Pete Goss looks at the times it can pay to switch on the engine, making life easier and allowing for better sailing

I have raced many types of boats without an engine to save weight, drag and cost. Indeed, I happily sailed around the world without an engine during the Vendée Globe, but experience and cruising have made me realise how narrow and one-dimensional this viewpoint was, and how motor sailing is a useful technique.

Fortunately, even for the racers out there competing in the Vendée Globe, engines are now mandatory, so that everyone shares the benefits without compromising competition.

In my younger days a similarly narrow focus had me marvelling as French cruisers sculled in and out of marinas. I was subsequently disappointed to learn that they weren’t purists at all; they were driven, instead, by tax. An unintended consequence was that it elevated French seamanship to another level.

Objectively there are far broader benefits to having an engine than the interests of speed, cost and drag to sailing. I would always have one but why do we often feel a sense of guilty failure when we turn it on, or admit to using it in the bar?

Perhaps it is a throwback to when smoke-billowing steam ships swept the purity, romance and majesty of clippers from our oceans. Lingering shame would have been given short shrift during Raphael Dinelli’s rescue in the Southern Ocean if I had been able to magic an engine on board.

Fortunately, my boat-handling skills, polished by having to sail in and out of marinas with fee-paying guests, saved the day.

Combining sail and engine power can stabilise the boat, punch through steep chop or make a crucial tidal gate

Manoeuvring under sail

Perhaps we should review our relationship and not allow an engine to become a cuckoo that elbows boat handling under sail from the nest. Switching on the engine needn’t preclude the pleasure found in good boat handling under sail – it is an essential skill that can be honed with the engine in neutral.

To an extent, running the engine can encourage us to take on manoeuvres that we might not otherwise, laying ready to reverse us out of mistakes and grasping a priceless lesson without the butcher’s bill of a collision to pay for it.

There is nothing more satisfying than nailing it under sail and as with all things in life, practice makes perfect. In fact, there is one thing more satisfying and that is to offer it to the crew and watch them grow in stature as their skills develop.

Skills that might one day save your life should you fall over the side. Again, this is made all the better as a learning experience with the engine on, reducing stress for all concerned.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Motor sailing for safety
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