In-mast furl­ing main­sails get a bad rap from many sailors, but more of­ten than not op­er­a­tor er­ror is to blame. Gra­ham Snook has some tips on how to keep your furl­ing main prob­lem-free

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En­sur­ing a roller-furl­ing main works as it should

In- mast furl­ing sys­tems have come a long way. For­get the hol­low- leeched, baggy tri­an­gles we first saw decades ago; a well- specced mod­ern in- mast sys­tem can of­fer more sail area than a tra­di­tional slabreefed main­sail, so the per­for­mance gap has nar­rowed sig­nif­i­cantly. Nev­er­the­less, just about ev­ery sailor has heard a hor­ror story about in- mast furl­ing, and many are swift to con­demn these furlers with­out ever hav­ing ac­tu­ally used one.

Yes, in-mast furl­ing can have its is­sues, but most of these are caused by op­er­a­tor er­ror. We live in an age where we ex­pect ev­ery­thing to just work. Let off one line, pull another and the main­sail should dis­ap­pear like the money from your wal­let when you take kids out for an ice cream. And when it binds or jams, it can’t pos­si­bly be your fault.

So what is the best way to furl the main­sail? “Care­fully,” replies sail­maker Jeremy White. “It’s a me­chan­i­cal sys­tem, and it must be op­er­ated cor­rectly.”


Be­fore ex­plain­ing how to furl the sail, let’s look at how the sys­tem works. In­side the mast is a grooved alu­minum ex­tru­sion into which the luff of the main­sail slides, in much the same way as a furl­ing genoa. The dif­fer­ence is that there is not a lot of room in­side the mast for a rolled sail, and most is­sues are caused by the sail not furl­ing prop­erly so that the furl be­comes too bulky, or the sail rubs on the in­side of the mast.

Here’s how to get a suc­cess­ful, tight furl ev­ery time. Look­ing down from the top of the mast, the foil usu­ally (or al­ways on Seldén masts) re­volves anti-clock­wise. Put the boat on a star­board tack, with the wind slightly for­ward of the beam. That way, the sail will feed in and around the furler; on a port tack the full height of the sail would be dragged over the sail groove in the mast, adding fric­tion.

Next, ease the main­sheet and then ease the out­haul a lit­tle and start to roll the sail away. Al­ways look at the sail as you’re furl­ing, so you’ll be able to no­tice is­sues as they hap­pen, and not af­ter you’ve, say, wound an inch-thick clump of sail through a half-inch gap. If your sail has full-length ver­ti­cal bat­tens, make sure the first

bat­ten is par­al­lel with the mast when it en­ters, and if you’re reef­ing, leave the bat­ten just out­side the mast groove. Don’t keep too much ten­sion on the out­haul, as this will drag the foil aft in the mast and bend it, caus­ing the sail to rub against the in­side of the mast, again caus­ing fric­tion.

Once you’ve taken the slack out of the sail, ease the out­haul and take in on the furl­ing line again. Try not to let the sail flog as this causes more— yes, you’ve guessed it— fric­tion. Re­peat the ease/ furl un­til only the UV pro­tec­tion strip is show­ing. If you have lam­i­nate sails and they have been furled away wet, try to dry them at the first op­por­tu­nity.

If you’re hav­ing prob­lems us­ing the lines to furl, don’t be afraid to furl the sail at the mast with a winch han­dle—try it some­time, it is re­mark­ably easy. If you are hav­ing to do any­thing dif­fer­ent, like rais­ing the boom or hop­ping on one leg while pray­ing to the god of furl­ing sails, it’s worth look­ing at your sys­tem in de­tail for prob­lems.


If you’ve fol­lowed this pro­ce­dure and are still hav­ing prob­lems, there are a num­ber of things to check. First, take a look in­side your mast to see which way your sys­tem should furl. Put a winch han­dle in the furl­ing mech­a­nism at the mast and turn it the di­rec­tion in­di­cated to furl and make sure the sail is go­ing into the mast. Click­ing over the ratchet at the mast be­fore it’s time to furl will en­sure it al­ways rolls in the right di­rec­tion.

The big­gest cause of prob­lems is typ­i­cally the sail it­self. How old is it and what ma­te­rial is it made from? Furl­ing main­sails are cut flat­ter than con­ven­tional slab-reef­ing sails; stretch in the cloth makes for a baggy sail and all that draft in a baggy sail has to go some­where. If your Dacron sail is blown out and has a deep belly, think about getting a new one, since you’re fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle. As the belly furls it dou­bles the thick­ness of the furl and causes an un­even shape to the furled sail.

Ex­cess hal­yard ten­sion can also cause the fab­ric to bunch up, as ver­ti­cal creases at the mast cause the sail to fold over it­self—re­lease the hal­yard un­til you have hor­i­zon­tal creases at the luff, then add just enough ten­sion to re­move them.

The next thing to look at is fric­tion. If the lines that lead to your furl­ing gear and out­haul make mul­ti­ple turns through mul­ti­ple blocks, make sure all the an­gles they have to go through are as wide as pos­si­ble and that all blocks and sheaves are run­ning smoothly. A good wash with fresh­wa­ter and a squirt of McLube SailKote can work won­ders. So can re­plac­ing tired old blocks with new low-fric­tion items.

Another thing you can do is dou­ble-check the back­stay ten­sion, as the foil in­side a bent mast re­mains straight and will bind at the apex of the mast’s bend. In prac­tice, it’s best to set up your back­stay ten­sion when the rig is tuned and not to mess with it from then on.

Fi­nally, if all the above fails, it’s worth a call to your lo­cal rig­ger to check the foil ten­sion. If the foil has gone slack, then it is bending and rub­bing on the mast as you furl.


If you’ve bought a new-to-you boat, ques­tion how good its sails re­ally are. Most pro­duc­tion­boat sails are built to a price, not for longevity or per­for­mance. A new sail will al­most cer­tainly im­prove your en­joy­ment of your boat. But what should you be look­ing for when buy­ing a new sail? There has been much ad­vance­ment in furl­ing main­sail de­sign—im­proved materials, ver­ti­cal bat­tens and in­creased sail area among them. Elvstrøm’s Fat Furl sys­tem, for ex­am­ple, has a larger sail area than that of a com­pa­ra­ble slab-reef­ing sail. The new cruis­ing lam­i­nates from lofts like North, Doyle, UK and Quan­tum are also thin­ner, stronger and furl tighter than ever be­fore.

Which­ever sail­maker you choose, get the best-qual­ity ma­te­rial you can af­ford. It’s a false econ­omy to buy cheaper sail­cloth, as it will stretch and you’ll be left with a baggy sail af­ter a few sea­sons. The luff of a lam­i­nate sail on a 45ft yacht, for ex­am­ple, might only stretch ¾in over its life, whereas a Dacron sail might stretch as much as 6in. That ex­cess sail­cloth has to roll up in the same space as when it was new.

If you want max­i­mum sail area and sail sup­port, full-length ver­ti­cal bat­tens are the way to go. These sup­port the leech and per­mit a good full roach. They will also sup­port the sail over its full height, pro­vid­ing ex­tra rigid­ity while it’s be­ing furled. Shorter ver­ti­cal bat­tens, on the other hand, can leave the sail un­sup­ported, caus­ing “hing­ing” at their base when furl­ing.

For those with­out the bud­get or de­sire for a bat­tened sail us­ing mod­ern materials, a Dacron sail with a hol­low leech still of­fers many ad­van­tages over a slab-reef­ing sys­tem—pri­mary among them ease of reef­ing and be­ing able to have ex­actly the right amount of sail area out for any given con­di­tions.

If you are com­mis­sion­ing new sails, con­sider getting them sil­i­cone-coated as this will help the sail slide over it­self, mak­ing the furl in­side the mast tighter.

In-mast furl­ing has got a bad rap in the past, but used prop­erly and with a lit­tle care there’s no rea­son why such a sys­tem shouldn’t give you trou­ble-free sail­ing for years to come. In­creas­ing num­bers of boats are cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing with them, and most boat­builders now of­fer them as an op­tion. s

Sail­ing pho­to­jour­nal­ist Gra­ham Snook has sailed many boats with furl­ing main­sails, and likes them just fine

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