Furler failure offshore


We left New Zealand heading for Fiji, a 1,200-mile trip. The weather was predicted to be a bit more boisterous than we would normally choose, but we had waited more than a month for a weather window and our New Zealand visas were expiring. Good windows had been slow to open during this stretch. New Zealand won’t force you out into bad weather conditions, but we thought this window was acceptable — as did many other yachts heading in the same direction. It would be windier through most of the voyage (20-plus knots), but from a good direction (stern quarter) so we wouldn’t be banging into it and we could make good time. The previous weather window that many boats took earlier in the month was a motoring trip almost the entire way, something we couldn’t do with our fuel capacity.

To try to avoid getting caught in the low and a hole with no winds, we took a due north course for the first day out of Whangarei. We had hoped to make it through a few degrees of latitude and away from another ugly weather system heading into New Zealand within a few days. The further north we could get, the better we could avoid it or at least minimize its impact.

The furler lost all the ball bearings after failure.

Unusual furling problems
As evening came, the wind had died enough that the sails were flogging badly in the rolling seas, so we rolled in the headsail, turned on the engine and motorsailed with the main. Then, with daylight coming, the wind picked up again and we turned off the engine and unfurled the genoa. It didn’t come out very smoothly and, in fact, got “stuck.” Michael went to look at the furler and noticed a riding lock on the furler line, something we never had before. We dropped the sail on deck so he could undo this knot and then pulled the sail back up on the furler again. The good news was that the winds were relatively light (about 10 to 12 knots from the stern quarter). Seas were quite confused with a steady 2.5-meter swell from astern. Though it was a bit of a challenge, the sail went up smoothly and we were sailing again. The wind started to pick up and we decided to put a reef in the genoa — it was again difficult to roll in. Michael went forward to check things out again and came back with a few stainless ball bearings in his hand. The roller furler drum and extrusion was working its way up the forward stay … not a good situation. There was definitely a big problem with the furler.

We had replaced the forward stay the previous year and had a rigger check out the furler system at that point, though he didn’t take the whole unit apart. We also did our pre-trip check of the rigging and all seemed in order before we departed New Zealand. (Use Wayne Canning’s “Furler Maintenance” video available from the Ocean Navigator YouTube site as a good maintenance program and pre-check before heading offshore.) What was happening now was a repair we could not make at sea, and we also did not want to lose the sail or the entire rig. Dropping the sail to the deck and securing it was the only option. Michael checked out the forward stay and things looked good from a visual inspection, but we did not want to put any excess stress on it in case of any damage at the top.

Astarte safely at the dock in Opua.

Rigging the storm sail was the next step. In our seven years of cruising, we had yet to do this, so it took awhile to rig the inner forestay to get the lines fed correctly and the old hanks loosened enough to open and close properly. (Guess we should have done this before we left — now it’s been added to our offshore checklist!) The storm sail was up and working and we could make progress. We have a wire-to-rope halyard that we use as an emergency headstay, to which we attach the storm sail. 

Turning around or pressing on
With the boat safe and under sail, we now had time to decide what to do. We had been out two days and were about 200 miles from New Zealand, but still about 1,000 miles from Fiji. Heading back the 200 miles meant banging right into the southwesterly winds that were building. The seas were also getting bigger because of a big storm in the Roaring Forties. Continuing on to Fiji was a much longer voyage in conditions that were predicted to be “lively.” Plus, we would have no headsail other than the hanked-on storm sail. We still had enough fuel to make it back to New Zealand. We were not 100 percent sure if the rig had sustained any damage. While we knew a good rigger in Opua, New Zealand, and were sure that the necessary repairs could be made there, we were not sure about the repair options or parts availability in Fiji. We made the call to turn around and head back.

Because we had already cleared out of the country and New Zealand requires advance notice of entry, our SSB radio came in handy yet again. We could call and give our position and advance notice of our return. We could also set up a daily check-in with Taupo Radio, New Zealand’s maritime radio service, in case of any problems. This was comforting. We were also checking in daily with Gulf Harbour Radio, which was providing us with weather information to supplement our grib files.

Rigger Rob, of Northland Spars and Rigging in Opua, cuts the new head foil to the proper length.

As we headed back, conditions continued to deteriorate just as predicted. We were making slow progress against the wind and seas, motorsailing just off the wind with our reefed main. During the first night, as the wind picked up to a steady 30 to 35 knots with gusts to 45 and seas crashing over the decks, we chose to “heave to” in a modified fashion (without our headsail). This was more like forereaching, but it worked to calm the ride and stop the seas from crashing over the cockpit. For 12 hours we made little progress, but at least we rode out the worst of the passing storm and high seas in a more comfortable and safe manner.

We made it back to New Zealand and into the Q dock about 48 hours after the roller furler broke. Once in, we could take a good look at the problem. There is a hollow shaft (about 1 inch in diameter) that the forward shroud runs, which threads into a machined piece of stainless steel where the wire terminates. The shaft is what the lower drum of the furler rotates. On our furler, this shaft was severed just above the threads, causing the lower unit to start to ride up the shroud. It was something we would not have seen on our rig inspection unless we completely dismantled the drum, bearings and aluminum extrusion. We certainly could not have repaired this problem underway. 

Original furler replaced 
The Furlex Type C furler was original to our boat, a 1987 Moody. It had worked beautifully for seven and half years of fulltime cruising. So, it owed us nothing. But when on a cruising budget, buying a new one was a hard hit. We also didn’t have the luxury of time to shop around or get one shipped in to save a few a dollars. We were hoping to get a new one installed quickly.

Riggers Rob and Brent fit the new Furlex 304S drum to the foil.

Luckily, the riggers in Opua were able to accommodate our needs. The new furler arrived at the riggers on a Tuesday and our old one was removed that day. We had a complete rig inspection at the same time. The new Furlex 304S was put together on Wednesday in the shop and installed on Thursday afternoon. We had re-checked into the country on a Saturday, and by the next Saturday we were heading out to test the new furler under load.

We checked out of the country again on the following Monday to start our 1,170-mile passage to Fiji with a brand new furling system. It got a good test underway. Everything worked great.

It could have been worse if it happened at night during one of those quick squalls. We then could have lost the sail or the rig, so at least the only thing that was damaged was our bank account.

Barbara Sobocinski and Michael Hawkins sail aboard Astarte, their 1987 Moody 422.

By Ocean Navigator