Headsail hard to furl? A rigger’s trouble-shooting tips

First let’s deal with the headsail that won’t furl at all. Jammed furlers are a major cause of forestay problems, so your absolute priority is not to damage the forestay. Winch that furling line to get the sail in when the furler is jammed and, at least, you risk ‘bird-caging’ the top of the wire. This is when the wire has been untwisted against the lay to the extent that it will not return to its proper shape. At worst you can actually break one of more strands of the wire. It really gets the heart going to climb a mast and discover several broken strands in the stay that is holding it up. Most modern production rigs have only a forestay to stop the mast falling backwards, so it’s kind of important to keep it in good shape.

So don’t force it. Turn downwind – as you should anyway to furl the sail – and unfurl whatever portion you’ve managed to wind up. Check whether any spare halyards are caught up around the top swivel, and whether the headsail halyard is wrapping around the forestay when you pull on the furling line. Tension the halyard and try again. Perversely, too much halyard tension can also cause furling problems – quite common in heavy weather.

Regularly getting a halyard wrap round the forestay calls for remedial measures. You may need a strop at the head of the sail to allow the swivel to sit higher, or perhaps a block on the mast to improve the angle between the swivel and the halyard sheave.

If the halyard is clear, check the drum. On some furlers a loose furling line can fall off and wrap round the forestay below the drum, or over-ride itself when tension is applied. It’s also possible to catch the furling line between the drum and drum guard.

The answer? Always keep some tension on the line when unrolling and sailing.

The very worst scenario is when the forestay is stranded inside the foil. A broken wire strand can seize the entire furler, and unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it while you’re sailing – apart from getting the sail down and nursing the rig to someplace you can have the forestay replaced. This is a compelling reason to replace your forestay regularly, at the recommended intervals for your sailing area.

If the furler is getting on a bit, you may have what is technically known as stuffed bearings – in the drum and/or the head swivel. Some models can be lubricated, others require replacing the swivel unit or the bottom bearings. Modern furlers are pretty reliable, so if yours isn’t working properly it’s time to find out why. Could be a set up issue, or it could simply be worn out. Remember that if you’re going to replace a furler, check that it is the right size for the boat. There’s no point duplicating someone else’s mistake.

The message here is that whenever you have a furling issue, you need to check both the furler and the forestay. Yep, get someone up the mast for a look at the top of the stay ASAP. You really do need to know if your forestay is damaged, however much you might hope it’s not.

Fair winds and tight furls.

By: Petrea McCarthy.