Saturday, February 19, 2011

Roller reefing, and misguided mascochism

When I was young and full of misguided masochism I used to sneer at Roller Reefers - They ruin your sail shape I would say, and they can fail, and anyway I like to go forward and change sails, makes me feel like I'm alive... The truth of it was Reiger had a nice big sail locker and a heap of hank on sails, and to change to a roller reefing system would have meant a heap of redundant expensive stuff. I learnt to live with the sail changes - even got quite good at it - and to be honest sometimes I even enjoyed the process. 

But I remember one dark stormy night coming across Bass Straight, with a quickly rising head wind, wishing I didn't have to go forward and change down to the spitfire jib... Wishing I could pull on a magic piece of rope and magically make that sail smaller... wishing I hadn't been such a masochist..

All that wishing didn't work and I eventually had to go forward and change down , and all that salt water down my neck sure did make me feel alive - also made me feel bloody cold, wet and miserable, The old no 3 tucked under my arm was quickly stuffed down the cockpit locker, and the little spitfire jib had settled Reiger back into the groove.... Until the wind (as quickly as it had appeared) died away to nothing.. where's that magic rope? 

The next boat definitely had to have a Roller Reefer, I had also realised that carrying 5 or so soggy wet mildewy lumps of poorly folded sailcloth around was a bit dumb, tramping all that salt into the boat was bad for everything. Rinsing them with fresh water, drying and folding them up properly took the best part of a day, and the amount of space dedicated to them could be much better used.

So Snow Petrel has a "furler" (yes I know it's really a "reefer" but from now on I will call it a furler) and I am happy, whenever I wish I can pull on that magic rope and the sail magically disappears, Its all rather wonderful, and I wonder what ever possessed me to sneer at such a device... However some of my scepticism remains, so my furler is a simple time tested reefurl with a halyard return, and absolutely no roller bearings, swivels or anything to that can readily fail. It is a marvel of minimalist engineering, the only bearings are about $18 worth of orange PVC electrical conduit. I also put a really heavy 10mm 1X19 SS forestay inside it (I don't much like SS but needed something smooth) , with toggles top and bottom. For another similar unit see Alado

Mine has a massive welded aluminium drum that can fit a huge amount of 10mm double braid (big enough to hold and pull on, and strong enough to keep the wimp happy). I like to know I have enough rope on there to never run out of turns, even when I have rolled the sail real tight. I have had this happen on delivery's, Its a real problem, the corner of the sail is hanging out and there's no more rope to pull... the only option is to lash it up and try to dismantle the complex guards and then add a few more wraps, or run off and blanket it behind the main and quickly unroll and then re-roll it abit looser before the wind flogs it to pieces (neither option is even slightly fun... unless you really are a masochist)

I was lucky enough to get a really good furling headsail with Snow Petrel, It is radial cut, with a high enough clew to enable deep reefing without having to change the sheet lead. The high clew also keeps the sail driving well on a reach (look at a blast reacher on a racing boat), gives visibility and keeps it out of the bow wave. Low cut roller reefing sails are terrible things..

This sail also has a foam pad in the luff and still sets and drives quite well to windward in 30+ knots with the sail reefed well down to spitfire size, I have a solent stay that can be rigged just behind the furler, with a nice hank on spitfire jib but I don't use it, the furler works fine...  And when the wind eases I can quickly ease that magic rope and keep her moving at her best. I can set a small storm jib of the baby stay to help in stronger winds, but this sail is not essential. In a real blow I am quite happy to use just a corner of my furled genoa.

I suppose there are tradeoff's. I make sure the sail is in good condition, and fit a strong spectra leach cord to hold the sail together if It ever rips, at least until I can get it unrolled and down. A shredded sail streaming off a furler in a blow is not a good look.... Once that leach line goes you are abit stuffed.

Also the sail adds alot of windage forward that needs to be considered, and alot of weight aloft. The windage forward is useful in a blow with a drogue out, holding the bow downwind, but can be a pain at anchor, or when manoeuvring under motor. I wonder how some of these boats with twin furlers manage in strong winds, although I can see the advantages.

I use my furler like a throttle, tweaking it frequently to keep the boat sailing at her happiest speed. To reef the sail I now prefer to run off for a split second and blanket the sail behind the main, it means I can pull it in by hand easily and safely. I just have to make sure the sail is rolled evenly and tightly. If I can't do this I luff the sail just enough to take the weight out of it and winch it in. I don't like to let the sail flog to roll it up unless the wind is light, and then I normally need some weight on the sheet to get a nice tidy stow.

I am abit paranoid about the furling line being let go by mistake, and always lock it in the clutch and on the self tailing winch. When I leave the boat I tie the furler up with a separate piece of line around the drum (which I normally then forget to untie when I go sailing..). The only other problem I have had is the turns being thrown off the drum if I let it go to quickly, or let the sail collapse and fill with a slack furling line. At least with my open drum it is easy to fix.

I Now take some more care, and always keep half a turn on the sail, with a tight furling line. I also check it well before I need to roll the sail up. I have had turns get jambed inside fancy expensive units for the same reasons, and it can be hard to see, and even harder to fix, so if you have a covered drum I suggest you follow the same procedures, and also keep the fiddly cover guard removal tools handy...

So as you can see I am a pretty happy about it all, although  do have some ideas for improvements to the unit (I always have ideas for improvements....) and for the next boat I would consider a complete change of tack by going for a junk rig... But more on that one later.


PS I had to buy my roller reefing unit so the praise is earned, I don't think I'd have a fancy one onboard even if they gave it to me... But saying that the good quality modern units do seem to be very well made and reliable. I just prefer my simple system.


  1. Hello Ben,

    Have enjoyed reading thru your great blog. Very informative and interesting.

    Have you experienced any problems with operating your roller furler in when in icing conditions? I have little experience (so far) in sailing in freezing spray conditions, and am wondering about the possibility of having difficulties reefing sails due to the drum icing up.


    PS: Thanks for the links to my blog and website.

  2. Hi Richard, in truth I have never had enough icing to cause a big problem while sailing, the pictures of Snowpetrel with ice on her were taken at anchor.

    From Gerry Clarks' amazing book 'The Totorore voyage'.

    "the gale became worse and the seas were mountainous, and the icing up was just incredible, even worse than yesterday. Totorore was wallowing, listing to starboard under the excessive top weight... I was out early clearing the tiller, and that alone took half an hour. the next job was to clear the furling line and sheet for at least one jib... So while I steered Chris unrolled a little bit of jib. Suddenly it ran away from him, unrolling half the sail. He could not hold it - none of the winches worked, the cam cleats would not hold, and even the normal cleat was iced up."

    His furlers were similar to mine, and seemed to work even when completely covered in ice, so fingers crossed... I think winch covers make sense, and maybe a plastic shroud to cover the drum and also keep rotating it in heavy icing conditions?

    Oh, and congratulations on the NW passage trip, well done.



  3. It occurs to me that as a general rule things which turn are less problematic when iced than things which move in a straight line.
    I say this because you need only fracture the ice around the periphery, then it's free to turn without actually displacing any ice. A bit like, say, the difference between capsizing an icebreaker in situ, vs breaking a channel with the same vessel.

    Applying this to your interesting point, Ben, in your more recent post about escape hatches: perhaps the ideal would be a round hatch, with a long lever (or pairs of lugs on opposite sides, two on the hatch and two on the surround, to apply a pair of pinch bars) so you could multiply the torque to break the ice around the seals.

    Perhaps (either as well, or instead) the hatch dogs could also be designed so their action was reversible, to enable them to act as jacking screws for forcing the hatch open.