Brion Toss On Roller-Furling

In the space of just a few decades, furlers have gone from being a cranky rarity to an ubiquitous rigging component. The transition was paved with a series of mishaps ― and even tragedies ― as sailors and furler manufacturers discovered the quirks, flaws, and limitations of the machinery. Some of these problems had to do with the hardware, some with how the furler was used/misused. Other problems, including some of the nastiest ones, had to do with how the furler interacted with other rig components. Contemporary furlers aren’t perfect – no machine is – but they are no longer intrinsically hazardous.

Therefore please take it as a given that, while furler probems have for the most part been recognized and addressed, ignorance, faulty installation, and misuse can bring them roaring right back. Also note that some furler flaws can lay quiescent for years, waiting for a component failure or a bit of crew inattentiveness to awaken it. This might sound alarmist. After all, jib furlers are on most of the sailboats in the world now, mains’l furlers are on a large and growing number of boats, and you hardly ever hear about catastrophes involving them. But think: when you install a jib furler, you put what is often the largest sail on your boat onto a glorified windowshade roller. You place that roller as far from the cockpit as you can, so it will be maximally difficult to see if anything is going wrong, and maximally difficult to fix when things do go wrong. As though that weren’t bad enough, you also encase your jibstay inside this gizmo. This is the stay that, among other things, is the primary means of keeping the mast out of the cockpit. I’ll get to the rant on mains’l furlers later. Meanwhile,  it is clear that we have a lot riding on the integrity of a vulnerable machine, and it is a testament to the efforts of designers, engineers, and riggers that, in most instances, today’s furlers are  usually trouble-free. But far too few of them are optimal, in terms of either efficiency or safety. In this section, then, we’ll be going through the details that make furlers function. We will see how to build a reliable machine.

1. Read the manual

Furler manufacturers have been through  enough nightmare phone calls from angry customers (and lawyers) to have devoted serious attention to their manuals. By contrast I can remember some of the first manuals I had to deal with. Blurry things of uncertain syntax and ambiguous illustrations, they were the perfect complement for the not-quite-thought-out machines they were meant to describe the assembly and use of. Worst of all were manuals that clearly told the reader to do things, like disabling the lower toggle (see below), that were already known to be dangerous. Or that blissfully ignored other problems, like halyard wrap and unintended terminal disassembly (see below), that were then largely unknown, because we hadn’t yet used furlers enough to encounter these problems.

Nowadays both machines and manuals are well-sorted-out, but there are still a couple of instruction-related issues: a lot of older furlers, their manuals long lost, are still in use, and in need of repair; and as good as the newer units are, they are still capable of being assembled and used incorrectly. Both of these issues are worth exploring a bit.

First, the old units. Let’s say that you have a Profurl from the 1980’s, and have discovered that the bearing seals are leaking. Profurl is alone among the major manufacturers in using sealed bearings for its races (you’ll hear more about this and other Profurl idiosyncrasies in the “Quirks” section, below). Profurl, at least as of this writing, has good customer service, and they can replace any needed parts. But before you commit yourself  to the not-inconsiderable expense of new parts, you might check to see if the fasteners haven’t corroded into the foil, and if the foil length is actually correct, and if the top section hasn’t been damaged by halyard wrap because the anti-wrap device wasn’t installed correctly, or if any of a number of possible other problems might be just as much in need of addressing as the bearing seals. Just like with old masts, it is very, very easy to exceed the cost (and bother) of a new furler in trying to repair an old one. And even if you succeed with the repair, you will still basically have an old furler. 
With any brand of furler, also bear in mind that you might be attempting these repairs using an old manual, assuming you still have it. If so, please recall that early manuals were not always paragons of clarity or sound advice. Finally, understand that repairing a furler is usually first a matter of disassembly, and that this will probably involve dealing with frozen fasteners, among other niceties. So before attempting a repair, it were a good idea to get a realistic notion of the costs and degree of strenuousness involved. There’s no point in throwing away a furler that needs only minor attention, but also no point in mending the unmendable. Like masts, furlers can always be recycled.

Newer furlers are better machines all around, but it is still possible to put them together wrong. This is especially likely to be true for do-it-yourselfers, who are essentially learning how to assemble a furler by practicing on one for their own boat. Since this is a book about how to rig, and since a lot of you will be putting your own furlers together, I want to caution you to be a good deal more careful than circumstances seem to warrant. Too often I hear of owner-installers who wind up in expensive, time-consuming redo’s (often with professional assistance the second time around) because they skipped over or misunderstood some part of the instructions, or simply lacked the mechanical skills required to do the job right. And at least as often I encounter or hear of furlers where the owner-installer is confident that they did do the job right, and don’t even realize that their furler is neither as reliable, nor efficient, nor as safe as they think it is.

Not that professionals always do things perfectly. In fact, professionals tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, hiding little time bombs in the furlers of unsuspecting clients. Sometimes this is simply because they learned it wrong to begin with, and just keep doing it that way in the absence of any feedback. But at other times there’s a misplaced spirit of innovation at work, whereby the professional concludes that the people who designed, fabricated, tested, and delivered the product were too stupid to have discovered some clever little assembly shortcut.

In general, it is hard to go wrong if you just follow the assembly instructions. If anything seems the least bit confusing, the manufacturer has some very helpful technical support people standing by, ready to coach you. Really, it is okay to give them a call and ask for help. Think of it as getting full value for what you spent.

And you pro’s out there, no matter how many of these things you have put together, you might also want to have a word with technical support before implementing some Bright Idea Shortcut. Even if it turns out that your idea has no merit, you will at least have made yourself known as someone who cares about the product. Among other things, this makes it more likely that the manufacturer will think of you whenever clients ask for riggers in your area.