A tale of ancient mariners

A tale of ancient mariners – preparing your boat for your golden years – or for short-handed sailing

We haven’t met, but I know of at least two things we have in common: we both love sailing, and we both grow one year older with each birthday!  This year I turned 70 and even though I’m relatively fit, healthy and active, the reality is I don’t have the physical strength or stamina I had 20 years ago. Nor am I alone, as Australia has an ageing population.  This got me to thinking, “What can we as sailors do to make our boats easier to manage as we (and our crews) grow older?”

Obviously we can sell the boat – bad move – I’m not ready to head out to pasture and nor should you.  My golden years should be just that, golden, and for me that means continuing to race and cruise and do the things I enjoy.  We can sell her and buy another one which is kinder to our advancing years.  This might be an expensive exercise and anyway, we really like her and we’re comfortable with her.   The third option is to modify and/or upgrade her to suit our reducing strength and agility.   With that in mind I did some research into how we can upgrade our beloved boat to suit our advancing years.   As I did this research I discovered that many of the things we’d do to make our boat easier for more mature people to handle, would also suit short-handed sailors, so this article addresses the needs of both groups.

Many of our readers will be familiar with some of the gear we found and some may already have some of these items installed.   If you are in that category, keep reading, because we came across some clever things during our research that might be just what you are looking for, but you don’t know it yet.  Remember, if you can make it easier for you and your crew to go sailing, then you will do it more often and that can’t be a bad idea.

Roll me another

Roller reefing/roller furling headsails are a must for cruising sailors.  Yes, we know you lose some sail area, and when partly furled, the shape is not as good as hanking on a smaller sail, but you can go from no headsail to full headsail or anywhere in between in about 15 seconds without going onto the foredeck.  For me, that’s the end of the argument.   This is a no brainer.   Roller reefing headsail gear is available from a range of suppliers.  As a guide, for a 40ft. production boat, you should expect to pay as much as $4,300 for a complete set up plus some time with a rigger and a re-cut of your headsail.   If you race your boat, then you’d be well advised to budget on a new headsail made especially for the roller reefer.

Roller reefing gear has been around for the better part of thirty years.  These systems are reliable and robust.  Still, you may find that in strong winds these systems can be difficult for you to reef.  If that’s the case, why not go for a powered system? Both electric and hydraulic roller reefing systems are available.  You can either buy these systems new, alternatively most manufacturers supply retro-fit powered drives.  Later in this article we’ll look at these systems in depth.   

What about the main?

If you’re mobility and strength are limited, taming your main has got to be high on your list of priorities.  The first thing you should think about is fully battened slab reefing.  We know that it affects your handicap, but it is so simple, quick and effective, it’s hard to find a better starting point.  Most mast manufacturers have a batten car system to fit their mast and there are lots of retro-fit mast track/batten car systems.    

The advantages of fully battened slab reefing are enormous, particularly if it is combined with a single line reefing and lazy jacks.  In this configuration, you can go from full sail (which sets beautifully, because it’s fully battened) to one reef, two reefs or even 3 reefs (each of which sets beautifully) without leaving your cockpit.   These systems are well rehearsed, simple to fit, and relatively inexpensive for what you get.  You will probably need a new mainsail to gain maximum advantage of the fully battened concept, but you might want to put that off until the main needs replacement anyway.  You can either buy these systems from your mast manufacturer, or you can get your rigger to fabricate a similar system for your mast.

Selden has a beautifully engineered system to suit their masts.  They also have a retro-fit system which fits their older masts and OEM masts with a similar luff groove.   As a guide only, a new mast, with batten cars, intermediate sail runners, all the standing and running rig, a new boom with single line (per reef point), reefing gear and a rod kicker, for a 40 ft. boat would cost around $32,000.  If you wanted a new sail, maybe add another $8000 and some help from your favourite rigger.

Does that push your button?

The next step along in automation is in-mast and in-boom mainsail furling systems.  These are very popular in Europe and the United States and it’s not hard to see why.  Push a button and the main unfurls.  The wind pipes up, no problem, push another button and in a matter of seconds you can reef the sail as little or as much as you like, all at the touch of a button.  These systems were slow to catch on in Australia for several reasons: price, weight aloft and a focus on sailing performance, but as these systems have evolved, they have addressed most of these issues and become much more attractive.  Now a fair percentage of new production boats come with in-mast or in-boom furling as an option.

Selden Mast, being European, have a well established range of in-mast furlers.  With modern vertical battens these in-mast furlers provide ease of operation and a good sail shape.  Because these systems necessitate a completely new mast, boom and sail they are typically seen on new boats, or on boats that are replacing their rig.   Selden estimate all the hardware for a 40ft boat at about $36,000 and a new vertically battened mainsail at about $8000 – add to this sum, input from your favourite rigger and you’re probably not far short of $50,000.  Whilst this sounds like a lot, it isn’t a lot more than replacing the rig with no automation.  So if you have a very old mast and rig which needs replacing anyway, this might be an option.   Once it’s in place you have the option of pulling out any amount of mainsail you want, and rolling it up just as quickly.  When not in use, the sail is stored very tidily away from the UV.

Chk chk boom

One downside to all in-mast furling systems is the increased weight of the mast, which of course, is putting weight exactly where you don’t want it.  If this is a concern consider an in-boom furling system that largely overcomes this problem.   With this in mind, we spoke to Leisure Furl, who are based in New Zealand, just across the Tasman.  Like most ‘boat-things’ from New Zealand, this equipment appears to be beautifully engineered.   The good news about in-boom furlers is that you can have a fully battened mainsail with a roach – you don’t need to buy a new mast, only a boom, and again, your sail is stored out of the UV.  This particular equipment, like most roller reefing headsail furlers, flattens the sail first.   It does this by taking the first turn around the reefing mandrel from the centre of the sail, not the clew or tack.

Leisure Furl is made by KZ Marine Ltd.   They can supply booms from aluminium alloy or carbon fibre, with manual operation, electrical operation or hydraulic operation.   As a guide, a manual Leisure Furl system with all the associated bits and pieces, but no sail, for a 40 ft. boat would cost about $12,000 AUSD.   You would probably need to allow another $1,200 for your favourite rigger to fit it to your boat.   This all sounds pretty reasonable, when you consider that you can now go from a full mainsail to no mainsail and anything in-between from the safety and security of your cockpit.  If you already have an in-mast or in-boom furler, then you can add an electric or hydraulic drive to it to make for truly push-button sailing.

A few neat ideas

Whilst we are talking about things that might make life easier for an aging or short-handed sailor, it’s worth considering the following:

•    A boom brake – these devices act as a preventer.  It helps you avoid surprise gybes and control the boom during planned gybes.  In doing so, it places less stress on your rig and it acts as a boom vang – whereas boom vangs can hold your boom down, but they don’t act as a preventer.  Several companies market these devices, but for a well engineered locally produced unit, it’s well worth having a look at Hutton’s boom brake unit.

•    Still on the mainsail, give some thought to lazy jacks as a worthwhile extra.   They work best with a fully battened sail, but are also pretty useful on a conventionally leach-battened sail.  In keeping with our objectives here, they make dousing the main a bit easier with not so much need to be on deck during this operation.

•    A carbon fibre spinnaker pole and/or whisker pole.  They’re light and easy to lift into place.

•    Another attractive bit of kit is a system for storing your spinnaker or whisker pole vertically up the mast.  This means you only ever have to lift one end of the pole, the other end of the pole is always captive, and this approach removes another trip hazard off the foredeck.   Again there are several manufacturers of excellent systems to perform this trick.

•    You might also want to consider a rod kicker.  It holds the boom at constant height during reefing, stops the boom falling onto the cabin top or someone’s head during reefing, and it can lift the boom running down wind in light air to improve sail shape.  Selden’s unit for a 40ft boat sells at about $1,200.

•    Mast steps either fixed or folding.  You may not have noticed yet, but as you get older the lamp at the top of your mast gets further from the deck and fails more often.  Mast steps make it last longer and brings it closer to the deck, or at least they seem to.

•    A backstay tensioner, again not an essential item, but a well engineered unit makes adjusting your backstay tension just a bit easier.

•    Last but not least, consider a retractable gennaker boom to make setting a gennaker, MPS or asymmetric spinnaker easier.   These gadgets also reduce the likelihood of these light sails tangling with your anchor and make these sails easier to gybe.   

All of these things can make life easier for you and your crew.

Now, let’s talk about winches?

The use of electrics or hydraulics to power your winches and/or furlers is becoming a lot more common in Australia.  Most new production boats above 40 feet in length will offer powered winches and/or powered furlers as an option.  You can also retrofit these systems to your existing boat.  

Power make sailing a lot easier and less physically demanding.  A word of warning, however, when you are using a manual winch, if something jams you can feel it immediately, with a powered winch this is not the case.  Sure they have current overload protection which stops the winch at overload, but this will not stop a halyard winch if say a batten fouls the lazy jacks during a mainsail hoist.  

Additionally these powered units are quite large, at least as much bulk below the winch as the winch itself, which may make their installation unattractive on a cabin top for instance.  Most powered winches can be set up on a pedestal to include this extra bulk above the deck, but this of course alters the angle of the lines coming to the winch.  Keep in mind that powered winches use high currents.  Lewmar’s 46 size winch has a recommended 110 amp circuit breaker at 12 volt for example.  So you will need some large electrical cabling from your batteries to these winches.   If these winches are in constant use while the engine or auxiliary alternator are not running, you may also need significant additional battery capacity.

But I like pushing buttons…

Aside from these considerations, powered winches can reduce the load on you and your crew making hoisting the mainsail or trimming the headsail a push-button exercise.  When considering powered winches, keep in mind their operational speed – some only have single speed which may make a mainsail hoist pretty slow.  Other manufacturers have two and three speed winches which may suit your purposes better.

Hydraulics or electrics?

The choice between electrics and hydraulics is largely determined by how many winches and/or furlers you wish to power, and if you have the available space required for a hydraulic pump and motor.  If you plan to have a fully powered boat with a motorised headsail furler, mainsail furler, powered anchor and primary winches, say five appliances in total, then hydraulics will work out to be the cheaper option.  You install a central motor and hydraulic pump (the size of which is determined by how many appliances you plan to run at the same time) which provides the power for the entire system.  Each appliance then has its own power drive unit.  As hydraulic power drive units cost less per unit than electric power drives, the more appliances you put on a hydraulic system, the more cost effective the overall system is.

Where electric systems make sense is where you either don’t have room for a motor and hydraulic pump, or where you only need for one or two powered appliances.  For example, if I want one powered primary winch in the cockpit to help with raising the halyard and a powered anchor winch, an electric system will be easier to install and less costly.    

In the remainder of the article we’ll look at the various things you may want to power and provide you with relevant information and approximate costs. To make things easy I’m going to assume that you’re going to use electrical power.  

The powered roller furler headsail

Let’s assume that you’ve got an existing roller furler and you’re considering powering it.  Generally speaking, you’ll need to speak to the people who made it as most manufacturers make retro-fit kits for their own gear only.  An exception to this rule is Hutton winch.  Hutton makes their own standard and powered winches, but they can take your existing furler and fit it with a power drive.  
What should I budget?

Costs will vary somewhat by manufacturer, but they’re generally in the same ballpark.  A Furlex electric drive (distributed by Contender Sail Cloth) for an existing Furlex roller reefer on a 40ft. production boat will cost about $7000, plus some engineering and wiring costs.  Keep in mind these drives use a lot of power (30 amps at 12 volt) so we’ll need some large cables from the battery to the motor.   Fortunately this equipment is only run for a few seconds every few hours, so they don’t really add that much to your boat’s overall electrical demands.

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