Making a Case for the Hank-on Staysail

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 02:47PM - Comments: (6)

Photo by Ralph Naranjo
Photo by Ralph Naranjo

A detailed report on jib furlers appeared in the August 2009 issue of Practical Sailor, available in our online archives.

When it comes to choosing what belongs on the offshore cruising boat, there are a few hard and fast rules. But most choices are hardly straightforward. Once you’re off soundings you find yourself in a broad middle ground where there’s plenty room for debate. The single-hander in the Dana 24 isn’t going to be basing every decision on what his neighbor on the Oyster 62 is advocating. And as specialization increases, the divide between what works on a monohull and what best serves a multihull sailor grows ever wider. Even equipment that most would consider essential on any boat has staunch critics. A case in point is the furling headsail, the subject of our upcoming report in the October 2015 issue of Practical Sailor.

Up until the early 1980s, there was still a fairly large, vocal group of sailors who strongly advocated the simplicity of hank-on headsails. Their argument went something like this: furling gear was fine for the coastal sailor, but for best performance and fail-safe simplicity on an ocean passage, a full set of hank-on sails made better sense. Ten years later, as roller-furling manufacturers all but eliminated the foil, corrosion, and bearing issues that plagued older designs, furling headsails gained full acceptance of cruisers and round-the-world racers alike.

Today, to deride a jib furler amounts to near blasphemy.

While the roller furling genoa (the focus of our October article) is almost universally accepted on ocean cruiser, there is still a lively debate over the whether a furler belongs on the working staysail—which often becomes the sole headsail on cutter or double-headsail ketch in heavy weather. (The working staysail is not to be confused with a proper storm jib, which may set on the same stay as the staysail). Former editor and circumnavigator Nick Nicholson extolled the virtues of the furling staysail on his Mason 43, and while I greatly admire Nick, I’ve never been persuaded by his argument for the furling staysail. (Keep in mind, I’m the guy who spent 10 years nursing an old gaff-rigged ketch—all hank on sails, two tiny winches—around the Pacific, so my personal views on many topics lie well outside the mainstream.)

In my view, having a foolproof hank-on sail ahead of the mast is not a bad thing. On your average cruising boat, the staysail is usually small, and stay itself is far enough aft that dousing or setting it doesn’t put the crew in jeopardy. The nice thing about this approach is that it greatly reduces the cost of retrofitting a sloop with an inner forestay and sail to set on it.

I’m not alone in questioning the need for the furling staysail. Sailmaker Carol Hasse, who specializes in cruising sails, won’t hesitate to advocate a hank-on staysail over a furler for the offshore cruiser. The same goes for our tech editor Ralph Naranjo. Keep in mind that this is a sail where shape and reliability is paramount—two areas where the hank-on sail generally excels over the furled one.

Recently, I listened as delivery skipper and author John Kretchmer, who has nearly 300,000 miles at sea in various boats and whose book, “Sailing A Serious Ocean,” is available at our bookstore, described his own conversion. Kretschmer, while giving an informative presentation on some of his favorite cruising boat designs at last year’s St. Petersburg Boat Show, was extolling the advantages of a cutter rig. He said that for many years he was a big fan of furling staysails—until one unfurled on him in a gale. Since then he’s leaned toward the simplicity of a hank-on staysail.

I’ve no doubt there are sailors with gobs of experience (former contributor and high lattitude sailor Andy O’Grady among them) who will find my aversion to the furling staysail just plain silly. I say, more power to them. If there were one simple answer to every problem the sailor faces, the sea would be a much more crowded place. As for me, I like having a little room for boats—and opinions—to roam.


Comments (6)

I am pretty disappointed in this article as it's very biased and lacks depth of the subject, just opinions and nothing factual. I'm surprised PS would print that as their studied approach to equipment is normally quite good.
We have a Cutter Ketch with a hanked on staysail and roller furler for the jib. As we're a 2-hand boat, for the safety of my wife, I'm considering changing over to roller furling for the staysail, especially as ours is a self-tacking sail.
It is my understanding that I can put a strong enough unit to use the sail as a storm sail.
So like you mentioned the gentleman with 100s of thousands of successful miles with one, I can't see the issue. Safety is paramount and having sailed two tran-At's and played in a Mistral in the Med, I'm no expert, but I'm quite aware of Mother Nature's abilities against a boat at sea.
Please - consider having someone write an authoritative piece on furlers.

Posted by: Tony@svmarite | April 25, 2019 1:55 PM    Report this comment

My second boat (27' catamatan--wide deck, so forestay access is like a staysail) had hank-on head sails (storm, working, genoa). While folding the genoa took a few more minutes than pulling a string, I could get the sail down on deck in any weather in 10 seconds. Cleaning up took a few minutes, but if it was critical to get it down, it was down. Additionally, there was no windage from the furled bulge, which I think no one has mentioned.

I like my furler on my new cat (34') and I certainly see the purpose on a mono forestay, but for an inner stay, unless used very regularly, I'd go hank-on. In fact, I could go either way on my 34' cat for the headsails; I really like the ease of changing sails and that it ALWAYS comes down, regardless of wind speed.

Posted by: Drew Frye | August 16, 2015 10:09 AM    Report this comment

At one time (1980) I owned an Alajuela 33 cutter which had an Inner Forestay Release, with hank on sails. Worked really well, when the large genoa was used, you could remove or tuck away the inner forestay. If you had a lot of tacking coming up it made for easy sailing, also used it with the storm jib.

Now I have a 1995 Cape Marine Coast 34 cutter with roller furling on both head sails. and at every tack I hope the genoa goes through the inner forestay slot, I think back to how easy the setup was on the Alajuela 33.

So now I have started to look at "Inner Forestay Release" systems for the Cape Marine Coast 34. A good article can be found at "The Rigging Company" web site that talks about the "Highfield Lever," Schaefer SRL 500, and Wichard systems.

Posted by: Knightflier | August 16, 2015 9:16 AM    Report this comment


Skip Novak's Storm Sailing Techniques Part 3: storm sails

For another opinion (why can't links be posted?)

Posted by: Tom in MN | August 14, 2015 6:15 PM    Report this comment

I'm somewhat disappointed that Practical Sailor would not have an article about adding an inner stay for a stay sail. I'm sure there are a great many readers who have boats without an inner stay and would like guidance on adding one. I think this article is dead on - an inner stay for a smaller head sail is a great idea. It would have kept me out of trouble on several occasions.
Additionally, even though the 1960s and 1970s gave us great boats like the Tartans, Pearsons, Sabers, Crealock designs etc etc - its a long list, but many of us have moved on to 1990s boats or later. Can we have such things as inner stay guidance for such boats as Catalinas etc (disclosure, we have a 1998 Catalina 380, having previously had a C&C 29MkII)?

Posted by: Tom T | August 12, 2015 8:02 PM    Report this comment

Please suggest some other cruising sailmakers that specialize in cutter rigs. I have a Pacific Seacraft 37. Most sailmakers I talk to want the inner forestay removed and make a racing genoa.

Posted by: Sablier | August 12, 2015 5:15 PM    Report this comment

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