Proper Preventer, Part 1
  29. Rigging a Proper Preventer—Part 2
  30. Amidships “Preventers”—A Bad Idea That Can Kill
  31. Keeping The Boom Under Control—Boom Brakes
  32. Downwind Sailing, Tips and Tricks
  33. Downwind Sailing—Poling Out The Jib
  34. Setting and Striking a Spinnaker Made Easy and Safe
  35. Ten Tips To Fix Weather Helm
  36. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 1
  37. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 2
  38. Two Dangerous Rigging Mistakes
  39. Rig Tuning, Part 1—Preparation
  40. Rig Tuning, Part 2—Understanding Rake and Bend
  41. Rig Tuning, Part 3—6 Steps to a Great Tune
  42. Rig Tuning, Part 4—Mast Blocking, Stay Tension, and Spreaders
  43. Rig Tuning, Part 5—Sailing Tune
  44. 12 Great Rigging Hacks
  45. 9 Tips To Make Unstepping a Sailboat Mast Easier
  46. Cruising Sailboat Spar Inspection
  47. Cruising Sailboat Standing Rigging Inspection
  48. Cruising Sailboat Running Rigging Inspection
  49. Cruising Sailboat Rig Wiring and Lighting Inspection
  50. Cruising Sailboat Roller Furler and Track Inspection
  51. Download Cruising Sailboat Rig Checklist
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(we have webbing loops sewn on the luff that can be captured as the sail comes down.)

This sounds like a great idea John, for all roller furling sails. How do capture the loops as you lower the sails and can you give us a more detailed description as to how many loops and extra cost from the sail maker?


Thanks John, I missed the captions.

Dick Stevenson

John, You describe our sail combo almost exactly and we feel similarly about all its advantages. I would re-emphasize the pluses of having a higher clewed jib, a consideration that does not come up enough in discussions with sailmakers. One area we have yet to solve is making the leach adjustment line accessibly. We ran it around the clew and on down along the foot, but not quite far enough. Any better way? Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Alex F

John et Al, for a yacht above the 25k lbs threshold, what would be your thoughts about a combination of a furling yankee at the front, and a hank-on staysail (in fact, two: one for lighter airs and another for when it is blowing)?

Dick Stevenson

John, Do you use a cruising laminate cloth primarily for sail shape or weight of the sail? On my 40 foot cutter I have gone back and forth with my primary concern being sail shape rather than weight of sail on my smaller boat. I would also be interested in what you see as the longevity hit one takes using cruising laminate vs Dacron.
Thanks, Dick

Svein Lamark

Hi John,
Very interesting reading on rigging and fore sails. I wonder how you adjust the pressure on your two fore stays? I ask because I have often seen cutters with two furling head sails having problems here. Most of the pressure seems to be loaded on the front stay while the inner stay is slack. When tacking the inner stay is zagging and this also makes influence on the bending of the mast and the shape of the mainsail .
I also think you and Lane should remember that you have more seaworthy boats than most modern boats. The modern charter boats of Europe are difficult on the front deck. By safety reasons they need furling sails.
I also think that Alex T is pointing at an interesting combination of rigging. Ingvar Hansson, inventor of Seldens Furlex system and olympic gold medalist in sailing, has spooken to me on the same opinion as Alex T, both furling head sail and hanked on small head sails.

paul Mills

I find myself increasing unhappy with Sakari’s large and low cut genoa. witha heavy wind hank on staysail, ona removable stay. I look foward to the time when I can financially justify retiring the genoa and making a change.

Re dirty secrets – my Volvo Penta does similar behaviour, especially when family sailing with a light crew who want to be anchored for supper before bedtime!


Hi Paul

One area that I’ve always found roller genoas to be weak is when poled out for downwind running. If you unfurl them entirely the shape is bad and can unbalance the boat, to counteract which you end up reefing the sail to improve the shape!

A 100% yankee behaves beautifully off the wind, good shape and with the pole off the shrouds. The yankee cut is inherently stable, and there’s less chafe on the foot and the pulpit.

As John points out, in open waters the yankee performs well, and it’s only in really light conditions that a genoa has an advantage.

Best wishes


Dick Stevenson

Colin, You are right on to make that observation. Another plus to the higher clew is that when poled out, the pole is very unlikely to roll into the water as it is at the height of the clew. When wind is aft and shifty, we often leave our pole out for days at a time (carbon fibre) going from a wing & wing on one side to an empty pole and a broad reach on the other. This is made more possible as the pole is so high and not likely to dip its tip into the water. Dick

Andy Fennymore-White

Hi John,
You made the comment about mast chocking (“To make all this work, you have to get the relationship between the staysail and head stays right in conjunction with mast blocking at the partners (affects pre-bend in the mast) and the tension on the forward and aft lowers.”) I know that you use Spartite, and we are soon stepping our new Formula Marine mast for the first time. From what you say does that mean that you cannot make the spartite chock up until the mast is fully set up and tuned?
And do you manage to reuse your chock after stepping, or does it get destroyed by the yard when they pull the spar?


Hi John,
On our last boat we had a Handy lock 02 series by Johnson Marine on the hank on stay and was great for adjustable tension on the stay. Would use the back stay tension to properly tension head sail furler. My question is what do you think of a 02 series adjustable turnbuckle and could it work to tension a stay furler to its proper tension? Then one could use the running back stays to give final adjustment or not use them at all.

Dick Stevenson

Dear John,
You touch on a pet project (likely futile) of mine when you feel obligated to insert “true” when you use the term “cutter” (photo caption). My goal is to return the definition of cutter to designate mast position rather than number of headsails. There are numerous differences that accrue with moving the mast aft (from sloop to cutter) which suggests keeping the distinction alive. Recently, most of the time I see the term cutter used; the reference is to a double headsail sloop.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy (a cutter)

Alan Teale

Hi Dick, I agree that the term “cutter” is not strictly correct for the sloop with two-stays taken down on the centre line in front of the mast. The definition of a cutter that I was taught is a sailing vessel with a single mast and two forward stays, where only the inner stay is structural in the sense that it is required to maintain the integrity of the rig. In a cutter, the forestay thus functions primarily as something on which to set jibs (and can be dispensed with when sailing, as required), while the inner stay is part of the mast-staying system (and thus is “permanent” and usually taken down to the stem). The two forward stays of a cutter therefore almost have the reverse functions of the two forward stays of a “slutter”. And it could be argued that the stepping of the cutter’s mast further aft than on an equivalent sloop necessarily follows from the foresail arrangements. All these things taken together of course contribute to the true cutters’ outstanding ability to heave-to properly and easily, a major factor in the their remarkable sea-keeping ability.
I should add that I do not imply criticism of modern large mainsail, non-overlapping foresail sloops, with or without inner forestays. The different rigs just excel in different areas, supporting the view yet again that in sailing most things are a compromise. Alan

Lane Finley

Hi John,
What a great post and the comments have taken the discussion to a whole new level! I like what you have done on Morgan’s Child and totally understand the size issue. My yankee only weighs 50 pounds dry.
For a brief moment I was almost convinced I should change over to furling sails. However, I caught myself in time and gave myself a good slap in the face. It was a close thing but I will stay with my good old hank on sails for a while longer. I do love the simplicity and efficiency they provide.
Happy sailing!

Bob Tetrault

Hello, “Sea Return’s ” headsails, rig are similar to Morgan’s Cloud. We also share a sailmaker, which by the way, was crewing with me when “our ass was whipped ” racing to Bermuda. The ass whipping had more to do with a tactical mistake than boat speed but an AW just the same . Introductions aside, a lot of experience and best practices expressed . All excellent. I believe the most important point was omitted. Everything led to the cockpit , on furlers etc. nearly eliminates the need to go fore’d. That alone improves safety and the need to wake the off watch to reef. I have the added ease of a mast furler. Before condemning my mainsail furler understand the mainsail has a roach, vertical battens, and rarely snarls if operated by the same me.

Dick Stevenson

Alan, A very interesting and to me, new, derivation of the term cutter. You clearly have a historical perspective that has escaped my education. I am aware of the cutters you describe, but not from first hand experience. And I also agree with your last comments about the more modern sloop sail designs, especially when cranking in our large jib filled with wind. Thanks, Dick

RDE (Richard Elder)

If you can get past the fawning commentator, this tale about the consequences of loosening even a wash towel sized bit of roller furled sail during a major storm will give you pause.


Couldn’t agree more, John.


Hi John,
Our new boat, a Norseman 447, has roller furling – something new for us. The furling lines for both heads’ls run along the stanchion bases, and at the last stanchion make a nearly 180º turn back to the cockpit winch/cleat. I never liked the stanchions doing double duty here, but now I’m really not liking it when the wind pipes up and we roll in a reef on the 100% jib. It seems my diminuative furling line attached to my unprepared stanchions is exactly what I’m pulling against when I crank in on the sheet in 30 knots. I can’t wrap my head around the ubiquity of this frail set up, it doesn’t seem very sensible to me at all.

I’m considering options to relieve my stanchions of their second job. But the line diameter issue puzzles me. In your travels have you run into others as concerned about this issue as I am? Any solutions, thoughts you and others can offer?

Thanks very much!

Dick Stevenson

Absolutely, you are quite right to be worried in my estimation. It is one thing to have stanchion bases be used as fair-leads where the direction of pull is not changed significantly, but I would not wish most stanchion installations to be subject to the kind of pressure RF pennants can instill, especially when reefed and the jib starts flailing about.
With respect to rope size/type, the consideration is usually not strength, but chafe. Most ropes will have reasonable strength for the job, but I choose the largest line that will work with the drum size (which then gives you good strength and low stretch). When things are really ornery for a few days, it is RF pennant inspection that may get neglected so I want beef for extra safety. And really inspect your leads at all reasonably levels of drum fullness. The last thing anyone wants is for a reefed jib to be released suddenly in a blow with no easy way to bring it back in.
On Alchemy, we also have 2 roller furling headsails and love their multitude of options and ease of deployment from the cockpit. We have 90 degree turns on the deck sides for the RF pennants to be handled from the center of the cockpit just abaft the dodger, a very safe secure location. On the jib topsail I installed a small snubbing type winch on the toe rail. It is rarely used as a winch, but makes for a great turning block and with a couple of wraps allows total control of the RF pennant, going in or out or reefed. The staysail has a simple turning block on the toe rail.
I hope this helps.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy


Hi John,
As it is my first comment, first please let me thank you for this very comprehensive and knowledgeable site.
As I was following the Vendee Globe race, I watched this video by Destremeau that I’d like to share / 1st part (links at the end of the post). I have always done some extra rolls with the sheet when furling in, as I was taught to, in order to well stuck the sail. And the more the better ..
Now it says leaving a small triangle would be better (as long as you put good tension in the furling line and the sheets) and it makes sense. My guess is as the sail tightens in a little more through the forestay movements, I’ll need to take in a little more furling line to adjust the tension of the sheets and keep the triangle small. But the main plus for this method is, to my eyes, it looks much neater. Stupid, isn’t it ?
Any feed-back with these rolling techniques ?
#1 : (English version)
#2 : (French version)


Why are pairs of furling headsails always in tandem? Why do we never see two side-by-side? Is there any merit in say having a large light genoa and a high cut yankee both ready to go and, equally important, ready to put away? Most of the time the yankee and stays’l would be used but when it drops below say 7 knots the yankee is furled and the bigger, lighter genoa deployed.

P D Squire

Setting aside “Size Matters” for now (my boat is much smaller and even the aspiring boat is still smaller than MC) I wonder which is less expensive overall? Hank On requires more sails but they are each used less so should last longer. Roller reefing requires more gear and maintenance. I suppose the difference wouldn’t be significant in a cruiser’s total cost of ownership, still it might be interesting to compare.

Michael Jack

Hi, John. Just about to replace the very worn Genoa furling line and not entirely sure what to use. Any suggestions? (in fact, have you ever thought about a whole article on what to use on all lines on a boat? I know you have suggestions all through the books, but sometimes finding your suggestions is hard (e.g. took me a while just to find the article on Lazy Jacks to see what you use there).

Michael Jack

Thanks, John. In regards to the search, I try to use it all the time but don’t find it very useful. I think partly because it doesn’t show you what in the article gave cause for it to appear in the search results (highlight the words you searched on) and partly because a search is only as good as the initial knowledge of the searcher to be accurate in the search criteria (mine being limited on the subjects at hand). In regards to the chapters on rigging, my excuse here, which I am sure you will appreciate, is that at a certain age, the bits you forget about something you have recently learned far outweigh the bits you remember and this can mean whole chunks of gaps (such as forgetting certain chapters in one of the many books you have on the site). Anyway, I will try to do better. Thanks again.

Michael Jack

Thanks, John.

P D Squire

I wonder if “because the boat was not designed for them” is a good reason against roller furlers?

I’m considering the interim boat between my current SR26 and the A40. The current front-runner is a Townson 34; a 12,000lb sloop designed in the ‘70s for cruising the Hauraki Gulf and sometimes offshore. However, I can’t seem to make it achieve one of the goals I thought was important i.e.; not having to find room in an already small boat to store multiple hank-on headsails. I’d become impressed by this Case For Roller-Furling Headsails and imagined a cutter with two furlers would meet all my headsail needs upwind to broad reaching without taking up any storage space below. I agree furlers cause windage but if Tapio Lehtinen feels the advantages outweigh the windage who am I to argue?(1)  

However, it seems a cutter conversion is not practical for the T34. It has a single spreader mast so there would be no support for the head of the staysl. Also, the #1 genoa overlaps fully 166% so, the yankee+staysl area would be just 85% of the #1 at best. The cutter combination is scarcely more area than the #2. I’d be left underpowered quite often. See the racers approaching the top mark with #1s working. They’re not heeling excessively at all so, the #1 area seems necessary.

As AAC points out low-foot genoas with big overlaps furl very poorly. So unless there is a clever solution I haven’t thought of (which I’d love to hear) it seems roller furling (and not having to store headsails below) is not an option for the T34, at least not without serious compromises.

Have I missed something?