We rely on the engine a huge amount, but when it stops, do you know how you would get yourself back on track and into harbour? Rachael Sprot works through the options

Yachts engines are like bodies; we only appreciate them when they stop working. On more than one occasion last year, the engine on my Luders 36ft long-keeled sloop, Nimrod, reminded me not to take it for granted.

But engine failure happens to us all at some point and the list of possible causes is long. Mechanical problems can be reduced with preventative maintenance and routine checks, but there are also many factors beyond our control. Diesel quality, mother nature and a plastic bag can all put paid to our propulsion system.

Even if you’ve got ‘maintenance-free’ electric propulsion, a loss of power, a software glitch, or a good old prop wrap can all still happen. What we can control, though, is our response. When the engine cuts out, the biggest challenge is thinking clearly, and reducing your thought processes to a few key decisions.

Engine failure at sea

We were halfway to Fowey from Plymouth when the engine cut out. ‘Did you just turn the engine off?’ I called up to Chris, my partner and novice sailor, who was at the helm of Nimrod. ‘No,’ he replied cautiously, trying to work out whether this was a trick question.

‘Are there any lobster pots nearby?’ I enquired, as casually as I could (we’d come a little too close for comfort to one earlier). ‘Definitely not, Captain,’ he replied, now on firmer ground.

With no real drive from the engine, a strong tide and little wind, getting back to the mooring was no mean feat. Photo: Rachael Sprot

I took a quick look astern for any trace of lines, but I already suspected a fuel issue.

I’d switched tanks for the first time in my ownership a few weeks beforehand and had a nagging suspicion that I hadn’t fully figured out the fuel system.

We had light airs and were a couple of miles offshore, so the boat wasn’t in jeopardy, but our pub dinner was. With little wind forecast, boat rations beckoned. ‘I’ll have lentil soup to start,’ said Chris, ‘and curry noodles for main, followed by the chocolate digestive.’

I opened the engine bay to start troubleshooting, giving thanks to whoever installed a proper Racor filter – I could immediately see that the fuel was clean. There are no gauges on Nimrod’s fuel tanks, but there is the original Cheoy Lee calibrated dipstick from 1973.

The tank I thought we were using was completely empty, and the one I thought was empty was ¾ full. It was a schoolgirl error: we were drawing off one tank but returning to the other. I switched the supply over and started bleeding the system.

Having re-established fuel supply it was time to bleed the fuel line. Photo: Rachael Sprot

After a few squirts of the lift pump there was a steady stream of fuel coming out of the bleed point on the secondary fuel filter.

I tightened up the bleed screw and hoped we didn’t need to bleed the injectors. We didn’t, the engine fired up straight away and we breathed a sigh of relief. It was a timely reminder to know your boat, and fortunate it didn’t happen in more confined waters.

Engine failure in confined waters

‘I’ve put the dinghy pump back in the car,’ said Chris. ‘We won’t need it again, will we?’ We’d just inflated the dinghy to row out to Nimrod and transfer her from her summer mooring at Weir Quay, on the Tamar, down to her winter berth in Plymouth.

Since we were going to the luxury of a walk ashore berth, we wouldn’t need the dinghy at the other end, and could deflate it en route. ‘Well,’ I hesitated, not wanting to be too pedantic, ‘you just never know.’ We were both unconvinced by the rationale, but he returned to the car to fetch it.

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It was a glorious autumn day, bright-skied and light-aired, but Storm Ciaran was lurking out in the Atlantic, and I was anxious to move the boat. Having insisted on fetching the pump, I prepared the boat with extra verve, thinking I’d better maintain the level of diligence. By the time we slipped the mooring Nimrod was completely ready for sea, let alone a short passage down river. The ebb was running hard and it would be a quick trip.

As Chris cast off I put the engine into gear and pushed the tiller hard over for the tight turn between the moorings. Nothing happened. I could see the top of the rudder stock, everything seemed well attached.

I checked the throttle, brought it into neutral and tried again. The reaction on the helm was painfully slow. Meanwhile, we were being swept down through the moorings.

Engine failure in confined waters makes things more critical, adding an element of excitement to proceedings

I increased the revs. There was a slightly better response, but even at 3000rpm, the speed through the water was pitiful.

There wasn’t long to decide what to do. Continuing would have been foolhardy, although given the impending weather, I did briefly consider it. Weir Quay is a long way from anywhere, and there was no hope of summoning outside assistance in time.

There were three other options: try and grab a passing mooring; anchor in the channel; or sail back to the mooring with what little breeze there was.

Lassoing a passing mooring whilst being swept past on the tide was going to be nigh on impossible. Worse, it would have distracted us from better options. Anchoring would secure us where we were, and we could have waited for the wind to fill in, which it was due to do, before sailing back to the mooring. But with the limited swinging room and a 4m tidal drop, we might run out of water before the wind arrived. I was also worried that the gypsy might not have run freely, since the boat had been sitting about for a while.

The best outcome would be to return to the mooring if we could, but there was no way the engine alone would cope against the tide. Meanwhile, we were drifting towards another yacht. Perhaps we should just get the fenders out and try to grab it?

Sailing back onto a mooring is a skill well worth practising.

A few zephyrs of wind appeared. I pushed the tiller and unfurled the genoa to help her round and to my huge relief she responded. Sailing downwind under genoa, combined with full throttle, was just enough to gain steerage and hold station. We prepared the anchor in case we needed it, but I was hopeful that bit by bit we’d make it back to the mooring. We did. It was the slowest 300m I’ve ever sailed, but eventually we got there.

It was a huge relief to be back on the mooring, but I was dismayed not to have moved the boat. Chris graciously reinflated the dinghy, but I was too despondent to manage an ‘I told you so’ about the pump.

I blamed myself for having neglected her for so long. A week later, Nimrod had survived her wild night out on the Tamar and a haul-out diagnosed the problem: it was barnacle karma. The propeller was choked up with sea life.

‘You know, there’s an excellent lesson in this,’ said Chris a few weeks later. It was true, sailing onto a mooring buoy, having your anchor ready to drop and sails ready to hoist, not neglecting your boat for weeks on end… you learn far more when things go wrong.‘No,’ he said, smiling, ‘the lesson is to always bring the pump.’

Towing a yacht

If you can’t secure the vessel, sail to safe water or resolve the engine problem, it’s time to raise the alarm. Depending on the circumstances, making a prompt call for assistance might be your highest priority. It’s particularly vital if you’re on a lee shore.

In October last year, the Humber lifeboat and Catzero, the 72ft sail training vessel that I co-skipper, took part in a joint towing exercise.

A heaving line is thrown to take the tow line across. Photo: Rachael Sprot

The RNLI recently completed a Lines Under Load project, and one outcome is that they now carry a comprehensive towing kit, including a selection of Dyneema strops, and long polyester tow line. Despite being better prepared than ever for towing, they’re not a salvage service; their primary objective is to save lives.

‘We don’t undertake a tow lightly,’ explained Humber lifeboat coxswain, Joe Pieniak. ‘We need to meet strict criteria for towing and it isn’t always the best way to help.’ However, towing a vessel to safety with its crew on board is often preferable to trying to transfer casualties onto the lifeboat out at sea.

We rendezvoused with the Pride of the Humber on Grimsby Middle. The weather conditions were benign, but the tide in the Humber is always a force to be reckoned with. It was ebbing strongly whilst the lifeboat did a flyby and made their preliminary assessment. Unlike a helicopter rescue, we were instructed to take off all way and act as a dead ship which, even in light airs, felt extremely vulnerable.

An astern tow is the default in open water, and if possible, a member of the lifeboat crew will come aboard to manage the line handling. With fenders out, Joe skilfully brought the lifeboat alongside Catzero, and one of their crew stepped across. In benign conditions, a boat-to-boat transfer is relatively straightforward, but there’s always a risk of damage.

In flat conditions, towing was very calm, but shock loads would be much higher in rough weather. Photo: Rachael Sprot

If it isn’t possible for the lifeboat crew to come aboard, the task of connecting the tow falls to those aboard the casualty vessel. They’ll send over a heaving line with the Dyneema strops and tow line attached. These have spliced eyes in the end, so it’s simply a case of passing them through the fairleads and over the bow cleats. Connecting the bridle is not a job for a novice as it requires good line handling. It would be easy to trap a hand against a cleat in a high-stress situation.

We were concerned that the Dyneema strops were too short to allow us to spread the load across multiple deck fittings. Catzero is steel-hulled, so it’s very unlikely that we’d pull cleats out, but there are several instances of this happening on GRP yachts. ‘Don’t worry,’ Joe reassured us, ‘since we’ve switched to using our own towing gear, we haven’t had a single instance of
line failure. There should never be enough snatch on the lines to pull a deck fitting out.’

That said, when accepting a tow from a vessel with less modern towing gear it would be a good idea to dampen the tow line. If possible, the rope used should have some give in it such as nylon three strand, rather than an old halyard. Ideally it would be long enough to allow for the boats to remain two waves apart but in the same part of the wave cycle (e.g. both vessels on the crest at the same time).

One yacht towing another can pass the strongest, longest line they have across. Photo: Graham, Snook

Weight the middle of the line with chain or jerry cans, though be careful not to damage your bows or add more line to the water than necessary. Spread the load to other deck fittings, such as midships and stern cleat and cockpit winches, but not the anchor windlass, rigging, or the foot of the mast, as these are not designed for lateral loads. You can use your own bridle for this, which you tie to the towing line either side at the bow.

Back with the lifeboat, Haydn, the crewman on board asked us all to step back to the cockpit to keep us clear of the ‘snap-back’ zone and signalled that the tow was ready to go. Joe skilfully took up the slack on the tow line, and we barely noticed the load coming on. We were soon being towed at 5 knots which was just enough to stem the ebb. Most of the tow line remained in the water, creating a dampening effect which made the tow feel almost effortless.

After 10 minutes under tow, the lifeboat dropped back to create slack in the line and drop the tow. This allowed Haydn to release the lines and set us free. Joe brought the lifeboat alongside and we discussed whether to attempt an alongside tow, but with so much tide running the speed through the water would have needed to be too high.

Alongside towing is reserved for the final approach to harbour, and should be conducted at low speeds. Haydn returned to the lifeboat and they prepared to pull away.

The whole operation had been seamless, but it would have been quite a different experience on a dark and stormy night with a sand bank to leeward.

We said our goodbyes. ‘See you next time,’ shouted Paul, one of our volunteer crew. ‘On second thoughts, hopefully not.’

Despite their size and displacement, barges like Blue Mermaid can be handled with precision without using an engine. Photo: Sea-Change Sailign Trust

Engineless sailing

A few weeks earlier, I’d had a masterclass in boat handling under sail when I joined the engineless Thames Barge, Blue Mermaid.

It was the final match of the barge racing season on the River Colne in Essex. Built in 2019, she’s a replica of the last Thames sailing barge ever built. She’s operated by the Sea-Change Sailing Trust, which gives sail training to young people, with bursaries for those who need it.

Her full-time crew, Richard Tichener and Hilary Halajko, were the masterminds of the build. Not content with the challenge of going diesel-free, their vision was also that she’d be capable of carrying cargo and she’s rated to take 110 tonnes in the hold. Blue Mermaid can replace four articulated lorries for journeys around the Thames Estuary, Kent and East Anglian coasts.

There’s a significant fleet of engineless working boats on the East Coast, including Thames barges and oyster smacks. Some of them are accompanied to and from their moorings by RIBs (‘cheque-book engineless sailing’ muttered one of the crew), but others are more purist. Although Blue Mermaid’s tender and 6hp outboard can push the 100T barge at 2 knots in calm conditions, it’s rarely used. Instead, there’s a set of 28ft sweeps on board and voyages are planned around the tide.

I joined them in Brightlingsea, Essex, the night before the race. The fleet was anchored in the river. Thames barges are a strange sight for the uninitiated. The mast is well-forward, there’s almost no superstructure or portlights (cargo doesn’t need to see out) and their upside-down mainsails remain suspended from the spars, brailed up like theatre curtains. In the flat landscape of the east coast this herd of giant, Jurassic creatures were an otherworldly scene.

Engineless barges and smacks are raced competitively on the East Coast. Photo: Richard Langdon

Working boats

But it would be a mistake to over-romanticise them. ‘They’re a working boat, not a yacht,’ said regular crew member and tree surgeon, Jake. For Richard, the functionality of the vessel is important to the way they engage young people: ‘It’s about being real and doing something authentic.’

There’s no teak veneer or soft furnishings on Blue Mermaid, the interior is industrial chic, with the emphasis proudly on the industrial. The vast hold had a few pipe cots in one corner, and plastic trestle tables and chairs set out down the middle for dinner, to be collapsed and set aside for sailing.

It may not be pretty, but the hold, lit by oil lamps, is an atmospheric dinner setting. Electric lighting is limited to the small accommodation areas forward and aft, and there are no mod cons such as a fridge or water pump.

The solar panels provide enough power for the navigation instruments, but battery power is very limited. Hooking up to shore power is rarely an option: bringing a Thames Barge into a marina under sail (or oar) would be like trying to park an elephant in a multi-storey car park.

After dinner, we gathered for a briefing. It would be an early start, just as when the barges plied their trade in and out of London; we needed to set off with the ebb, and return on the flood. There wasn’t much wind forecast, and even getting to the start line a few boat lengths downstream would be a challenge, let alone tacking out of the narrow river.

At 0600 the next morning it was mirror calm. The forecast south-easterly was yet to arrive and, other than weighing anchor and allowing ourselves to drift downstream, I couldn’t see how we’d make it to the start line. ‘Time for a bit of drudging,’ said Richard. ‘This,’ enthused regular crew member Jimmy, ‘is the most exciting bit.’

Drudging, it turns out, is an unpromising term for an ingenious manoeuvre. It’s a controlled drag of the anchor, so that it’s just touching the seabed. This is enough to keep the boat head to the tide, but not enough to hold her in position. By partially stemming the tide there’s still some water flowing over the rudder and steerage can be maintained, even whilst drifting backwards. Since there’s steerage, the vessel’s lateral position can be controlled. The manoeuvre worked perfectly.

Drudging is a means of navigating downtide astern, using the anchor to slow the boat and create steerage

Engineless passage

Before long we’d hoisted the sails and set off across the line in a trickle of breeze. The atmosphere on board was one of reverence. Everyone recognised the challenging nature of the task. ‘Not having an engine completely changes your relationship with the vessel,’ said Richard. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always felt that people are better connected to the boat and, through the boat, each other, when the engine’s off. If there’s no start button to get you out of trouble, it’s particularly noticeable.

The huge, low-cut mainsail is loose footed, and takes up much of the working deck. I was glad that there wasn’t a boom to negotiate as we worked on the side decks, but wary of the enormous wooden blocks on the mainsheet, which swung across the large wooden ‘horse’ which acts as a traveller.

Despite the agricultural scale of the deck gear, sailing such a behemoth was a surprisingly delicate operation. At one point Richard gave a gentle reproof for heaving enthusiastically on the jib topsail sheet and disrupting the laminar flow: ‘Those molecules don’t like to be shaken!’ With a few knots of breeze and a knot or so of tide-generated wind, we were making good progress down the 200m-wide channel.

Maintaining steerage and not stalling the boat is always important for boat handling under sail, but no more so than when the boat is 100 tonnes, there’s a falling tide and mudbanks to leeward. Blue Mermaid was surprisingly light on her feet and the crew were closely attuned to the boat and the environment.

When a slick of foam was spotted on the surface, we made a beeline for it. It indicated the tide edge between the Colne and Blackwater currents and gave us a boost. Reading the water colour and tide slicks can help identify the best flow, especially in the intricate waters of the East Coast. It’s the kind of detail which can make a big difference to pilotage under sail, but usually goes unnoticed.

The chartplotter revealed surprisingly efficient upwind progress

When we rounded the windward mark the track on the chart plotter recorded crisp, 90-degree tacks which a fin-keeled yacht would be proud of. Hilary and the foredeck team set the spinnaker and we sailed back across the line in a comfortable third.

Since the mainsail doesn’t come down at the end of the day, but remains up, it’s easy to stow for such a large vessel – these boats used to be sailed two-handed by just the skipper and a deckhand.

There was no panic approaching the confined anchorage area under sail because sailing was always the plan. Normally, we choose our destination first, and worry about the boat handling when we get there. Without an engine the boat handling plays a major role in determining the destination.

A unique way to sail

The Thames Barge has evolved for these waters. The shallow bilge, manoeuvrability and ease of sail handling are a direct response to the challenges of the East Coast. The style of sailing which has developed with it is a heritage skill which is uniquely linked to place.

‘It’s handed down,’ explains Richard, ‘that’s the true meaning of the word heritage. People think that heritage is preserving things in museums, but it isn’t, it’s keeping them alive.’

There are plenty of lessons for the modern sailor aboard a Thames Barge: working in sympathy with the environment; using the tides to your advantage; paying attention to sail trim; and that an engineless passage is a joy in itself.

Furl and unfurl the genoa to control your speed downwind against the tide. Photo: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Sail yourself home

For those aboard a cruising yacht sailing without an engine due to breakdown rather than choice, the learning curve is going to be steep. In open water, it’s normal sailing, you’ll just be trying to make progress in conditions when you might have opted to motor, such as light winds or beating up a channel. It’s a good incentive to get your sail trim right, your telltales flying, and tacks as smooth as possible.

Close-quarters handling under sail, however, is a skill worth practising. Find a mooring buoy in open water and sail up to and away from it, stopping the boat, then getting underway again – it’s a surprisingly fun way to spend an hour on the water.

Pick the tack that puts your bows into the tide. Once a bowline is ashore, the other lines can then be passed. Photo: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Mooring by sail

It’s entirely possible to sail onto a hammerhead or river pontoon, and certainly onto a mooring or anchor. You’ll need to consider what the wind and tide are doing, and which one is going to slow you down most effectively. If it’s wind and tide together, make your approach upwind with both sails set.

Have a bail-out plan if you’re coming in with too much speed or you don’t feel in control. Feather the sails on a close reach to slow down, but avoid going head to wind as you won’t be able to accelerate again if needed.

If wind and tide are opposed, it’s best to sail upwind of your target, then drop the mainsail and approach downwind under headsail. That way you can furl and unfurl the genoa to control your speed as you stem the tide.

Whichever way you’re going, remember that you can’t slam the brakes on, so control your speed early, but keep some steerage way on to keep control. You’ll also discover you need to ferry glide as you slow down if there’s any stream – another skill to conquer.

With the sails sheeted right out, grab the falls to give tiny extra boosts of speed. Photo: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Navigating finger berths

Sailing into a finger berth is another matter, however, and you may need assistance from the marina – they will usually be happy to help you into your berth rather than risk damage to other boats.

It’s also worth remembering that using warps to manoeuvre the boat is surprisingly effective; throw a long line across to where you want to end up, and gradually ease the boat across. You just need to have thought about how the wind and tide will affect the boat, and have a line in place to act against them and keep the boat under control.

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