How to Choose a Furling System

How to Choose a Furling System | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Choosing the right furling system is essential for safe and easy sailing. Furling systems can keep you dry and reduce your sailing workload.

In this article, we'll cover the most popular types of furling systems, their benefits, and their drawbacks. We'll also provide information to help you decide which furling system works best for your boat, your sailplan layout, and your vessel type.

The most common types of roller furling systems are the head swivel, the wire luff, and the internal halyard. Head swivel systems are the most popular and ideal for general-purpose use, while internal halyards are the most economical. Wire luffs are ideal for hanked-on headsails, and they're also less expensive than head swivel systems.

The information in this article is sourced directly from furling system manufacturers and distributors. Additionally, we spoke with sailors who have installed and used various types of roller furling systems on their boats.


Table of contents

What is a Roller Furling System?

A roller furling system is designed to make it easy to deploy and adjust your headsail. The most common kind of roller furling system attaches to a jib sail and allows the operator to deploy and stow the entire sail from the cockpit.

Roller furling systems eliminate the need to go on deck to reef the headsail, which is especially useful in rough weather or when short-staffed. It allows you to quickly adjust the power of your boat in unpredictable windy conditions, and it's more precise than traditional horizontal reefing points.

In its most basic form, a roller furling is a set of spindles controlled from the cockpit. You hoist up the headsail between the spindles, which you can rotate in or out using a line. When actuated, the spindles roll up the headsail around the halyard.

Many roller furling systems work with your existing forestay, but some require you to install a new forestay. If you have a common sailboat, such as a fiberglass sailboat produced in the last 50 years, you should be able to install a roller furling system without much trouble or modification.

Parts of a Typical Roller Furling System

Roller furling systems have a few more components than a traditional headsail setup, but deploying sails with a furling system isn't that complicated. The furling unit itself mounts just aft of the forestay and roughly positions the headsail in its usual location.

The most notable part of the roller furling system is the furling drum, located at the base of the mechanism on the deck. The furling drum attaches to a chainplate aft of the forestay. In many cases, this is the same chain plate that the forestay itself attaches to.

The furling drum is responsible for controlling the roller furling system. is this where the control line wraps around, and it's important to position it properly.

The wire halyard is mounted directly to the top of the furling drum. This line extends close to the top of the mast and supports the tack of the headsail. Small cloth clasps called jib hanks run along the length of the wire halyard when the head sale is deployed. Jib hanks secure the sale to the wire and prevent uneven load from damaging the canvas.

The Wire halyard attaches to another smaller swivel closer to the top of the mast. This connection is known as the top swivel, and it is much smaller than the furling drum. Typically, a spacer disc mounts to the top of this swivel. The disc acts as a buffer between the top swivel and the shackle.

The shackle, which connects to the swivel through the spacer disc, is connected to your existing jib halyard. From this point, the hoisting system remains as it was before installing a roller furling.

Types of Furling Systems

There are three main types of roller furling systems, and they share many similarities. The primary types of roller furling systems available today are the head swivel furling, the wire luff furling, and the internal halyard furling. Here are the basic traits of these systems and some of the advantages of each type.

Head Swivel Furling System

The head swivel furling is by far the most common roller furling system used today. It's simple to operate, easy to maintain, and robust. It's a standard furling system that mounts just aft of the head stay and incorporates your existing headsail halyard.

Head swivel furling systems utilize two spindles; a drum located at the deck level and another smaller spindle located just past the top of the headsail. It uses ball bearings or smooth and easy rotation and generally stands up well to the elements.

The sail itself attaches to a wire halyard with hanks and then to the drum at the base of the system. The drum is rotated using a line that runs to an eyelet on a deck to the cockpit.

To deploy a jib or genoa using a head swivel furling, simply untie the furling line and unroll the headsail using the jibsheet. Reefing is also easy. Simply adjust the amount of sail using the same method, and roll it in and out as needed.

Head Swivel Furling Benefits

Head swivel furling systems are extremely easy to use. Operation is intuitive, and their lack of complex parts makes them almost trouble-free. Additionally, there is a wealth of knowledge about these popular systems online and in sailing communities. Chances are you'll find someone who knows how to repair head swivel furling systems virtually anywhere.

Head swivel furling systems work with your existing halyard, which means they're easy to deploy. Changing headsails is quick and simple as well, which is not always the case with roller furling systems. Head swivels with most jib and genoa sails, so you won't need any custom canvas to use one.

From a performance perspective, the head swivel system is most advantageous and efficient. That's why these systems are so common on race boats and trans-oceanic cruising vessels. The head swivel system is also the most reliable roller furling available today.

Head Swivel Furling Drawbacks

From a purely mechanical perspective, the head swivel furling system doesn't really have any drawbacks. Many would argue that it's the best furling system available today. That said, head swivel furling systems are quite costly. It's not uncommon to pay upwards of $1,000 for a complete full-size head swivel furling set.

Wire Luff Furling System

The wire luff furling system is a flexible way to control your headsail from the cockpit. Unlike the head swivel furling, a wire luff furling system is easily removable and designed to be stowed when not in use. Wire luff furling systems are popular on smaller boats and coastal cruising vessels.

From the bottom, a wire luff furling system closely resembles a head swivel furling system. It features a prominent rotating drum that mounts to a chainplate just aft of the forestay. It also uses a swivel that attaches to a standard halyard, allowing you to use your existing headsail rigging.

The wire luff furling system is simple and easy to install. It is often used by people who don't always need a quick, easy way to unfurl and reef the headsail. It's popular boats that use a variety of different headsails, as wire luff systems can accommodate multiple types of canvas.

Smaller sailboats, such as dinghies, often utilize wire luff furling systems due to their ease of installation and simple operation. Wire luff furling systems also work well with basic sale plans such as the simplified Bermuda rig.

Wire Luff Furling Benefits

One of the main benefits of the wire luff furling system is that it doesn't require any specific kind of hanked sail. Nonetheless, it can be used with hanked or non-hanked sails. The system is versatile and ideal for vessels with multiple headsail types at their disposal.

Sailors also appreciate how easy it is to install and remove wire luff furling systems. It sets up in minutes and doesn't require much modification to install. It sits behind the forestay, which means you don't have to compromise any standing rigging to install or operate a roller system.

Additionally, wire luff furling systems are highly affordable. You can obtain a complete set for less than half the price of a premium head swivel furling system. It's an excellent introduction to roller furling systems, and it's inexpensive enough to justify purchasing one to enhance your cruising capabilities.

Wire Luff Furling Drawbacks

Although it's a proven design, wire luff furling systems have some notable drawbacks. One of the most notable disadvantages of the wire left for a living system is that it's virtually impossible to reef the sale when it's under heavy wind stress.

This means that when you need to reef the headsail in high winds, you might not be able to. This is a problem, as it negates one of the primary benefits of having a roller furling, to begin with.

Additionally, the performance of head swivel furling systems is superior to that of wire luff types. Sails have a tendency to sag on wire luff systems as they don't provide as much lateral support or structure to the canvas.

Wire luff furling systems are not as durable as the head swivel varieties, which means they are not as suitable for offshore cruising or racing. That said, they are robust enough to be used in most conditions.

Internal Halyard Furling System

The internal halyard furling system is unique amongst the other two varieties. Unlike wire luff and head swivel furling systems, the internal halyard system actually utilizes the forestay.

With an internal halyard system, the forestay passes through the spindle drum, which operates just like any other bottom-up furling system. The use of the forestay simplifies the system and utilizes deck space better. The spindle drum is bulkier than other units, but it sits further ahead than wire luff and head swivel systems.

Internal Halyard Furling Benefits

Internal halyard roller furling systems are inexpensive and highly reliable. They work with a wide variety of sails, and they take up very little space. Fewer components mean fewer problems, so they're popular with long-range cruising boats. Because the headsail now rides along with the forestay, the halyard can be used to raise light air sails such as spinnakers and gennakers.

Internal Halyard Furling Drawbacks

Like the wire luff furling system, internal halyard systems are difficult to control in high winds. Under load, you won't be able to reef the sail easily. Additionally, it's difficult to control the tension of the halyard with this system. Installation can be challenging, as it requires you to manipulate your standing rigging.

Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Furling

Initially, all furling systems were bottom-up. This changed when more advanced headsails were developed for light wind. Here's the primary difference between bottom-up and top-down roller furling systems.

Bottom-Up Furling

Bottom-up furling is what most people would consider a standard roller furling system. The drum at the base is unrolled to unfurl the sail. When rolled up again, the sail begins to wrap around itself, starting at the base. This is how the majority of roller furling systems work for jib and genoa sails.

Top-Down Furling

The top-down furling system is a recent development that was designed to more effectively accommodate Code 0 sails and asymmetrical spinnakers. The top-down furling rolls the sail from the top down to the base. The base of the sail is free-floating and not directly furled by the drum.

Best Furling for Small Sailboats

The best furling system for small boats (under 20 feet in length) is the wire luff. This is because it's easy to install, and it works well with basic sail plans. Many small boats have used wire luff systems for years, and sailors agree that it's a user-friendly and reliable choice. The wire luff furling system is affordable and works well for training beginners.

Best Furling for Coastal Cruising Sailboats

The wire luff furling system works well for coastal cruisers, and so does the internal halyard. Internal halyard furling systems are compact, easy to handle in most conditions, and the drawbacks of the design are not particularly annoying in coastal environments.

The wire luff is the best choice for weekenders who sail in conditions where a roller furling isn't always necessary, as it can be stowed to more rapidly raise and lower the sails. This reduces rigging time but gives you the option to use a roller furling if you choose.

Best Furling for Offshore Cruising Sailboats

The obvious choice for offshore cruising sailboats is the popular head swivel furling system. The head swivel is the most robust roller furling available, and it allows you to quickly reef the headsail in all wind conditions. It's reliable, easy to maintain, and extremely strong. It does not involve standing rigging.

The head swivel furling system isn't easy to remove, but this doesn't matter on long-haul cruising boats. These systems are costly, but it's wise to invest in the best quality equipment if you're using your boat for long ocean passages.

How to Choose a Furling System
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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