Folding Propellers vs. Feathering Propellers

Folding Propellers vs. Feathering Propellers | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

November 18, 2020

Unlike a fixed propeller, which is known for creating a substantial amount of drag when sailing, fitting a folding propeller or feathering propeller will increase your speed under sail while significantly improving marina handling.

One of the most debatable and divisive issues in sailing is the varying schools of thought as far as the best sailing propeller is concerned.

Whether you believe in using the motor as your main propulsion or you fall in the purists' category who believe that a propeller should only be used for getting in and out of a marina, one thing is for sure: propeller drag is and has always been a major issue for sailboats since the invention of propellers.

While fixed three-blade props are essential in providing superb motoring performance, they can negatively affect your speed and performance when under sail. To avoid this, you should consider choosing between folding propellers and feathering propellers.

Fixed propellers are known to cause significant drag that can negatively affect your sailing speed and performance when under sail. This means that we're only left with two options: folding propellers vs. feathering propellers.

The debate generally revolves around whether you should let the propeller rotate while sailing or put a stop to the spin

Studies have proven that folding and feathering props can create less drag and in turn enhance your boat's speed and performance, especially when compared to fixed props.

But even after discarding fixed props for the considerable amount of drag that they cause, we still have to choose between folding propellers and feathering propellers.

This is what this article is all about: folding propellers vs. feathering propellers. At the end of this read, you should be able to differentiate the two and choose the right one for your sailing escapades.

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The Importance of Choosing the Right Propeller for Your Sailboat

Your sailboat's propeller plays an integral role in enhancing its speed and performance. Whether you're planning to make a long-distance passage or trying to outrun an approaching storm, you probably have realized that an extra knot makes a whole lot of difference. An extra knot can not only save you time but also be the difference between life and death, so it should never be taken for granted.

That's not all, choosing the right propeller brings with it some sort of a feel-good-factor knowing that you're getting the best from your sailboat. It will give you the peace of mind that you deserve when out there on the water while enhancing your boat's performance and speed.

Unfortunately, choosing the right propeller for your sailboat isn't a walk in the park. If anything, choosing between a folding propeller and feathering propeller brings forth a multi-dimensional problem in terms of the level of performance, efficiency, price, maneuverability, safety, and many more. This is exactly why you should know what they are, what they will do to your boat, and the best one to go for.

Folding Propellers

A folding propeller is essentially a type of propeller that is often mounted at the aft end of a boat's keel. It is designed in such a way that its blades automatically fold out when the engine is used to power the sailboat and fold back when the boat is under sail and the engine isn't working. When the engine is on, folding propellers will spin outwards by a centrifugal force. On the other hand, the water flow forces will push the propellers back when the engine stops.

Folding propellers come in various forms and may range from the most basic types to highly sophisticated geared folding propellers. The most sophisticated ones might be costly but are quite efficient and will provide top-notch performance both ahead and astern while significantly reducing all forms of drags.

We have to note that folding propellers can be ideal for easily driven lightweight sailboats or if you do not want to ignore the unwanted drag and significant loss of speed. Folding blades are also essential in racing circles. They generally fold backward thereby reducing drag significantly and increasing speed and performance under sail.

Benefits of Using Folding Propellers

You've probably been wondering why many sailboat owners have been choosing to use folding propellers on their boats. Well, the benefits that these types of propellers bring to your sailing adventures in terms of speed, performance, and safety are unmatched.

Here are some of the benefits.

Reducing Drag

Numerous tests have consistently shown that folding propellers create the least amount of drag when sailing, especially when compared with feathering propellers or fixed propellers. The two-blade versions of folding propellers are the most efficient in reducing drag, especially when going astern.

Most two-blade folding props can perform just as well as three-blade folding props. However, their simple design of opening independently of each other can sometimes cause imbalances and vibrations, especially if one of the two blades open or close more than the other.

There are also three-blade and four-blade propellers that bring to your sailing game an interesting overdrive characteristic. These blades generally work by reversing automatically when going astern. This feature is important when the engine is on as it can be essential in saving fuel when using the engine to sail in calm conditions.

Folding props generally have better thrust when moving forward than feathering propellers but this will, of course, depend on the pitch as well as the shape of the blades. The prop will go astern if they have a weak point. This is because they rely on the centrifugal force to hold the blades open against the force trying to close them. You have to keep in mind that the blades might not be as efficient as it if going forward if the blades are open.

Offering Safety

The blades of folding propellers don't usually stick out as they do on feathering props or fixed propellers. This means that there are no chances of the prop catching debris or any marine creature. Needless to say, such issues can lead to a loss of steering ability and ultimately cause an accident. In short, your safety is much better if you're using folding propellers.

Greater Maneuverability at the Dock

Folding propellers are generally designed with powerful shapes and hydrodynamic designs that can give your boat greater maneuverability like you would at the sea. These props are designed with superior stopping, forward, and reversing power.

High Speed

As we noted earlier, folding propellers are the most efficient in reducing drag, which generally affects the speed and performance of your boat. So by installing a folding prop, you will improve your sailing performance and speed by nearly 15%. Your boat will be faster and the voyages will be more enjoyable even in lighter winds.

More Comfort

In an ideal sailing situation when the wind is optimal and the weather is calm, you're likely to hear the sound of the propeller, especially if it's a fixed propeller. The resultant noise can be frustrating but this should be an issue in folding propellers. If anything, the noise levels will be as low as the drag. This is because most folding props are designed with strong built-in shock absorbers to reduce the noise levels.

In short, folding propellers are ideal if you want to reduce noise and vibration that are common in fixed blades.

Great Value for Money

If you've owned a sailboat before, you already know that having a propeller that's designed with various moving parts can be costly in terms of repair and maintenance. This is essentially why many sailboat owners prefer props with just a few moving parts.

As such, folding props can be ideal since their only moving parts are the blades. They are also structured with smooth acting gears and strong materials to ensure durability without any need for greasing, rebuilding, replacements, or maintenance. In essence, folding props will ensure that you spend most of your precious time sailing instead of being at the dock fixing your boat.

Similarly, folding props are known for having lower initial purchasing cost than feathering props. They have a simpler design, which significantly reduces the purchase costs. In short, folding props are more affordable than feathering props.

Cons of Folding Props

Despite these numerous benefits, folding propellers have noticeable downsides that we have to highlight. They include:

  • The fixed pitch that cannot be removed or changed once fitted. If you have to change or remove the pitch, you'll have no choice but to seek the services of a propeller expert.
  • Although this may vary depending on the brands, folding props have simple designs that tend to wear out the fastest when compared to feathering props.
  • Folding props have inadequate reverse thrust, so you'll have to be very skillful to maneuver tight dock spaces.
  • The gears are most likely to be exposed to the marine environment and, therefore, will wear out quickly.

Are Folding Propellers Ideal For Your Boat?

Folding props can be ideal for you if you have a small or medium-sized sailboat with moderate engine power. You'll not only attain extra speed under sail but drag will be a thing of the past. Additionally, folding props can also be ideal for motor sailors and larger boats. So if an extra knot is essential for you, folding props might make much sense.

Again, you'll have the peace of mind knowing that your safety is guaranteed as far as your boat's propeller catching debris or causing an accident is concerned. Its design can prevent seaweed from getting tagged along or anything that might make you lose your steering ability and perhaps cause an accident.

Feathering Propellers

Feathering props operate exactly as the name suggests: the prop blades feather when the engine is on neutral or shut down. They generally feather in the passing water flow in the same way a sail positioned head-to-wind would. It has a small profile that is essential in reducing drag while enhancing speed and sailing performance.

The blades of a feathering prop are designed in such a way that they set themselves perpendicularly to the water flow. This gives them a neutral cutting edge to the water, which makes the blades almost flat. As such, such types of props can be less efficient when sailing ahead since the pitch will be reversed when the engine is going astern. Fortunately, you can repitch your feathering prop by simply adjusting the point at which the flipping blades meet but you'll have to move the gears a couple of notches.

Benefits of Feathering Propellers

Here are some of the benefits of using feathering propellers.

Offers Superb Maneuverability

Generally speaking, feathering props are positive in their function. The blades or the feathering props will be opened by the torque of the shaft. It doesn't matter whether it has seaweed or not, the feathering props will open because of the torque of the shaft that reduces unnecessary shock load. The fact that it has the best thrust in reverse and commendable thrust when moving forward gives it superior maneuverability even in tight docking situations. You'll also not need any skills to maneuver the boat at the dock.

Offers Amazing Reverse

Feathering propellers are widely popular not just because of the superior maneuverability that they bring to your sailing adventures but also because of their incredible reverse features. The blades can rotate 180 degrees in turn of the shaft, thereby giving them a very high level of efficiency on both the reverse and forward thrust.

This will improve your level of control even on the reverse while decreasing prop walk. In essence, the feathering props are much better than fixed props or folding props in reverse. They should, therefore, be your first choice if you're looking for a prop that can give you complete control of your sailboat even in tight spaces. These types of props are also very durable as they're more robust in construction than folding props.

Low Drag

Even though not on the same level as folding props in terms of reducing your boat's drag, feathering props are much better than fixed props. To put it into perspective, a 26-foot sailboat is likely to create about 50 pounds of pull if it has fixed props while the same boat would create 4 pounds of pull if it's fitted with feathering props.

Adjustable Pitch

Unlike folding props that have fixed pitches, feathering props do have pitches that you can easily adjust to optimize the performance of your boat. The systems used by each brand can vary but you can set independent reverse and forward even when on the water. This can also help in reducing the prop walk.

Cons of Feathering Propellers

The most noticeable downside of feathering props is their expensive prices. Feathering props generally cost twice as much as folding props and this can be a major hindrance if you're on a tight budget. You'll also have to service and maintain the props due to their complex designs. Again, you might have to deal with a given level of drag, which makes them less efficient as far as speed and performance are concerned.

Are Feathering Propellers Ideal for Your Boat?

Simply put, feathering props can be ideal for you if you're looking for efficient maneuverability, especially at the dock. These types of props allow you to thrust forward and reverse even in tight docks. As such, this can be a good option for novice sailors as there are no technical skills required to maneuver the boat even in tight conditions.

To this end, we hope that you can make the right decision in choosing between folding propellers and feathering propellers. While they are much better than fixed propellers, the most ideal one for your boat will certainly depend on your specific needs.

Folding Propellers vs. Feathering Propellers

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