Roller Furling and Reefing
Revised by BoatUS editors in June 2012
There was a time when serious sailors frowned on using furling gear: the sacrifice in performance was deemed too much for the convenience offered. Early furling systems didn't help themselves much either, being weighty, awkward, and unreliable. But times change. Advances in design mean that today's sailors can take advantage of roller furling systems without losing out in the quest for speed. Here are some good reasons to have roller furling.
1. Larger Boats with Smaller Crews
With a furler, the genoa can be reefed or stowed from the safety of the cockpit without the physical effort of dragging sails onto the foredeck, so a small crew can sail a large boat, or a moderate size boat can be single- handed. If you cruise as a couple, consider how much time you take turns single-handing; roller furling would be a little like having another crew member.
2. Larger Headsails
Some sailors choose a relatively small headsail as their primary genoa, because the difficulty of changing down in heavy air does not justify the light air performance. With an efficient reefing system, you can choose a primary genoa that allows the boat to sail efficiently in light air; but don’t overdo it.
3. Larger Genoas for Night Sailing
Single-handed or short-handed boats typically reduce sail before nightfall, because approaching weather changes may not be visible and because sail changes are more difficult in the dark and often require waking the off-watch crew. With a furling system, you can leave the full-sized genoa up when the wind is light, and when the wind comes up, a headsail reduction becomes a simple, one-person operation from the cockpit, as long as you don’t wait too long and let the wind get too high. Roller furling doesn’t diminish the importance of reefing too soon rather than too late.
Few cruising boats offer convenient storage for bagged or unbagged sails. No one likes to fill the cabin with a sea of wet cloth that can't be properly stowed until the boat is back in port, where the sail can be dried and folded.
All-purpose reefing genoas cover the middle of the wind range very well, but there are times that specialty sails are required for enhanced performance. Spinnakers and Gennakers(r) are easy to set with a furling system. After they're flying, the genoa is rolled out of the way, ready to reset before the spinnaker is struck.
Many boats need a heavy air jib for extreme conditions. Most boats, particularly coastal cruisers, will reef the all-purpose genoa when the wind strengthens, but the heavy air genoa is still needed because it offers efficiency in the upper end of the wind range that an all-purpose genoa cannot. When the wind is already high, you may want to start with the heavy air jib it this is safe and appropriate to the conditions, and reef it if conditions deteriorate further.
It’s important to note that, depending on your use and gear, sails may need to be especially cut for use with roller furling and you should discuss this with a good sailmaker.
6. Better Visibility
Efficient genoas are cut close to the deck, where they obscure visibility ahead and to leeward. Since most sailing takes place within a few miles of a harbor, visibility is important for safety and peace of mind. By reefing the genoa a few turns you'll gain visibility. Visibility windows are also a help, but the more you can see the better. Even if you have windows in your sails, roller reefing is still useful.
7. More Sailing
Did you do more motoring than sailing on your last cruise? A furling system can't guarantee wind, but it makes it easy to take advantage of whatever wind there is. Frequent raising and lowering of the headsail to meet variable conditions becomes tedious. With a furling system, there's no big investment in labor to set or lower the genoa. .
The ability to reef the genoa means that you can slow the boat easily, yet retain the ability to accelerate instantly when conditions change.
In or near a harbor or channel, you can use the reefed genoa to slow the boat and improve your visibility. Then, as you clear the harbor, you are instantly ready to roll out the genoa and accelerate away—but never proceed when you can’t see.
When sailing offshore at night, reefing allows you to tailor your ETA for a landfall after sunrise. You simply take a knot or two off your speed throughout the night to make daylight landfall and avoid parking in an uncomfortable seaway for a few hours waiting for sunrise.
This article is based in part, with their permission, upon "Living with Roller Reefing" which first appeared in Sailing Magazine's April 1991 issue.