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Old 11-17-2002
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Upgrading Your Mainsail System


Problems in lowering and stowing a mainsail often lead to reduced use on the water. Image by Sue & Larry.

Ever wonder why the sail behind the mast is called the mainsail? It’s our observation that for many sailors the main sail is the sail up front - you know the genoa on a roller furler, and the sail behind the mast is not the main sail at all, but is really the seldom used sail. Seldom used because of difficulties in raising, reefing, and especially in lowering and stowing away again easily. The two of us have even gone so far as to jokingly insinuate that some of our cruising compadres long ago sold their mainsail to acquire beer money and today just store spare gear inside that mainsail cover perched high on their boom.

When we first sailed our current cruising boat Serengeti, a 1978 Formosa Peterson 46, it was immediately clear to us that we would have to do something with the mainsail. The current system featured 1978-era plastic sail slugs that grudgingly moved up and down the mast track, but only when coaxed with Herculean effort by both of us and a nearby winch. When the sail finally came down, there was such a flailing mess all over the boat, we recognized that we would never be able to handle such a large sail in high winds and big seas.

What we wanted was a system that was going to enable the two of us, sailing as a couple in shorthanded situations, to easily and safely strike, reef, and stow our large mainsail. We found that that we had several options, all of which would help us to achieve our goal.


An in-mast furling system. Image by Sue & Larry.

In-mast roller furling is quite popular today on new boats, and behind-the-mast furling units are available for aftermarket applications. We sailed our first cruising boat Safari, a Beneteau 46, twelve thousand miles with in-mast furling and quite frankly loved the system. Mast furling units are easy to use, allow you to dial in just the right amount of sail, and ensure that you never have to leave the cockpit to reef. In order to roll up properly, both in-mast and behind-mast furlers require a mainsail without battens. There’s been some experimentation with vertical battens, but for the most part sails operating on these furlers remain battenless. The consequence of no battens is that the leech, the trailing edge of the sail, will flap and flutter. The fix is therefore to cut the sail concavely at the leech. Critics of in-mast and behind-mast furlers point out that this reduces mainsail area and the potential power it can generate. Depending upon the performance you demand out of your sailboat, this may be a factor in choosing your mainsail system. Like all mechanical systems, mast furlers need to be maintained regularly and used with proper technique to ensure trouble free operation. In our opinion, the benefits of mast furling far outweigh the negatives.


An in-boom furling system. Image courtesy Schaefer.

A resurging option for controlling your mainsail is the boom furler. Today’s boom furlers allow a fully battened mainsail to roll up completely inside a specially fabricated boom. There’s no loss of sail area or power with boom furlers, since the sails can be designed with a full leech. The full battens also keep the sail quiet and under control even when head to wind. Another beauty of this system is that it keeps the stored weight of the sail down low, as opposed to the mast furling units which raise the center of gravity. Like mast furlers, boom furlers allow you to set just the amount of sail you desire from the safety and comfort of your cockpit. An added safety benefit over mast furlers is that if the unit jams, the sail can be safely lowered outside of the furling boom. We would have loved to try one of these new systems on Serengeti, but the relatively high cost discouraged us from pursuing it further.

All in all, we see that boat owners with furling mainsail systems tend to use their mainsails far more often that those sailors who have to work harder at setting and putting away the sail again. But, with the exception of some of the behind-the-mast add on units, the costs are relatively high.


Sue installs Harken battcars from the bosun's chair. Image by Sue & Larry.

A third option to update your mainsail system, and one that we found more palatable to our budget, is to choose one of the after market products that enable you to drastically reduce the friction encountered when raising and lowering your sail. Companies like Harken, Antal, Schaeffer, and Strong all make systems designed to accomplish this task. Some use ball bearings while others employ space-age plastics to virtually eliminate any friction. These systems will take a mainsail that could only be raised with the assistance of a winch, to one that can easily be raised by just hand power.

These products are designed so that they can be easily owner installed, even while the mast is still up. In most cases a new track slides over or into your existing mast track, and is permanently affixed in place from a bosun’s chair. The low friction cars are installed onto the track and interface with the sail by means of matching hardware installed by a sailmaker.

If you decide that a friction reduction system is right for you, you’ll want to combine it with some means to contain and control the sail when as it's being raised and lowered. Installing a set of lazy jacks is the most common solution to this problem. Lazy jacks are lines which attach to your mast and boom to form a cradle of sorts that keeps the sail on top of the boom when lowered. Other systems, like the Dutchman, attain the same end result by using a very heavy duty monofilament line on which the sail rides both up and down.

After studying the above options, we chose to install a fully battened stacking mainsail and lazy jacks in combination with Harken Battcars. Raising the sail is now a dream and reefing is smooth due to the reduced friction. Best of all, though, is at the end of the day when the halyard is eased, there’s no messing and fussing with sail ties and unrolling a long sail cover. The sail neatly stacks in place by itself on top of the boom, then we simply zip closed the top of the permanently attached cover and head to the cockpit to relax.


The completed system on Serengeti. Image by Sue & Larry.

Overall we’ve been pleased with the system we chose, with a couple of caveats. Our battens occasionally snag on the lazy jacks during the process of raising the sail so we’ve found it imperative to be absolutely dead to wind when hoisting the sail, and even then they still snag sometimes. The addition of Harken Battcars gives the stowed sail a fairly high profile compared to the old plastic slugs. This creates more windage than we would like to have. We sometimes jokingly refer to our stowed and stacked mainsail as our “fourth reef”. To be able to reach the head of the sail so that we could attach the halyard, we had to add a couple of mast steps down low. There’s no question that there are both positives and negatives with every system out there.

In addition to revamping our mainsail system, we ran our main halyard and all reef lines back to the cockpit. This provide full control of the mainsail without ever having to leave the security of the cockpit. We believe this is an important safety benefit when sailing long distances shorthanded. Check out our article here on SailNet “Leading Sail Control Lines Aft”.

So if you’re ready to make your mainsail really your main sail, give yourself and your boat a well deserved present. Each of these systems represents a monumental leap over the old days when raising the mainsail was a big chore. You’ll get more pure sailing enjoyment out of your boat while working less and being safer to boot.


Editor's Note: If you have additional questions on mainsails and reefing systems, click here to take advantage of AirForce Sail's "Ask Your Sailmaker" feature. 
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