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A bottom completely free of extraneous items.

A bottom completely free of extraneous items.

It is probably worth writing a post here early on to correct any misconceptions people might have about me or might start getting as they read further posts. It arises due to me sailing up till now in certain ways and on certain kinds of boats which are deeply unfashionable.

The misconception in question is that I am somehow a “purist” and possibly even smug about it. This, however is untrue; I sail without an engine for practical reasons, and am not at all opposed to engines. In fact, my next boat may very well be a motorboat, and I relish the thought of making passages without having to go and hand a sail on a spray lashed deck in the pitch black night.

First, I’ll elaborate on why I do not have an engine on my boat.

A sailboat with an auxiliary engine is under quite a severe performance handicap. The prop of course creates a considerable amount of resistance, especially if it is allowed to turn, as some captains do on purpose, believing the opposite to be true. Even the folding props, whilst clearly presenting far less resistance than a fixed blade propeller, still creates a certain amount of unnecessary resistance.

Then there is the weight issue. If an engine is fitted to a boat not conceived for one, the weight balance will be wrong, and even if ballast can be shifted and some removed, the overall distribution of mass will be negatively affected for sailing performance. On the other hand, if the engine is designed in, there will be certain design concessions made in terms of displacement and volume for the engine, which will also be deviations from the optimum for sailing performance.

Lastly, on full keel boats, there is the keel and/or rudder aperture for the propeller which has extremely detrimental effects on performance and handling.

All this is rarely appreciated nowadays since auxiliary engines have become the absolute default option. However, the difference is quite marked. In the twilight years of the old windjammers, many of those majestic ships were fitted with auxiliary engines, to rely less on tugs in tight quarters, to manage with less crew, and especially to push the boat through calms, which large sailing ships are particularly vulnerable to. The average passage times increased, however, despite the fact that they now could power through the calms.

It may be worth noting at this point, that auxiliaries in sailboats appeared first in working boats, which could justify the initial cost and running expenses, by reducing crew and supposed passage times in order to raise the overall profitability of the boat. The rise of the industrial age, powered by fossil fuels, gave birth to the era of the the steamship and this in turn put huge economic pressure on working sail.

It was not to be until after the second world war that pleasure boats started installing auxiliaries in earnest. This was therefore also when sailors’ proficiency started to plunge. Before then, it was very rare indeed. When my father was learning to sail, just before the war, there was just one yacht in the fjord which had recently installed one, much to the mirth of all the other sailors. They would watch it sail in and make endless fun of its plainly apparent compromised sailing performance.

Another downside to an auxiliary is cost. Engines are expensive pieces of machinery and being extremely complex require specific maintenance, without which they fail to work in short order. Even under an impeccable schedule of maintenance, they eventually break down due to ordinary wear and tear, requiring expensive replacement parts and specialized (read: expensive) knowledge. All this is before even considering the ongoing cost of fuel and oil which is only going to get more expensive as time goes on.

Then we have the lack of autonomy that the auxiliary entails; Replacement parts are not usually self buildable, forcing one to rely on complex supply lines, which may well be non existent in many of the world’s far flung places. Most of the repair work requires an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of marine engines, and unless one has spent the considerable time and effort to learn all of this, forces one to rely on expensive marine mechanics, which again, may not be available in many interesting places.

As if all that was not enough, there is yet another downside; the auxiliary takes up a lot of room. On the Oasis, for instance, the space that may have been used for a motor is our bunk, so the bunk does not have to take up more valuable space elsewhere. On the Melody (the boat I single-handed across the pond) the place where the motor was became a large storage area for water jugs and reserve food.

Lastly, though this is a minor point; no engine means no foul oil in the bilges!

As I hope can be seen, I have very valid reasons for not wanting an auxiliary on my sailboat.

However there are always counter arguments, and I will try to address the most commonly raised ones now.

One of the most common objections is the time I must waste in calms, not infrequently voiced, without a trace of irony, from people who have been waiting weeks and months for certain spare parts to arrive for their own motor!

To this I explain that a good sailing boat, with a proper amount of sail area, is very rarely becalmed. In point of fact, over the 70 000 plus sea miles I have covered, I have only been becalmed on a few occasions amounting to a total of less than twenty four hours. Note that becalmed means to have lost steerage-way. Sailing along softly in very light winds is far more common and of course these same conditions may well mean being becalmed for less well canvassed, propeller dragging sailboats.

The "Elf" all sail set.

The “Elf” all sail set.

These boats all have enough sail to not have a problem in light wind.

These boats all have enough sail to not have a problem in light wind.

Then there is the how do I manoeuvre into harbours question. First off, it is crucial to have a boat which is well mannered and easy to handle. Many modern yachts are so deficient in this regard that they do indeed require an auxiliary for manoeuvres. Common flaws are huge overlapping foresails which are awkward to tack and tiny mainsails on very short booms which are almost completely ineffective as an air rudder.

Secondly, there is the knowledge of the technique . One must know how to sail. Really know how to sail. Not only that, but have an good deal of experience so as to be be able to correctly anticipate the boat’s reaction in all different situations, how much way on is needed to make a desired point when rounding up with different wind and waves. All this takes time and effort of course, although I’m tempted to believe less time than that required for really understanding marine mechanics.

The crucial thing here is understanding how to operate your machine. If you have a sailboat, take the time to practice. Hire a sailing instructor to get valuable insight and correct flaws in your technique. Read books on sailing, especially the book from the Glenans sailing school. Practice some more. Learn other techniques, such as warping, kedging, sculling, drudging, leebowing the current etc.. And then practice some more.

I learnt all these techniques as a boy on L’ Artemis de Pytheas, which had no engine, and being 15 meters long plus the 4 meter bowsprit and overhanging boom (or bumpkin on later rigs) made for quite a lot of boat to manoeuvre in tight quarters.

On a commercial motorboat there is a full time mechanic who ensures there is never any downtime due to mechanical faults, so it only stands to reason that at least one person on a sailboat is fully competent.

Now you see here a curious phenomenon; people buy a sailboat fitted with an auxiliary to compensate for the fact that they do not in fact know how to sail properly. However, not many captains can really tear apart their auxiliary engines and be fully confident of being able to put it back together again in a better state than before, so we have a lack of knowledge at both ends while at the same time more expense (rig + engine) and dependency on specialized work (riggers + marine mechanics) as well as maximizing complexity, purportedly to facilitate boat handling but at the expense of greater vulnerability to systems breakdown .

This in turn has created a vicious circle; Captains never learn how to sail in tight quarters, since they take all sail down long before entering any harbour, losing all chance to gain that crucial experience. Designers, knowing that people do not bother trying to sail in light winds cut down the sail plans so it then becomes necessary to have and use the auxiliary in light airs. Furthermore, little thought is given to making the boat easy to handle, since again, the presumption is that the auxiliary will always be used in tricky situations.

Sometimes I hear that sailing into harbours at the turn of the century was easier then because there were fewer boats, but I disagree. Harbours back then were just as crowded, sometimes more so.

Sometimes I get accused of irresponsibility, that sailing a sailing boat without an engine is somehow dangerous. This last point comes inevitably from a serious deficit of comprehension of what sailing is about, but is also a more subtle concept to overstand. It must be remembered that boats have been sailing around for millennia without engines.

The basic principles of sailing cautiously are unfortunately abandoned with a sort of blind faith that the engine will be able to pull them out of difficulties.

A notable example comes to mind, although it is far from being an isolated case;

The wreck of the ‘Maria Assumpta‘ in 1995 on the north Cornish coast is a noteworthy case of how an auxiliary can actually encourage reckless behaviour. Here the Captain believed he could get away with poor seamanship as in sailing far too close to a lee shore because he could always turn on the motors and power out of difficulties, however, when he did start up the engines the engines quit on him at a critical moment and he had not allowed enough room for neither tacking nor wearing ship. Had he not had auxiliaries it would have been plainly apparent from the beginning that sailing that close to a lee shore was absolutely suicidal. Three out of the fourteen on board died due to this error of judgement.

All this tends to make people think I am rabidly anti engines, so let me now explain why this is not the case either.

There are situations in which an auxiliary engine in a sailboat is appropriate. Also, motorboats themselves have many worthwhile advantages over sailing boats.

Good reasons for having an auxiliary engine on a sailboat are not having enough manpower for the boat in question or a large sailing ship having to sail to ports which do not have any tug boat service.

It is a little known fact that here was actually a time when there were sailing tugboats. I remember seeing a painting of a dutch harbour scene where two sailing tugboats are pulling a sailing ship, itself under reduced sail, into harbour. Maybe someone can point me to a similar image?

Motor-yachts have a lot going for them too; as long as the engines are kept in good working order, motor boats involve very little effort to operate, contrary to sailing boats. There is no tending to the sails at all hours of day and night and in any sea and weather conditions. They have the capacity for fast passage times and can schedule arrival times almost irrespective of weather.

It ought to be mentioned here that for all the attempts at making sailing as effortless as possible with gadgets and new technology (a lot of which cause more problems than they solve) sailing continues to be an arduous undertaking, involving a great deal of physical effort and stress. This is not a popular notion, nowadays many seem convinced that sailing, through the miracle of modern technology, has somehow become sanitized, eliminating the often brutal business of sailing to the point where any-one can partake. The result is quite often crushed expectations, when newbies encounter their first bit of adverse conditions. More often than not, in practice though, most sailing is in fact confined to extremely small geographical areas, as well as very limited time frames – when the weather is optimum only.

Furthermore, I contend that a large proportion of sailyacht owners would have done much better obtaining an efficient motoryacht, which would have been far more appropriate for the actual end use of the boat. I cannot count how many times I have seen sailing yachts being motored over quite long distances with all sails furled. Not just upwind, but many, many times downwind, and that in absolutely perfect weather conditions. Clearly these people got the wrong boat. Rigs are expensive, sailboats need a lot of lead ballast, generally a fair bit of draft; none of which is helpful for motoring.

So bad has this become we even see the ongoing trend of “powering up”; putting larger and larger auxiliaries in sailing boats, when they were for all practical purposes already motorsailors.

The way I personally define a motorsailor is any boat which gets similar or better overall performance under power than under sail. Of course the ‘overall’ means there is a certain amount of subjectivity but it still serves as a rough guide to categorizing boats. It can be seen that nowadays, if my definition is used, most sailboats are in fact motorsailors. And so it makes sense why so many “sailboats” are being motored around; after all why go through all the effort of setting sail when you’ll only end up going slower?!

I know I sure would not bother setting sails on such a boat either.

The bottom line in all this is that good design is about honest and appropriate solutions to anticipated needs for specific applications.

If you are really into sailing, why would you want to ruin the sailing qualities of a good sailing boat with extra expense and headaches?

If you want to cruise in comfort why would you want to bother pretending otherwise with an expensive sailing rig, which will almost never get used anyways?

If you want to sail under optimal conditions, and otherwise motor, or motorsail to windward every beat, be honest with yourself and get a well designed motorsailer that does not pretend to be something else.

Having both motor and sails can be just as much “the worst of both worlds” as “the best of both worlds”. A configuration that I think is under represented nowadays, but which deserves greater promotion as an appropriate solution to the real end use of most cruising boats is the efficient motorboat with auxiliary sails. But i’ll leave that for a future post.


Whenever i'm in a harbour