In the latest of our series on double handed sailing skills, Pip Hare explains how to handle and best use furling sails with two onboard
Double-handed sailing is gaining in popularity across many disciplines – we now regularly see crews of two managing all sizes of boat, and sailing them with the same efficiency and expectations as full crews.
Here I’m sharing how I approach key manoeuvres with a crew of two, how to minimise risk, prepare for success and advance your techniques.
These techniques are designed for double handed crews sailing a yacht with an autopilot, and an asymmetric spinnaker. We’re sailing a J/99, which has a fixed bowsprit and hanked-on jib. Thanks to Key Yachting for their support.
Furlers have revolutionised the use of offwind sails for short-handed sailors, providing a low risk alternative to the snuffer for managing large sail areas, and allowing more sailors to benefit from the excitement and efficiency of improved performance reaching and running, while substantially reducing the stress.
But they’re not infallible, and when they don’t work getting a big sail safely to the deck is a huge challenge. To avoid problems good technique and process is essential so in this masterclass we look at furler management.
Know your furler
There are two types of furler sails, either bottom-up or top-down units. This refers to how the sail is captured when the furl starts.
With a bottom-up furler the tack is the first thing to be rolled, as the furler continues to turn it picks up the foot of the sail as it transfers the twist up the cable.
With a top-down furler, the tack flies free of the furling drum so the initial twist is transferred independently up the torsion cable to the top, where it gathers the head of the sail and then furls it down the cable.
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In broad terms top-down furlers are used for loose luffed, deep girth sails such as spinnakers, cruising chutes and soft gennakers, whose luffs will fly free of the furling cable allowing the sail to rotate to windward. When the sail is flying the cable requires no tension.
Bottom-up furlers are generally used for the flatter, fixed luff sails such as Code 0s and laminate gennakers, where the furling cable is inside the luff of the sail and cable tension is critical to performance at higher wind angles.
It’s worth noting that with the advent of structured luff sails, which are able to share load between the luff of the sail and the anti-torsion cable, we’re starting to see top down furlers favoured for all sails. Slightly different techniques are used to manage each of these types of furler.
Setting a furled sail
The beauty of a furled sail is its compactness, ease of management and the fact it can be hoisted and prepared for a set well ahead of time, reducing stress and eliminating forced errors through rushing. That said, do check the tightness of the furl before hoisting the sail because, if it is particularly loose or has areas where there are bulges of loose sail which could be caught by the breeze, then it’s best not to linger between hoisting and unfurling.
Leave the jib flying in normal trim and organise your furled sail on the foredeck to windward of the jib. This has the double benefit of giving a clear line of sight to all lines, and allowing the jib to act as a ‘backstop’ to prevent the furled sail from falling over the side, or flying out to leeward during the hoist.
If racing, you may want to stay on the breeze while the sail is being attached and hoisted. If cruising or learning to work as a double-handed team, turn downwind to an angle that flattens off the deck and reduces the apparent wind. Set the autopilot to steer to a true wind angle, allowing one crew to move forward and manage pit and sheets, while the other goes onto the foredeck with the sail.
Attach tackline, sheets and halyard to the furled sail while it lies on the deck. Make sure you have the sheets in the correct orientation for inside or outside gybing and that the leeward sheet is pulled cleanly around the forestay. If using a leeward halyard, bring it around the front of the forestay before clipping on to the head.
If using a retractable pole, pull the pole out or set it into position before the hoist. Pull the tackline on until it is roughly three-quarters made. Pull the halyard on to full hoist, then take the final tension using the tackline. Once the sail is up, lead your furling line back along the windward side of the deck and secure it from falling to leeward and into the water. Furling sails work best during the furl/unfurl when they have tension in the cable, so even if your eventual course will be downwind, apply tension to the cable for the unfurl. If your end course is reaching, ensure you have maximum tackline on before heading up and loading the sail.
Another tip: ease the backstay before bringing the tackline down to maximum tension, then pull it back on afterwards.
To unfurl, turn the bow downwind to decrease the apparent wind and reduce the effort required to sheet the sail in. Start the unfurl by gently pulling the furling line while sheeting on. In most cases, once the sail has started to unfurl the pressure of wind in the sail will pull the rest of it out quickly, with no additional help from the furling line. Sheet on, adjust luff tension with your tackline and set your tweaker position before turning the bow upwind and on to course.
Use the autopilot to steer when furling the sail, this will allow one crewmember to manage the sheet while the other handles the furling line.
On smaller boats sails can be hand furled, larger sails will require winching. Ensure your sheet is flaked and ready to ease snag-free.
Let tweakers off before starting the furl. Pull on the tackline to your max tension mark if it has been eased; it’s important the torsion cable is tight enough to transfer the twisting motion up or down its length. Hoist the jib and trim it to a position just inside the guardrails.
Using the pilot (steering on true wind angle), bear away to decrease the apparent wind, allowing the sail to depower but not collapse. Depending on wind strength this will be around 140-150° TWA.
Ease the sheet and start to pull the furling line. Initially you’ll need to dump the sheet at first to depower the sail or it will be too hard to turn the furler. But as the furl gets under way and the exposed sail area decreases, start to take a little load on the sheet to keep the furl tight.
Set the autopilot to steer on a wind angle that will allow the sail to stream away from the torsion cable but not flog, a slightly higher wind angle than for a bottom-up furler. This is particularly important for soft sails as, if they are allowed to collapse, the leech of the sail can get picked up by the furler early causing the sail to ‘wine glass’.
Start to pull the furling line before the sheet is eased, the top-down furling cable needs to be preloaded with turns before the top of the sail starts to furl – this is usually six or seven full turns of the drum. The more wind, the more turns you’ll need.
The crew managing the furling line will start to feel resistance building up in the cable and at this point can signal to the cockpit to release the sheet. Make a big ease on the sheet so the sail is streaming unhampered away from the torsion cable. Keep the sheet under just enough control to avoid it twisting or going under the boat but without loading the sail. Once two thirds of the sail is away, apply a little tension to the sheet to keep the furl tight.
I’d always recommend dropping a furled sail to windward when short-handed, as the jib will stop the sail from falling to leeward, making it easier for one person to manage on the foredeck.
With one crew on the foredeck and one in the cockpit, ready the halyard, tackline and leeward sheet by flaking or coiling so they will run out. Ease the tackline to create enough slack for the furled sail to just sag behind the forestay – be careful not to allow too much sag as heavier sails can become difficult to flip around the forestay.
Grab the furled sail and swing it to windward of the forestay. If struggling to make this happen turn the bow downwind to reduce heel and move the apparent wind aft. Once the sail is to windward ease the halyard – this can be done quickly as the sail will fall down the jib. Let the tackline go once the sail is on the deck.
Problem: furler is tight or stiff
- Check you don’t have other halyards wrapped around the top of the furling gear.
- Check you have enough tension in the furling cable – this may be the case if you can see deflection in the cable above the furling drum, or the sail is pulled tight along the foot.
- Check the tackline purchase is not bound up – this happens when the 2:1 tacklines are too loose during the hoist and any residual torsion in the furling cable transfers down and twists the tackline purchase. Avoid this by applying more tackline before the hoist.
Problem: sail will not unfurl
- Increase the apparent wind slightly by heading up 10°.
- Use the furling line to unfurl the final part of the sail.
Problem: sail is slow to furl
- Apply more preload turns to top-down furler.
- Reduce the apparent wind by heading down 10°.
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