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Know-how: Installing a New Headsail Furler

The new furler, installed and working like a charm

The new furler, installed and working like a charm

So accustomed are today’s sailors to being able to furl their headsails that we often forget what it was like before this technology became so widespread—aboard cruising boats, in particular. A few years ago, though, the furler on my Tayana 42 bit the dust when a sealed bearing in the top swivel seized. Worse yet, parts were no longer available from the manufacturer and amidst the many other upgrades I was in the middle of, a new furler simply wasn’t in the budget.

Not that I let the lack of a furler stop me from sailing. As a stopgap, I had a number of soft Velcro hanks sewn onto the luffs of my various headsails, which could then be wrapped around my headsail foil. The resulting setup was functional, though I now needed a full crew to both dowse and flake the sails at the end of each day.

Finally, in late 2019, along with a complete re-rigging project, I replaced both the furler and headstay. The process was a surprisingly painless one. Here’s how we did it.

Choose your hardware

There are a number of great sailboat hardware manufacturers to choose from out there, including Harken, Reckmann, Profurl, Facnor, Seldén, Ronstan and Canada’s CDI. In the end, though, I went with Schaefer Marine. I did so because its 3100 series furler was such a great match in terms of size and strength for my boat. The price was also competitive for such a high-quality component, and I appreciated the company’s long track record in the business. I also installed a set of Schaefer jib-furling blocks that mount to a handful of stanchion bases and provide a clear lead for the furling line from the drum all the way to the cockpit.

Taking measurements

As a first step, I needed to identify a few key dimensions before placing my equipment order—these included clevis pin diameters, the existing headstay cable diameter and headstay length. I also needed to decide if I wanted the furler drum located at deck level or raised up a bit. (I chose to have it raised up for better visibility, although this also means slightly less sail area.) In my case, I had a 56ft headstay, and Schaefer supplied a 59ft cable and Sta-Lok fitting, so I could cut it to the exact length. I was lucky in that I already had the mast un-stepped for some other rigging work when it came time to make these measurement. However, it’s not that difficult getting the necessary measurements with the rig up either, assuming you have a bosun’s chair and some friends. While taking your measurements, also be sure to identify and order any other pieces you might need, including turnbuckles, toggles or stem-ball eyes.

Do your homework

Although replacing a furler is something that can be done by even a modest DIYer, it’s important to be well prepared and take your time about it. The night before beginning the project, I watched Schaefers’ complete video instructions describing the various steps I’d have to take and also read the manual from beginning to end. This also is the time to make sure you have all the tools you are going need. Finally, when I felt ready and had a day of good weather, I went out to the yard, laid all the parts out on a blanket and looked over everything one last time to make sure it matched up with the parts list in the instructions.

Sizing the headstay

With my old headstay on the ground next to the new one, I pulled them both taught and used some tape to make a mark where I would cut the new one to length. The ⅜in wire was too thick for any of the cable cutters I had in my toolkit, so I tightly wrapped the wire with electrical tape and then cut through it with the cutoff wheel on an angle grinder. (You can use a hacksaw, too.) After that I used the Sta-Lok fitting that came with the kit to finish the end. (See sidebar for details.) If you’ve never used a Sta-Lok terminal before, don’t worry. They’re as easy to assemble as they are astonishingly strong.

Assembling the foil and furling drum

Next up was the furler foil, the tubular piece of extruded aluminum that covers the headstay wire. It ships in a number of short sections that are then connected using a combination aluminum sleeves and plastic bearings. The idea is to use all of the tubes you ordered, with the last one cut to length. The furler instruction manual provides a formula for determining how many foil sections you’ll need and how much to cut from the last one. Measure twice! You must get this part right. Once you have all the parts prepared, slide them onto the headstay wire. Each one gets four rivets, which secure the sleeves and foil sections together. Be sure you have a beefy rivet gun. There are a lot of them! After the foils are all secure, slide on the top swivel. Check to be sure the correct end is facing up.

The furling drum in my Schaefer Marine 3100 series furler functions as part of an assembly that includes a bearing housing and torque tube. The bearing is loaded with Torlon balls that allow for smooth rotation, while the torque tube serves to transfer the rotational motion of the drum and furling line to the foil. The furling drum has fasteners that, when removed, allow it to be split in two and installed over the drum bearing. The turnbuckle is assembled first, after which the bearing is installed with a pin through the toggle at the bottom end of the headstay.

Stepping the mast

In my case, we pinned the new headstay and furler to the masthead while the mast was still lying on a set of sawhorses in the boatyard. With the use of a boom truck, Foster Rigging of Quincy, Massachusetts, then expertly placed the rig back on my boat while the latter was in the water. If your mast is still upright (with a halyard or two secured to the bow to hold it upright with the headstay removed) just send a friend up the rig in a bosun’s chair. You can then haul up the top end of the headstay and your friend can pin it to the masthead for you.

With the backstay loosened, pin the lower end of your headstay to the bow fitting. To do so, you’re going to need access to the turnbuckle. Conveniently, the Schaefer furler only requires the loosening of a few fasteners to slide the torque tube up and out of the way.

With the headstay now in place, use your forestay and backstay turnbuckles to set the correct tension. The general rule of thumb when tuning your fore and aft stays is to adjust the turnbuckle on the headstay to a length that allows the mast to sit vertically. Only start using the backstay to apply tension once the headstay length has been set. Those with easily adjustable backstays will have a good deal more leeway here. In my case, I didn’t want too much headstay sag when going to windward in a moderate breeze. I, therefore, tuned the rig by feel and then went for a sail to see how the boat did. When satisfied, I lifted the torque tube out of the way again, pinned the turnbuckles and reassembled both the torque tube and other furling drum components.

(From left) The turnbuckle used to adjust rig tension; the furling line and a block attached to the bow pulpit

(From left) The turnbuckle used to adjust rig tension; the furling line and a block attached to the bow pulpit

The Furling Line

The furling line wraps around the furling drum and gives you control over your headsail. It’s very important that this line have a fair run all the way back to the cockpit. I’ve been on all too many boats with quality furlers that have had issues due to poor installation of the furling line. I used the kit from Schaefer, which includes a combination of spring-loaded blocks and conventional blocks that are attached to the boat’s bow pulpit and stanchions, to ensure the furling line meets with as little friction as possible. Be sure the first lead block allows the furling line to exit the center of the drum at 90 degrees. Any other changes in line direction should be done subtly. This system works excellently! I can now roll up the genoa on my Tayana 42 by hand without the help of a winch (though keeping a turn on a winch drum is a good idea in high winds).

Bending on the Sail

I was lucky that the luff rope sewn into my headsails was the correct fit for the slot in the foil of the new Schaefer furler. Be sure to check this well before you’re expecting to go sailing. You might need to visit a sailmaker to make some modifications. We completed the furler install just in time for some summer sailing and a shorthanded trip from Boston to Miami. Each time we smoothly let the headsail out my crew would exclaim, “Can you believe we used to hank these on!” I’ll never take my headsail furler for granted again! 

Installing Sta-Lok Terminals

The wedge and surrounding outer wire strands (left); The outer strands evenly spaced around the wedge (center); Nearly done: threading the end fitting onto the socket (right).

The wedge and surrounding outer wire strands (left); The outer strands evenly spaced around the wedge (center); Nearly done: threading the end fitting onto the socket (right).

Sta-Lok end fittings are one of those great little pieces of equipment that are as easy to install as they are effective. What follows is a straightforward how-to. For more, visit stalok.com.

1. Cut the wire rope and slide the socket over the end. It’s a good idea to wind some tape around the wire about 12in from the end, just to make sure the strands don’t unravel.

2. Unravel the outer strands of wire 2-3in from the end.

3. Slide the wedge component over the central core of wire.

4. Evenly space the outer strands around the inner wedge. The tricky part is not letting any of the strands get trapped in the gap of the wedge. Make sure the ends of the wire extend past the wedge about 1/8in.

5. Ensure the former ring is sitting inside the end fitting. Thread the end fitting and socket together. Tighten them with wrenches.

6. If you’d like extra piece of mind, take the fitting apart and inspect the wire again, making sure nothing is stuck in the gap of the wedge piece. I know a rigger who likes to add some Loctite to the threads. We added a couple of drops and put it all together a final time.

All Photos courtesy of Phil Gutowski

October 2020

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