Walk down any marina or boat show pontoon and you could be forgiven for thinking there was some sort of nautical jousting competition afoot. Older yachts too can get in on the act with retrofitted deck-mounted retractable bowsprits, but do you really need one and do they improve performance?
There’s nothing new about bowsprits – sailing ships have been using them for centuries as a means of creating more real estate from which to fly canvas as well as to balance a vessel’s rig – but they are more popular on cruising yachts than ever before. With advancements in sail-handling technology, a furling spinnaker can now be set up in port by one person and stay rolled up until it’s ready to be used. At that point, it’s a case of unfurling it, sheeting in, and you have a spinnaker! Taking it down is almost as easy: ease the sheet and take in on the furling line until the sail is neatly rolled away and perfectly tamed, a feat that would have been unmanageable by a single cruising sailor a few decades ago.
WHY SO POPULAR?
Their popularity has mostly been brought about by modern yacht design and the quest for better accommodation. The IOR rules of the 70s did much to determine hull shape, but the demand for more space and accommodation has changed yachts forever.
How furling asymmetric spinnakers work
Most furling asymmetric systems work in a fashion known as a top-down furling. A shallow furling drum that accepts a continuous line is attached to the bow or bowsprit. On top of the drum is a swivel to which the tack of the sail attaches; this swivel can rotate independently of the drum. The furling drum is fixed to a torsion rope (one designed not to twist), and the head of sail is fixed to the top of this, above which a swivel connects the torsion rope to the halyard. When the sail is ready to be furled, the sheet is eased and the furling line is pulled and the drum rotates. Because the tack of the sail is on a swivel the rotating drum does not affect it, but turns the torsion rope, which starts the furl at the top of the sail. As you continue to pull on the furling line, the sail is wrapped around the torsion rope and tamed from the top down until the whole sail is furled and the furling line can be cleated off. Often a patch of velcro on the sail’s clew will help prevent the furls unfurling.
The luff of the A-sail has to be short enough not to hang down over the furler, and have a shallow enough draft to allow it to roll away. Therefore, using an existing asymmetric and converting it to a furling asymmetric may be impossible.
With some furling asymmetric systems, such as Crusader Sails’ ‘Magic Furl’ system, the furling sail is pulled onto the torsion rope by lines attached to the luff of the sail at intervals up the luff. Pulling the furling rope pulls these grab-lines, wrapping them, and then the sail, around the torsion rope.
One big difference is the rig. Gone are the stumpy masthead rigs and vast overlapping genoas encouraged by the IOR without penalty, which have been replaced by tall, efficient high aspect ratio rigs. The increase of popularity in cruising, and the lack of rules constraining it, gave designers a free hand. Mast sections and materials became lighter and stronger, enabling rigs to go higher. By moving the mast forward in the boat, it enabled designers to open up the saloon, and by moving the chainplates outboard and attaching them directly to the hull, eliminated the need for tie rods that eat into accommodation, increasing the feeling of space below while also reducing manufacturing costs.
Over the last 15 years bows have become less raked and more vertical. This change has improved performance as the static waterline length and forward buoyancy in the hull have increased. On deck, things weren’t as rosy for the cruising yachtsman. Plumb bows and anchors are not good bedfellows, as anchors seem to be as attracted to them as curious hands are to ‘wet paint’ signs. In no time there were battle-scarred bows all around the world. To right this wrong, bow rollers started protruding forward.
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