Preventive maintenance for the roller furler

The roller furling gear on a boat is something that is generally taken for granted; it’s a simple mechanism, and it usually seems to work just fine without a lot of maintenance fuss.

But, when it stops working offshore it can be a real problem, given that it seems to pick moments when it is least convenient and most dangerous to occur — like when your furling line parts in a storm, rolling out the 80 percent of the sail you least wanted to see, without any easy way to put the tiger back into its cage. I’ve been there for that one, twice, and learned a few lessons.

The other furler lesson I learned — and this was from two experiences as well (a pattern?) — is that many furler rigs are vulnerable to having the connecting devices (screws or pins) “back out” of their countersunk homes where the extrusion sections join.

The first time came during a Bermuda Race, when we wanted to change headsails. We lowered the sail (and swivel) about 1/3 of the way down the forestay, where it stopped. A couple of firm tugs meant we lodged it totally on the roll pin (this was an older Harken rig) that had worked its way out of the extrusion. The result: going aloft, but in a manner far more difficult than going up the mast. In this case, the sailor drawing the short straw (i.e. the skipper) had to tie himself up close to the extrusion as that’s where the repair had to take place — 7-8 inches forward of the mast, at an angle.

This is, at the very least, an awkward situation, particularly when in significant seas, and with a 150 percent genoa that is taking on a life of its own. Trying to hold onto a thin piece of aluminum, that tends to rotate, while cutting loose the sail and trying to put a screw or pin back into place, is not an easy thing to do 20 feet off a pitching deck.

The very same situation happened to me (and I swear it’s the last time) after moving the boat across the Mediterranean last fall. In this case, the set screw holding our Profurl’s extrusion pieces together backed out of its threaded hole, about half way up the forestay. Fortunately, it was a problem for us at the dock — not offshore — as we prepared to decommission the boat for the winter.

Once home, I connected with my sail maker, Jan Pedersen at Bayview Rigging & Sails, and asked him for his advice on how to avoid this in the future. Here are his comments:

•  Furler extrusions with roll pins are not very common anymore. However, if you have one, he suggests removing the roll pin, coating it in red Loctite (the most permanent type), and putting it back in its hole to set. Once it has set, you can gently peen the inside of the hole with a small drift pin so that it creates a blockage on the inside of the extrusion, or you can expand the roll pin with an awl. If you take the latter approach, you can hold a block to the opposite side you are working on, to keep the roll pin in place. You can pound out the roll pin, when needed, using the proper-sized drift pin.

•  Far more common nowadays are extrusions with set screws. Since you need to be able to unscrew them periodically, it’s best not to peen the cavity or the threads. Better to coat them with blue Loctite (medium permanency) when installing. When removing, it’s possible that heat may be needed to loosen them up. Whatever you do, don’t try to make an imperial hex wrench substitute for a metric one, or vice versa; that makes for a messy problem, and often requires a new extrusion piece.

•  There are several manufacturers that assemble their extrusions without any exterior fasteners, such as Furlex, which relies on a bar spring system inside that hold the sections together.

Whatever your choice, before you head offshore, take a look at those sections where they are joined. It’s far easier to back out the pin or screw when the mast is off the boat, and the furler rig at a more workable altitude. And, if you think of it, on a calm day, sight your eye up along the foil (or use binoculars) to see if you can spot any protrusions; that might keep you from jamming the swivel onto one of the connecting fasteners when you least want it to happen.

By Ocean Navigator