Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mainsail Handling Systems

Has the thought of struggling with your mainsail ever kept you from going sailing?  If so, you’re not alone.  Many sailors – or their spouses -- find getting the main up and down the biggest hassle of sailing, one that prevents them from enjoying their boat.  A range of solutions can simplify this for you and let you get a little more return on your floating investment.

A cruising mainsail, built strong and rugged enough to handle high winds and years of use, can pose some difficulty for sailors trying to douse their sail while sailing shorthanded, in adverse conditions, or in tight quarters.  Four general types of mainsail handling systems have been developed to simplify this task, simply lazy jacks, a cradle-type system like the StackPack, the Dutchman system, and roller-furling spars.  Each has benefits that simplify raising and lowering a cruising main.

Lazy Jacks
The simplest system, a straightforward Lazy Jack system, makes it much easier to lower your sail but a little harder to raise it.  Battens, especially full ones, can get caught in the line system as the sail goes up.  Everyone finds their own solution to this: aiming head-to-wind, releasing one side of the jacks, guiding the sail manually etc…  It’s a common hassle many find worth it.

A rigger can best ensure the necessary mast hardware doesn’t interfere with internal halyards or wires, but if you’re looking for the most low-budget way to go, Harken and West Marine sell kits, or you can just buy the line and hardware yourself.  Since you have to wedge it between the lazy jacks and the sail, you’ll have to get your boom cover altered or suffer chafe holes in the cover in a few months.

Pros:   Most affordable.  Controls the lowering sail.
Cons: Lines catch battens on the way up.  Boom cover a hassle.

A batten-top cradle-type system like the Doyle CradleCover combines lazy jacks with an integrated cover that opens to accept the lowering sail, eliminating the need for and hassle of a separate boom cover.  These systems work best with full-battened mainsails, where battens guide the sail into the pack when lowering.  Good luff slides or a mast track like the Tides StrongTrack minimizes any friction and allows the sail to fall into the cradle like a curtain of cloth.  Then, after you close the top with clips or a zipper, the time you used to spend finding and wrestling with your boom cover you can spend enjoying the frosty beverage of your choice.

While sailing, the cover lays suspended against the foot region of the sail.   When dropped, the system protects the sail from harmful UV rays and presents a trim, attractive look, and dramatically extends the life of your main with little effort on your part.  Their relative ease of use and protective qualities have made them almost mandatory on large-roached multihull mainsails, and on charter boats everywhere.

Pros: Easy lowering.  Instant UV protection without separate boom cover.
Cons: Battens can catch in lazy jacks on the way up.

The Dutchman system weaves permanent control lines through a mainsail and guides the sail into a flaked position as it is lowered.  These lines attach to the topping lift above, and the foot of the sail  below.  As the sail falls, alternating accordion-style flakes stack it on the boom until sail ties can be used to lash it to the spar for safe-keeping.  The exposed sail then requires a separate boom cover, modified to wrap around the control lines, to protect it from the sun.

The Dutchman shares some similarities with a cradle system.  It works best with full battens and low-friction slides or track on the mast.  It can be installed on an existing sail, though price considerations make this recommended only for sails in good condition.  The Dutchman does require greater "user intervention" to lash the lowered sail to the boom and add the cover, though this is far simpler than having no system at all.

Pros:   No lazy jacks to bother rising battens
Cons: Sail needs modification.  Separate, modified sailcover still required.

Furling Spars
Retrofitting a furling spar to your boat is something most people consider only when replacing a spar for another reason, usually involving a very loud noise and a big splash.  If you’ve lost your rig, or if you’re buying a new boat, it’s something to think about, but if you haven’t, it’s usually cost-prohibitive.  Unlike the other systems, it requires a new mainsail:  old ones can’t be modified.  But when you finally get all the pieces in place, it can be an elegant solution to your sail handling problems, as long as you know and respect the limitations of the systems you choose.

A boom furler uses full battens to give good sail shape, both when full and when reefed.  Furling masts can keep a small roach in the sail by utilizing long vertical battens placed parallel to the mast that roll into the cavity when the sail furls.  Both systems offer very easy reefing in the worst conditions.

When a mainsail rolls smoothly into a furling boom or mast, it brings a smile to any crewmember’s face.  When it spools off the forward end of the boom or folds on the way into the mast because the boom was at the wrong angle, the reverse happens.  When you take the time to learn the system, it can make sailing your boat a wonderful experience, where sails roll in and out of the spars freely.  It can’t be emphasized enough, though, that furling spars require owners to be educated if they want to be satisfied – just like almost everything else on a boat.

Pros: Sails roll in and out most easily when properly used
Cons: Improper use can damage sails, conversion is expensive

All of these systems offer a different combination of ease, efficiency, and price that every sailor judges for him or herself, but they all share one thing in common:  they reduce the hassle associated with handling your mainsail.  It makes no sense to keep a $60,000 boat tied to the dock when an investment of a few hundred dollars will make it easy enough to sail more often.  Or, when you can include the price of a handling system in the financing of a new boat, you can start living the good life from day one.  The whole point is to make it easy to go sailing, and each of these systems help meet that goal.

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