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puertorican fishing boat, motor

A typical present day Puerto Rican fishing boat.

Just before leaving Salinas a friend let me know that a couple friends of hers wanted to charter my boat for a bit of adventure. I was not even half prepared for that kind of thing yet with the Oasis, but i could use a bit more pocket money so i agreed to take them to Vieques, where we were returning to do a last bit of packing at our house before continuing on upwind.

I had intended to sail from Salinas at dusk arriving at dawn at Vieques, which would have been about right with the normal trade winds, but it turned out to be one of those very unusual days of the year where the wind died away to almost nothing and stayed that way most of the night and into the morning making us sail at about swimming speed. I felt a bit bad for our guests, but they did want a sailing adventure, and with sailing you’ve got to flow with whatever Nature feels like at that moment. Turns out they were lezzies and basically spent the whole time spooning each other on the foredeck. Seemed to me like an expensive way to nap, but what do i know? They seemed to enjoy the time so that’s what matters.

Late morning having already decided to cut the distance down by changing route to Naguabo, where i had bought the boat, there was a fishing boat a half mile off, wrapping up their morning’s work. Then they came towards us, and once close, all big grins, and loudly recognising the local “Campeón”; the formidable boat that most people would bet on in the races. They knew something had changed though, but clearly they weren’t sailors because they were not sure what it was about the boat that made it look so different from before.

They want to give us fish. That time of day is the prelude to lunch so i gladly accept, but instead of getting almost alongside, they just throw us the fish from a few meters away. The fourth slippy fish i don’t manage to grab well enough and and ends up sinking to the bottom in the clear waters. It broke my heart to see the fish go to waste like that but before i could even persuade them that three were more than enough, already they had enthusiastically swung a replacement fish into the air, which i managed  not to drop this time.

This is why you never throw things on a boat.

Lunch was fish with fish because without a fridge, i was not going to see yet more wasted food, and so we were all fully stuffed with delicious fish to last us a while.

The wind having picked up to seven or eight knots allowed the boat to cover the remaining few miles at near top speed again.

Our guests had already alerted their pickup ride as to the change of plans and she met up with us soon after we anchored.

Don Gelo, the Oasis’ builder happened to be in Naguabo and so i brought him aboard so he could survey the modifications to the boat. Although he understood and approved of the changes it was apparent that he had mixed feelings about it. His ‘baby’ certainly did not the look the same anymore, and her racing days would be over..

On to Vieques, which proved to be a uneventful short passage of a few hours. In Vieques, we spent a few days sorting through our possesions that were still at the house and packing up what we would take with us towards Brasil. The rest got given away. There is a limited amount of room on any boat and so one has to be meticulous about not hanging on to anything that is not actually useful. Still, it pained me to have to triage out many of my books, even leaving behind some of my engineering textbooks. As it was, i managed to pare it down to three plastic boxes, two of which were near impossible to lift with just my most prized books. Even my tools got triaged, and i got rid of duplicate tools, but most stayed.

There are six equal size cargo bays that i built into the Oasis, so i took three; one for the 5500 watt generator, one for all my tools, and one for all my books. Apart from the computer, the bicycle, and a bag of clothes that is all i have. I pointed out to Christina the remaining three which would define the bulk of what she could take as well. When i saw her immense pile of stuff i told her she still had to halve it or it would not fit, but she brushed aside my comments and insisted to try anyways. Of course it did not fit at all, and she ‘cheated’ by jamming more stuff pretty much everywhere else in the boat too, even in the passageway and up forwards, but i had to put my foot down and categorically tell her that more stuff had to go, that it was a danger to us and the boat to have so much stuff as to not allow free movement and that there absolutely could not be weight up in the eyes of the boat, etc. So after much wrangling and harrumphing we finally managed to get the boat tolerably well stowed for the rest of the way.

In order to avoid overdosing readers on sexy mathematics i’ll introduce another theme in this blog at this stage; lessons on seamanship and boat handling.

But not to worry, there will be plenty more sexy maths in the next technical posts.


For all airplanes apart from the very lightest you are required by law to have lessons, flying hours and prove to someone who knows a thing or two about planes that you are up to it. For cars, it’s more or less the same.

For boats, as long as it’s for private use (in most places) you buy it, and you’re off!

I’m not saying that there should be legal restrictions imposed now, quite the contrary; the fact that you can build a boat in your backyard and go off sailing around the world without asking anyone whatsoever if that’s alright with them, is incredibly empowering and should not be restricted. Not now, not ever.

However, with great freedom also comes great responsibility, and i always strongly recommend that novices take the time effort and even extra money required to learn how to properly handle their boat. Operating a boat, especially a sailboat, is in the same category of skill level as flying an airplane. A motorboat may be simpler to operate than a sailboat, but is still far more dynamically complex than operating a car, due to it being on a fluid interface, not on un-moving land, and the standards ought to be just as high as for a car, too, because with even a small motorboat you can quite easily kill a bunch of people through a few moments of poor decisions.*

So often that one sees the most spectacular fails of seamanship, that Edward Allcard, the great British singlehander with the dry wit, coined a term for it; “Harbour sports”. Harbour sports is by far the best spectator sport that i know of, as we all stop what we’re doing, to observe -usually with much commentary and even gales of laughter- the latest seaside mash up of ineptitude and incompetence. Naturally, the competitors always take it very seriously. But unfortunately, these events stop being funny for everyone if and when they escalate to serious tragedy..

At any rate, there are two types of novice; those who take it seriously and go to the effort of learning how to properly use their new boat  with progressively more challenging sorties and exercises, and those who think they already know it all and unwittingly enroll themselves in a new kind of sport.

The former get respect.


So we’ll start with that most basic of things, tying the boat to the cleat at the dock. Seems too basic doesn’t it? Regrettably, i can walk down any dock and with one hundred per cent confidence say that almost no boat will be correctly tied. Oh, stop being so pedantic! But it is true, and when one considers how much money gets put into boats i would like to think that owners are at least a little bit concerned with the correct way to secure their property.

I must stress here that none of what i will say i have invented, rather these are all things that have been learnt the hard way over centuries and passed down. At some point though, a lot of it seems to have been forgotten.

In just a few minutes wandering the docks, i collected images the most shocking, of knot perversions. I was going to post them, for humour’s sake, but then decided not to on the odd chance one of the neighbouring yachts happen upon and recognise their own ties in my online mockery, which could be poor public relations. So instead i personally re-created a sanitized, moderate version of the archetypal monstrosity as “tied” by should know betters.

endles half hitches

If you don’t know how to tie a knot, tie a lot!

Hopefully, after reading on you will never commit such knotty crimes.

It is crucial to understand what a knot actually is; it must not only secure in the most reliable way possible, but must also be got free again. Not just got free, but got free no matter what and very quickly and easily.

Impossible to untie under strain cleat hitch


No doubt the worst possible case of tying to a cleat wrong is to start with the end, instead of starting by placing the standing part (the part that will become taut) around the cleat first. This guarantees that with any load the line is quite impossible to free. Unfortunately, when a bystander helpfully ties one af your lines at the dock, there is a fifty fifty chance of them doing it backwards


In the following image sequence i demonstrate the correct method of tying to a cleat. The boat, and thus the load, is off to the right of the frame. Note the end of the line and my hand is on the opposite side of the load from the cleat.

starting to tie onto cleat

First turn around the far side of the cleat.

The first turn is always around the furthest side of the cleat to the load. This gives the highest initial friction and makes a jam least likely.

mostly tied to cleat

Along one side and start crossing over

The line goes along the side of the cleat to under the opposite horn and the first crossover begins.

tying to cleat

Adding figure eights

From this point on, the line is brought under, crosses over, under, crosses over, in a figure eight pattern.

tying more to cleat

Some more figure eights..

This is already enough wraps.

finishing the cleat hitch

Finishing off with one half hitch.

To secure the end, one and only one, half hitch, preferably following the same direction pattern as the previous figure eights, gets made.

This is the only way to tie to a cleat. The only valid variations are in the number of wraps. This is a judgment call; enough to properly secure the load, but not many more either. Two wraps in most cases already does the job, more than four is almost always too many. It depends on the material of the cleat and the rope. The single half hitch at the end is optional, depending on the situation, but when mooring to a dock, it is definitely recommended. Omitting the half hitch is for situations where the speed of release is of particular importance, such as for example, on the mainsheet.

The reason for the first leg up the side of the cleat being straight, rather than crossing over straight away, is so that a maximum amount of friction will be produced in the initial full wrap around the cleat. It will be seen that in this way the rope’s first contact with itself will be in the opposite direction to the load, so the friction will be greatest. If one starts straight away with the crossover, or if one were to complete a full wrap all the way around with no crossover , in both those cases the entry and exit parts of the line would both be travelling in the same direction in the case of slippage. It’s an odd/even topological rule. Therefore, it must be along one side only straight and then the figure eight crossover loops.

There is also another reason to not do a full wrap straight along both sides of the cleat; the taut part of the line if it goes slack, can then ride up on top of that first wrap, pinching it once the load comes back on, making it impossible to untie.

The effect of the figure eights is to pull the rope away from the danger of getting trapped under the taut part to ensure that the line can always be let off whenever required.


It is absolutely astounding to me how such a simple yet important thing can so consistently be done wrong, that i must go over it again to try and impress the lesson here.

So let’s go over the first approach again with these clear illustrations from this useful knot tying site;

approach cleat

From the load to the cleat

wrong side cleat

The wrong side of the cleat

Never on this side.

correct side cleat

The correct side is first wrap around the far side to the load.

Always round the back of the cleat first.

However, i do not agree with the rather excessive amount of wraps illustrated in that site. Also he recommends certain ways of dealing with the excess line after the cleat. Note that this only applies for the boat end, one should never leave more than a meter or two of extra rope at the dock end, as it is simply an invitation for petty thieves to slice off the excess and walk off with it. Rope is dear; keep most of it on the boat where crew can keep better watch on it. Also never tie the very end of the line to the boat, as in a situation requiring to suddenly slack off a bit on the mooring lines, crew will not be able to, without delay.


Some more points;

When heaving a line to people trying to help on the dock, always assume they will do it wrong and make a point of re-tying each and every line. A typical thing also is of overly helpful people wanting to pull in and adjust the lines themselves at the dock end. Make it extremely clear that you only want the end tied and that you will do all the adjusting from your – the boat – end.

If tying onto a cleat that already has someone else’s line on it, it is poor form to try and cleat over their cleat hitch. Apart from being a bit dis-courteous, when they leave, they will be forced to untie your line and then when they retie (if you’re lucky) they will almost certainly do it wrong.

bowline on cleat

Bowline on cleat cannot be slipped up and off

Avoid this by tying under everyone else, if at all possible. It is usual for mooring cleats to have a hole in the middle which facilitates this. However, do not use a bowline. The bowline is a valid knot but belongs to the family of knots that cannot be untied if there is tension on it. Better to use one or two round turns and a clove hitch, which can always be freed. Like this;

two round turns and a clove hitch on cleat

Two round turns and a clove hitch on cleat

If instead of cleats there are bollards the correct way to place loops over it is as follows;

polite bollard technique

Correct multiple lines to the same bollard

In this way each person can unslip their line without disturbing any of the others.

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