Roller Furling Headsail Risks and Rewards

I had my Harken furler jam, a loop of the furling line managed to sneak off the drum between the cage and its top. Have no idea how that happened, but it left my genoa partially furled. Luckily this occurred in mild conditions and it didn’t take long to resolve. I’d recently made a change to the furling line fairlead, so I restored that to its original position…but really I have no idea if that was the cause. The change was small, and in line with the installation instructions.

Since this happened, I’ve been somewhat concerned about furler failure. By all accounts furlers are dependable. But recovery is what concerns me. There doesn’t seem to be a good clear way to deal with some failures.

As an example, Good Old Boat magazine had an article about a forestay failure, the clevis pin beneath the furler broke (crevice corrosion) and the forestay, furler and sail went swinging in the wind. Conditions were not great, and though the crew got some measure of control over the sail, they were not able to drop it.

They stabilized the mast with their spinnaker halyard then tried to head to the closest harbor. But this was upwind of them and due to the windage on the flogging sail they were unable to turn the boat around, even with the engine. They were forced to continue on downwind looking for shelter some distance away. It ended well for them, but the point is that they were unable to effect a repair while underway.

So this is the crux of the matter to me. Being able to deal reasonably with whatever failures might occur. Any equipment on board should have a backup plan in the case it fails, and it seems to me that furler failures just don’t really have good solutions…or least ones that are usable at sea under rough conditions.

Maybe some of you have suggestions for dealing with different failure cases?

That's a good question. It does you credit that you're thinking about the implications of your own experience and the Good Old Boat (GOB) story.

I have a few ideas about how to deal with that roller furler headstay clevis pin failure, and no doubt others will chime in in the comments. But the bottom line is that it would be very difficult and dangerous to get that failure under control, with a very small chance of success, particularly for a shorthanded crew offshore, so I'm not going to go there except to say dismasting is the most likely outcome, no matter what the crew does.

So, instead, the way I look at this (and many other things) is:

  1. First, evaluate the tradeoffs of the piece of gear I'm thinking about, in this case roller furling headsails, against simpler alternatives, in this case hank-on sails.
  2. And, then, assuming I have decided that the tradeoffs of the more complex gear work for me, think about how much the unavoidable associated risks of added complexity can be managed.

Tradeoffs

So if we start with tradeoffs, then headstay furlers are, to me, worth the added risks because the benefits are huge over hanks (see Further Reading for my reasoning).

On the other hand, for example, in-boom and in-mast furlers are not worth it because the benefits don't outweigh the risks, at least to me.

But wait, there are experienced cruisers who I respect (See Further Reading for one couple) who have stuck with hanks, so just because I have answered that question "yes" does not make it the right call for others.

So I would suggest you start your deliberations there. And even if in the end you decide that you will keep roller furling (likely, I suspect) the exercise of questioning that is good seamanship.

With that out of the way, let's dig down into the two failures you brought up.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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