You either love them or hate them but Roller Furling mainsail systems are here to stay. They have evolved from behind the mast to in mast systems and the equipment has gotten better. Let’s look at the pros and cons of these systems for handling the mainsail.
Ease of Handling
This is the biggest reason that these systems are popular. You just have to hoist the sail once. Then you roll it in and roll it out when you need it. Just 2 lines involved. The Outhaul and the Furling line. Ease one and take up on the other whether setting sail or taking in sail.
It makes it easy to go sailing and use the mainsail. Especially if you have limited time available to go sailing. Less preparation and rigging means more time for actually sailing. You also need less crew to handle the sails.
The ease of operation also transfers over to Reefing. Just 2 lines to deal with rather than the 3 or more for a conventional mainsail. You can also reef to any size to match the wind. Unlike the set sized slab reefs in a hoisted mainsail. Also, no need for lazy jacks or mainsail cover or lazy bag. Makes life easier.
This is the biggest reason that critics of the system have with it. The boats just do not sail as well as a boat with a conventional mainsail. This was definitely true when the first systems were introduced.
The early systems were “behind the mast” addons. They provided the ease of handling but a loss of sailing performance. The sail was attached to a foil mounted behind the mast and this wasn’t good aerodynamically. And it made the available sail space smaller. This together with the absence of battens meant that the sail had to be even smaller, as there was no possibility of having a Roach.
Putting all of this onto a boat that wasn’t designed for this type sail plan meant a drop in performance. Use of specially designed and manufactured masts for “in mast furling” helped alleviate this a little. Here the furling equipment was inside the hollow mast section. So, the furled sail “disappeared” into the mast and was stowed there when not in use.
Increase Performance or Problems
In an attempt to increase performance by increasing mainsail area some sail makers added vertical battens. This allowed the sail to be bigger by having some Roach in it. As well as being able to furl them. In practice, it worked until the sail stretched then the furling problems began. This only works if the sailcloth is really low stretch like in laminates. Won’t work for long with Dacron mainsails. Re cutting sails flatter and removing battens were some of the most common jobs we had in the sail loft.
Having a laminate mainsail with battens added a bit to performance. But laminated sailcloth did not react well to being furled up for long periods inside the mast. Mildew and delamination are problems, especially in the tropics. Dacron mainsails with no battens are still the best way to go.
Early masts were limited with space inside. Sails had to be made of as light a Dacron as possible in order to furl and fit inside without problems. As a result the sails were under built and got blown out easily. Once the sail became too full the furlers have problems taking up the extra cloth. Many early horror stories of sails being unable to be furled were as a result of this I believe.
Where are we now?
Like everything else in the world, the engineering and technology catches up. Some modern boats are now designed with sail plans that take into account the Roller Furling mainsail. As a result these boats have really good sailing performance.
Roller Furling masts now have bigger sections so have more space inside and can take even heavy Dacron sail cloth. There have also been improvements in sail cloth so there is more choice available. The furling equipment is really good as well and the ability to add electric winches has made handling even easier.
The biggest problem is the sail itself. The sails need to be very flat and have little stretch. Once the sails are not too full or blown out there are hardly any problems. With non stretch laminate sails there are no furling problems. Downside is depending on where and how much sailing you do, these sails do not last long. Dacron sails on the other hand have great longevity but are susceptible to stretch and so can have furling problems. These sails can be re cut by your sail maker a lot of the time and so extend their useful lifespan. Other than that they have to be replaced more regularly than conventional mainsails. Upside is that they are cheaper than normal mainsails.
Deciding on if to have a boat with a Roller Furling mainsail or with a conventional mainsail with Reefs is a big decision. Many sailors, including the author, personally do not like the loss in sailing performance. Or, are accustomed to dealing with conventional mainsails. There are also lots of improvements in handling systems for these sails as well. But that will be for another time.
Having said that, it depends on what kind of sailing you plan on doing. If it is coastal or inland day sailing then any system will be good once you get used to it. If you plan on extended cruising or blue water sailing, then a closer look is needed.
Here are my thoughts if considering buying a boat with a Roller Furling mainsail. The best thing to do is go for a test sail and try out the equipment and see how it works and how the boat sails.
Firstly, if it is a behind the mast furler I would avoid that. Most times it’s on older boats and/or a retro fit so the sailing performance would be an issue. Look for boats with in mast furling and how old they are. Check out the age and condition of the sail as well as how easy it furls and unfurls. If it goes in and out easily and it’s windy then you should be OK. Best to get an experienced sailor to go with you on the test sail and don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are lots of online forums as well.
Hope this was helpful and if anyone has questions please feel free to comment below or contact me.