Furling Follies by Scott St. Clair It was a dark and stormy night. Seriously. My two sons and I were outbound from Charleston, South Carolina, to the Abacos on Jammin, our cutter rigged Stevens 47. It was late December, and we had chosen to leave port in a brisk norther. The norther would get us across the Gulf Stream in the first 24 hours, after which Commanders, our weather router, forecast a shift to the east, perfect for a reach south to the islands. We knew that the Gulf Stream crossing would be bumpy, but the Stevens is a big, well-found boat, so my only worry was some discomfort before we turned right on the far side of the Stream. Hubris. I should say that this was the first time we had taken Jammin off shore, though we had delivered her up and down the East Coast several times, mostly in benign weather, certainly nothing like the sustained 30 knots forecast for the norther, but the wind would be at our back or on the beam, so I was not overly concerned. Our initial course took us nearly due south to the western edge of the Stream, whereupon the plan was to turn left to cross the northeast bound Stream at right angles. We were on a deep broad reach under a single-reefed main and partly furled genoa. With 20 knots of apparent wind, the boat was making about 8 knots. We reached the western edge of the Stream at sunset. Coming Up Short After we turned left to cross the Stream, the apparent wind rose to 25 knots, so I made the decision to completely furl the genoa and set the stays’l. In 25 knots of wind, I don’t care what furler manufacturers say, you are going to need a winch to furl a 750 square foot sail, and Jammin has a pair of Lewmar 27 electric winches as her primaries. The genoa furled fine and then, just as smoothly, but a whole lot faster, unfurled. Although I had already taken my finger off the winch button, the furling line had gone slack. I’m sure there are other sights more adrenalin pumping, but $8,000 of laminated genoa flogging itself to death in 30 knots of wind sure got me excited. It was, of course, dark by this time, and we were well and truly in the Stream. With 30 knots of breeze blowing against the grain, the seas were predictably short and steep, with the foredeck frequently awash. We had, of course, no choice. We had to get the genny on deck, and the only way to do so was to claw it down. Malcolm, my older son, manned the halyard at the mast. Tyler and I sat to windward on the foredeck and proceeded to claw. It was slow work, but we got it down, securing it to the slotted aluminum toe rail with sail gaskets. It was, as they say, a wild ride, with the bow plunging up and down ten feet at a go. And a good amount of water to keep
Scott St. Clair
things interesting. I will say this: the Stevens bow never went under or anything close to it. It was spray, not solid water that we had to contend with. That would have been worse. We unfurled the stays’l and continued on our way across the Stream, still making nearly 8 knots on a beam reach. At first light, we reached our second waypoint on the east edge of the Stream and headed due south. As predicted, the wind veered to the east and we continued to enjoy a fast beam reach under a single reefed main and stays’l. We were making such good time, if fact, that at dusk on the second day (we’d been underway about 60 hours), it became clear that we would make landfall at about midnight. Since I had never entered the Sea of Abaco at any time, much less midnight, I decided to slow the boat down to ensure land fall at first light. Doing so entailed furling the stays’l. Guess what? Same *&%!, different day. Getting a 250 square foot stays’l down is much easier than a 750 square foot genoa, but still, WTF? Motor sailing at about 6 knots, we made landfall at first light after 82 hours underway. We were tied up at the Conch Inn Marina in Marsh Harbor by noon. By the way, the entrance to the Sea of Abaco between Scotland and Brush Cay is right where the electronic chart and GPS says it should be, but I still wouldn’t make such a landfall at night.
Scott St. Clair
Furler Fixin’ So. What happened to the furlers? It turns out that, on these circa 1981 Furlex furlers, the furling lines are secured to their drums by a knuckle, a doubled bit of line held so by lashing with whipping twine. The furler design relies on having a minimum of three turns on the drum when the sail is furled. When furling the sail in a stiff breeze, the sail is wound more tightly than when furled in milder conditions (like when the rigger put it up originally). A tighter wind means more turns to completely furl the sail, and without enough “reserve” winds on the drum, the furling line reached the bitter end, and the knuckle pulled out of the drum. Fail: sail unfurl. I came to the above conclusion when re-rigging the furlers in Marsh Harbor. It was obvious how the line was secured to the drum from the fold and remnants of whipping in the end of the line. When re-securing the furling line to the drum, I tried simply tying a knot (half hitch) in the end of the line as is done with some Harken furlers, but there wasn’t room for the knot between the drum and the hub. It would have to be a knuckle. The usual way to rig a furler is to spool all of the furling line onto the drum by turning the head foil by hand. Because the line pulled out when the genoa was tightly furled, I was pretty sure that it was too short, but buying a replacement line in Marsh Harbour on Christmas day wasn’t happening. You then raise the sail in its foil and furl it by pulling on the line. To make it easy to handle a large sail, most riggers and sail makers raise roller furling head sails in as windless a condition as possible, which gives a loose, large diameter furl. The large diameter means fewer turns of the headstay to furl the sail and leaves more furling line on the drum. You see the problem. After we returned to Charleston, I replaced the furling line. Again, the sail was tightly wound after furling it in a brisk breeze. Note how much line is left on the furling drum in the photo at right. The photo was taken after removing the shield that covers the line on the drum. Pretty scary. And believe me, I wound every last inch of line on to the furler before raising
Scott St. Clair
and furling the sail. The furling line was simply too short. Although it is usual to install a furling line with the sail unfurled and on deck, I wanted do it with the sail furled tightly. Fortunately, this model of Furlex furler allows the drum to be disassembled with the sail furled. After removing the old line and reaving the new one, I wound the replacement line around the drum several times by hand. Doing so is at odds with the usual way, which is to unfurl and lower the sail, install the line, wind it up on the furling drum, hoist the sail and then furl it. I wanted to make sure there were enough turns on the drum when the sail was tightly furled. To install a furling line on the Furlex unit, you remove the shield that covers the line on the drum, and then remove the drum half through which the furling line is secured. The drum is held to the furlerâ€™s hub by a couple of flathead machine screws. I then rove the line from the stern of the boat through itâ€™s various guiding blocks and passed about eight clockwise turns loosely around the bottom of the furler. Once I had enough turns around the furler, I passed the line though the drum half, doubled it over and secured the double with many lashings of whipping twine. I used a sail needle to pass the twine through the line to prevent it from coming unwound. With the line secured, I tucked the drum half into the loose coil of furling line and screwed it to the hub. I used 5200 on the screws to prevent corrosion between the stainless steel
Scott St. Clair
screws and the aluminum hub. With the drum half in place, I snugged up and organized the furling line. Done. To determine the length of the new furling line, I measured the old one and added 15 feet. It is now likely too long, but better safe than sorry. Lessons Learned I’ve thought about what this experience means for me as a cruising boat owner and skipper. It’s a conundrum: I’m pretty handy, but I’m not a sail maker or a rigger. I can neither make a sail or install a furler with out help. I’m pretty sure both of the sails and furlers on Jammin were installed by professionals (I can’t know for certain because they came rigged when I bought the boat). I do know that the pro’s I’ve had remove and replace the genoa for service (replacing the sunshield, and the head and tack loops) never said anything about the length of the furling line or it’s installation. I’ve always assumed that the pros know what they’re doing. Now, I’m not so sure. I am sure that the design of the Furlex furlers leaves something to be desired. Simply put, the mechanism for securing the furling line should be far more robust. On my previous boat, I installed (with the help of a rigger) a Harken Mark III furler. On that unit, the furling line is secured to the drum with a knot after passing the line through the top of the drum. I’m sure it’s possible to break a furling line or the drum, but a whole lot more force will be required than it took to break the knuckle inside the Furlex drum. I never had a lick of trouble with that Harken gear. I was also unprepared when the genoa came unfurled in the Stream. My crew and I were not in harness, and we didn’t take the time to harness up before going onto the foredeck to wrestle the genny down. My failure to harness my crew and myself was stupid and inexcusable. Harnesses are a requirement now outside of the cockpit in any but the most benign conditions, especially at night. No sail is worth a life. Despite the trouble with the headsails -- or perhaps in part because of -- our trip to the Abacos was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a sailor. I learned that I can count on my crew, my boat and myself in a pinch. I learned that a gear failure doesn’t have to ruin a cruise. And, hey, the Abacos are fantastic.
Scott St. Clair