Think for a moment about all those pictures of Volvo Ocean racers with tonnes of water bursting over the bow and sweeping down the deck. Then consider that in fast reaching conditions the first item of gear to experience that destructive force for hour after hour, day after day is the A-sail furling drum.

In the most recent race, all the boats used KZ Marine’s RaceFurlers and came through the marathon ordeal with flying colours. The small New Zealand-based company has carved an impressive niche in one of the most demanding areas of formula one type grand prix racing.

On yachts as powerful and as understaffed as a Volvo 70 at full cry in the Southern Ocean, the premium is on reliability. A jammed gennaker or jib top with a 50-knot squall bearing down in the middle of the night does not bear thinking about. Crews came to rely on the ability to carry these powerful sails in extreme conditions in the knowledge that hauling on the furling line would tame the beast in no time – every time.

Company managing director Rick Hackett confesses to some sleepless nights during the race, but is proud of the way the RaceFurlers stood up to their hammering. “In reality, those furling drums out on the end of the bowsprit are being subjected to extreme pressures.

“We build a line of defence to protect the working parts, but when you think about it, it is like constantly attacking the unit with a powerful waterblaster and asking a small seal to keep the water out.

“Before the start of the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race we designed a new seal for the units on Jean Pierre Dick’s Open 60, Virbac-Paprec 3. This is the system we used on the Volvo boats as well, and we were impressed at the way they performed.”

When the fleet came into Auckland, New Zealand at the halfway point of the race, KZ RaceFurlers stood by to service all their units. Because the stopover was so short, this was like a Formula One pitstop, with the company working at full speed to strip, check and maintain the furlers. “We basically had two days before the boats wanted to be out sailing again,” says Hackett.

After a full maintenance service, they were returned to the teams complete with a detailed report of the work carried out.

Development work also continued during the race. With an attention to detail that eventually took them to the front of the fleet, the French Groupama team put in a request for custom furlers fabricated in titanium. “They were looking for an ultimate furler.”

A prototype was delivered for testing during the Sanya, China stopover. Further development work continued and the final units were ready for battle when the fleet arrived in Brazil.

“These will now be added to our product list as Xtreme Series RaceFurlers,” says marketing manager Keryn McMaster. “They are significantly lighter, stronger and therefore smaller than equivalent stainless steel units.”

KZ RaceFurlers customize products for teams and pay close attention to the bowmen who ply their trade at the pointy end and have particular ways of organizing their narrow domains. “Because all our components are modular, we can interchange connection systems to suit the individual preferences of different bowmen,” notes McMaster.

This interchangeability also means that if one furler is damaged – or lost overboard, as happened when a whole bag of equipment was swept off the deck of one Volvo boat – components can be ‘borrowed’ from other units to keep the whole inventory working. “This interchangeability means we can minimize the inventory teams have to carry on board, but maximize the flexibility of their sail handling systems,” says Hackett.

For offshore races, the beauty of furling gennakers is that furling or unfurling becomes a two-person operation, as opposed to all hands on deck. This can be invaluable if a quick maneouvre is required – changing course to avoid a ship, oil rig or any other obstacle, or to depower in the face of a sudden squall. The sail can remain hoisted, but just furled long enough to deal with the issue and then resume at full power again with minimal effort.

In marathon events like a round the world race, it might be thought that saving seconds here or there is of little consequence. “The competition is so intense now, that every second counts,” says Hackett. “Basically some of these yachts were match racing around the world. Telefonica and CAMPER finished the Sanya to Auckland leg just 90 seconds apart. That can all come down to one bad sail change.”

Where this kind of intensity will become even more telling is the next America’s Cup. KZ RaceFurlers are already on all the AC45 catamarans and the company is dealing with a number of syndicates on their inventories for the big AC72s.

As these yachts speed around very confined courses at very high speeds, the efficiency of sail handling and crew work will be paramount. The boat that can deploy a gennaker one or two seconds faster than its rival, or keep it flying one or two seconds longer, will benefit by significant margins.

And, with no leg lasting longer than about three minutes, the grinders will be working constantly. “If you can provide a system that furls faster, or with less friction, it may mean that at the end of the race, the grinders are left with enough energy for two more tacks or gybes,” says Hackett. “That could be the difference between winning and losing.”

While much of the research and development work is conducted for grand prix racing, the benefits trickle down to all levels. “Being able to reliably furl downwind sails is so much easier and more efficient than snuffer socks,” says McMaster. “It means that even on cruising yachts these sails can actually be used much more often, rather than lying in the bottom of lockers because they are too much hassle.”


By Ivor Wilkins

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