Headsail Handling Systems: Which is Best for Your Boat?

February 5, 2021

Barry Hayes from UK Sailmakers Ireland explains which system is best for various situations

There are times in your boat-owning life when you need to step back and evaluate your vessel’s set-up with an eye towards optimizing the boat for the way you sail it. Because each boat is unique in its own way, you can opt for different sails, winches, running rigging, nav systems, and even headstay options. This article reviews the primary headstay alternatives (furlers, foils, and hanks) providing perspective on each to help you make sure your boat is set-up in the best way to meet your needs.

Furlers (club racers/offshore)

Headstay furlers are a highly attractive option for many sailors, especially cruisers, but are also fixtures of many one-design boats. They make setting and dousing the headsail very simple, but there are some drawbacks, too.

The two best furlers currently on the market are the Harken MKIV furler and the Fracnor low deck furler. They both sit as low to the deck as possible, making it easy for the sail designer to have a standard IRC foot round (7 % of LP) on the sail, so the endplate effect isn’t compromised. Both these furlers are convenient to use and you can have a great racing headsail shape with them.

The key with both systems is that they make it easy for spinnaker sets and drops. It’s a simple furl and unfurl from the cockpit, reducing the chances of a mix-up with halyards and so on. These furlers can make the spinnaker drop and set super quick.

With these furlers, you can easily have instant reefing, too. Most sail designers can design vertical reefs into the headsails which makes moving to a J2 or J3 headsail just a simple furl. Note, however, the sail’s shape can get distorted if you don’t have a foam pad built into the luff for big overlapping headsail. But most non-overlapping headsails use a Cunningham webbing at the reef point which they can snug up making the luff smooth.

With furlers, one tends to set the halyard tension and walk away; but the easy way to keep an eye on that is to have a mark on the forestay and luff of the sail when you’re happy with the shape (see the mark on the forestay in the photo below in the J109 Outrajeous). When you hoist the sail the next time, raise the halyard until the two marks align and you’re all set.

J 109 Outrajeous with Uni Titanium headsails and S2 spinnaker

Sail changes can be slower with a furler as you have to unscrew shackles at both the top and bottom of the sail rather than just open halyard and tack shackles. Harken makes a head and tack high-load shackle which makes this disconnecting simple and fast.

While furlers have all these advantages, there are some disadvantages, too:

When furling, you can get halyards wrapped into the furl if you’re not careful. This can be prevented with a strop between the head of the sail and the head unit of the furler. This lifts the furler up to the correct height so you won’t get halyard wrap.

Also, racing sails left up on a furler while not racing will get UV damage unless you add a UV cover. These covers now come in many forms including a paint that lasts a long time and comes in many colours to match you sail.

J109 with light weight carabiner hanks on the luff of the Unit titanium sails

A J109 with lightweight carabiner hanks on the luff of the Unit titanium sails

Hanks (soft and piston), offshore and one-design

Hanks are a must nowadays for offshore or shorthanded sailing, they make sail handling easier as you have full control of the sail. Because the hanks constrain the luff and prevent the sail from falling over the side when in the lowered position, you always have control of the luff of the sail setting or dousing. You also don’t need to be on the bow to drop the headsail. You can open the halyard and drop it, so no one has to go forward at a spinnaker hoist. You can sort out the headsail after the kite is set and running.

Soft shackles are the most used racing hank as they are light and easy to replace, but they can be hard to open when wet, cold hands, particularly with gloves on. The next option for hanks is the high load alloy carabiner. Both the soft shackle and carabiners come in small and large sizes for different size sails and ease of use. However, the traditional piston hank is the most widely used.

Pro tip: It’s always good to have extra soft hanks and carabiners onboard just in case.

50mm soft shackle and a 70mm carabiner

A 50 mm soft shackle (above) and a 70 mm carabiner (top)

The disadvantages of hanks include:

It takes longer to change a headsail as you have to manually disconnect the old hanks and then reconnect the new ones. Theoretically, you can hank on the new jib below the first hank of the old sail, before lowering the old one, but may be difficult if the jib halyard is very tight. Most sail designers make the hanks on headsails with more carbon so they last a bit longer. Also, piston hanks need regular attention (lubrication) and they are heavier than soft shackles.

An X35 D-Tox with there XD carbon sails with a Harken carbo foil

The Dublin Bay X35 D-Tox with XD carbon sails with a Harken carbo foil

Headsail foils (racing)

Tuff luff and Harken Carbo headstay foils are the most common systems on the race track. Headsail changes are easy and fast. If you’re not sure which headsail you want to use at the start, you can plug both into the feeder pre-start and pick which one to use as you go into a sequence. Foils make for fast sets/drops. You can open the halyard just as your setting the spinnaker so the airflow fills the kite early. Upwind, you can do tack changes, making a midrace sail change simple.

Setting your pre feeder to the right height and making sure it is working perfectly is critical to the system. You also can get foil protectors that go over the foil to protect it when running gennaker sheets over it.

The Uni Titanium headsail preloaded in the Harken Carbo foil. With the Fraculator clipped on.

The Unit Titanium headsail preloaded in the Harken Carbo foil. With the Fraculator clipped on.

The disadvantages of headstay foils are:

They are more expensive than a simple rod forestay and hanks. Also, the top of the luff tape can get frayed over time, making it harder to get the sail into the feeder. Cutting the luff tape at 45 degrees and melting the tape seals it making it easy to insert into the foil again.

The foil also can get damaged from halyard shackles near the head of the sail allowing the head of the sail to come out of the foil mid-hoist. Drilling a 7mm hole in the aft side of the foil (luff tapes are 6mm) allows you to get the sail out without needing a screwdriver! Finally, your bow person needs to anticipate potential sail changes and then determine which halyard/groove you’re going to use when hoisting. This prevents halyard from getting twisted as well.

XP 44 with a Harken carbo foil and a First 50 with a Furler. Both Unit Titanium headsail. The XP 44 has horizontal battens. The First 50 has Vertical battens for furling. There are no compromises in sail shape in both set ups

The XP 44 (foreground) with a Harken carbo foil and a First 50 with a Furler. Both have Uni Titanium headsails. The XP 44 has horizontal battens. The First 50 has Vertical battens for furling. There are no compromises in sail shape in both setups.

In conclusion:

You need to select the headstay system for your boat based on the type of sailing you do and the type of sails you have. Headstay foils are is best for inshore club racing and advanced level racing. Conversely, furlers are best for offshore/club racers and cruisers who don’t need headsail changes all the time and can take the slight shape hit for easy of handling.

Soft shackles and hanks are best for offshore and one-design as you normally are staying with one headsail for a long time and you only change if you really have to.

If you have questions on what style of headstay system is best for your boat, contact your nearest UK Sailmaker loft to get your answer.

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