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Boat Maintenance & Safety

Reviewed: January 2009

Author: Alan Lucas

Boating Review:

Torn sails and dangerous situations can be avoided with forethought.

Roller furling maintenance

Boating Article by Modern Boating

“Sailing roller furling systems – Runaway rollers”

Roller furling systems have been around since the 1930s, but their rapid acceptance by the cruising fraternity was not fully apparent until the early 1980s, from when the traditional hanked headsail started drifting into obscurity.  I fitted roller furling a decade later and have enjoyed its obvious advantages ever since.  However, at sea I am intimidated by the terrible consequences of a runaway roller.



The photograph here says it all, and it happens like this: through neglect or fumbled handling, the furling line carries away, allowing the sail to unfurl then flog itself to death if not tamed quickly. 

It can even reach the stage where furling becomes impossible as tattered ribbons of sail foul everything in sight, obliging you to leave it aloft where it finally and totally self-destructs, threatening the safety of crew and ship as it does so.


Over the years I have seen a number of unattended moored yachts whose accidentally unfurled sails propelled their hosts in circles for weeks on end, damaging themselves and neighbouring vessels until the cause of the trouble shredded itself into relatively harmless ribbons of useless sailcloth.

The same situation happening underway might be arrested before damage occurs if the errant furling line can be retrieved and hauled in quickly, but if a gale is blowing with heavy seas, dealing with a madly flogging sail is much easier said than done.  If the wayward furling line is flying out of reach, or has dropped a few turns off its drum, then the sail may shred itself long before you figure out how to retrieve it.

That this type of total stuff-up is fairly rare does not detract from its awesome possibility.  Such incidents happen, and when a roller furling system goes pear-shaped I can promise you that thoughts about reverting to traditional hanked headsails loom very large. 

However, as long as you have roller furling, it pays to view it with a degree of scepticism and formulate a plan of immediate action in the event of failure.  Underway, the first and most logical response is to turn the yacht downwind so that apparent wind strength is decreased and the sail flogs away from the mast and shrouds that it may otherwise snag.

With the errant sail flagging off downwind, its sheets are more easily used to help limit its wild antics.  At this juncture, if regaining control with the furling line proves to be impossible, the sail may be clawed down and bagged on deck then sent below.  But I emphasise ‘clawed down’ because this can be a very tedious and nail-breaking exercise, especially if the long-disused halyard resists.

With the sail out of the way, the vessel should continue to be steered off the wind while the furling line is re-reeved—or replaced as the case may be.  If chafe has been the cause, make sure
it can’t happen again by appropriate action.

As in all such situations—whether at sea or on a mooring—nothing beats proactive maintenance to prevent the above scenario happening.  It’s just a matter of viewing your roller furling gear as a mechanical device that needs occasional servicing.  Most importantly, the furling line should be regularly checked for areas of chafe and deterioration and be replaced at the least hint of trouble.  And if your roller is an open spool type that can drop its furling line off the drum when the sail is fully extended, get into the habit of keeping some strain on the line by not fully opening the sail.

When roller furling a sail for long periods of downtime, roll it as tight as possible to reduce windage then double secure its furling line against accidental release.  It also pays to tie a short lanyard around the rolled sail, as high up as possible, as a backup against accidental unfurling.  This advice especially applies to vessels stored in hardstand yards where the accidental unfurling of a windward vessel’s sail can produce a devastating domino effect if she topples onto neighbouring craft.

When facing the ultimate storm—or leaving your boat in a berth for a cyclone season—remove the sail entirely and stow it below decks.  Its windage and weight aloft is untenable in destructive winds and may well spell the difference between the yacht surviving and being written off.  Prevention is better than cure.