Pete Goss looks at the times it can pay to switch on the engine, making life easier and allowing for better sailing
Motor sailing for safety
Some traditionalists will turn their nose up at motor sailing but I wonder if they have blindly overlooked its wonderful benefits. The most obvious is safety; when British Steel was dismasted deep in the Southern Ocean, it triggered an epic motor to safety and back into the race.
A resupply from a ship followed by a pit stop in Chatham Island got them out of danger and on to Tasmania for the start of the next leg. Clearly we are not all going to need to motor out of danger in the middle of the ocean, but the ability to motor out of trouble, even when that trouble is a more commonplace situation, such as torn sails, is essential.
When crossing a shallow bar with wind over tide and large standing waves, it’s the prop wash across the rudder that provides the extra kick to negate a catastrophic broach. We’ve all heard of the injured crew that survived because the skipper was able to make the ambulance a couple of hours early by motoring to windward.
I remember welling up as a skipper, heavy with emotion, quietly told me how on being dismasted, he was forced to watch powerlessly as a friend drifted away to be lost forever.
Motor sailing through calms
If sails are the lungs of a boat, the winches muscles and electronics the brain, then the engine is the heart. There is nothing like the reassuring rumble of the engine as you close a darkening anchorage feeling cold, wet and weary. That reassuring vibration under your feet marks the end of the battle as the engine smooths over any little errors induced by tiredness.
Indeed, a well fitted and reliable engine is the last bastion against the lights going out. Still standing after solar, wind and hydro have failed.
I had never used an engine on an ocean passage until we cruised Pearl as it was perceived as breaking a seafarer’s code.
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It was Tracey, as we lolloped about thrashing the main and battens to bits on a glassy swell, who broke the myth. Coming on deck she looked about and stated ‘life’s too short to wallow’ and who could argue with that?
I studied the weather – motoring for 12 hours would span a ridge of high pressure to save a couple of days. With the engine running we made half a tonne of water and what, in my earlier days, would have been a harrowing period of boiling frustration, became liberatingly productive. Crossing that Rubicon felt good!
There are times when there is no choice but to motor and I have to confess we have clocked up far more hours on Pearl’s engine than expected. Our time in Maine was amazing but in truth we spent most of the time motor sailing for there was seldom wind.
The lack of sailing was certainly compensated for by the amazing scenery and anchorages but to get to them we just had to grind it out. Given that this is our life, the novelty of sailing doesn’t have the allure it might do if I was escaping a city for a few days. Days where tootling along at a knot or two is so unique that the destination is meaningless.
Two approaches to motor sailing
Though we may sometimes potter from place to place, we have a thirst for seasonal cruising grounds that are thousands of miles apart. As such we have embraced two approaches to use of the engine. Delivery sailing is when we transit from one cruising ground to another and if the VMG drops below four knots we flash up the engine knowing that we are investing extra time in the next destination.
Sometimes the only option is motoring, such as passing through New York. A glass of bubbly under the Statue of Liberty with Frank Sinatra belting out ‘New York, New York’ making it a moment to cherish.
Having arrived at a cruising ground we avoid the engine where we can and take great delight in sailing off the anchor or simply tootling along to be seduced by an unplanned anchorage. Time and destination are not the drivers.
A help on short passage
There are, however, circumstances where the engine can pay dividends within a cruising ground. A helping hand for the sails when rounding a tidal gate or to narrow those frustratingly wide tack angles; a nudge that keeps the way on and stops the boat hobby-horsing in a choppy sea; lifting your average by a knot to make a tidal gate or have the anchor down by sunset.
As the wind gets lighter we change gradually from the engine helping the sails, to the sails helping the engine as the primary source of power. If I can, I will fly both main and headsail to eke out every ounce of benefit and then go back to engine off for the same speed to aid fuel efficiency.
Remember that under ColRegs, as soon as the engine is engaged, you forego rights as a sailing vessel over power. Navigation lights must also reflect that the vessel is under power.
Stability and fuel concerns
Sometimes there is no drive from the sails but the main still acts as a welcome stabiliser. If there is a beam sea this can shake the rig as the motion snatches at the sail.
Under these circumstances I drop in a reef which dampens the snatch loadings but maintains stability. One of the exciting things about technology is that clean energy is already starting to sweep fossil-fuelled engines from the scene. I wonder if those old square-rig sailors would look more kindly on this new wave of power.
Continuing in this vein, there is of course a middle road we can embrace, and that is to consider how fuel consumption rockets as the boat approaches maximum hull speed. It always amazes me how little speed is lost when backing off 15% on the throttle.
A grunty prop working at lower revs just makes sense to me but I can’t bear looking at a wake roiling with drag. As such I am a fan of a three-bladed folding prop as it can give up to a knot of boat speed and is less likely to snag a rope under sail.
Being able to stop the boat short is very high on my list, particularly when in a man overboard situation, so it is this that underpins my choice. So many times, when teaching or examining, I have seen a decent MOB manoeuvre ruined by the natural pull of flapping sails overwhelming a feeble little feathering prop. Imagine if it were a person rather than a practice buoy drifting past.
Sometimes you just need to blow smoke and work that engine, because it might be your only window for the rescue.
Keep it going
An engine might be inanimate but as your friend, it deserves a bit of love and attention. You should get to know every note it makes so that any variation triggers investigation, potentially saving long-term damage.
I like to service my own engine as it saves money and makes me look in all the places that get ignored. Once the service is done I wipe the engine down and put a drop of oil on any working parts such as the throttle-cable linkage. I’m also very fussy about where I get my fuel, for some outlets have tanks that want a good clean.
I always put additives in my fuel and continually check the fuel filter. Under power, the engine and prop shaft get an hourly check. The engine, gear box and coolant levels are checked daily.
I always carry enough filters and oil for a change at sea as the engine hours don’t always coincide with a convenient pit stop. Indeed, my last change was made at anchor in Charlestown after a couple of hours’ sleep on arriving at 0400. We were running north, driven by coronavirus, and a quick and dirty change on the hoof was necessitated.
Beyond that, I carry a prop support kit in case of a tangle, such as we picked up six hours later. A passing local pulled me up short as I donned my mask, however. ‘Son, there’s gators in there,’ justified the cost of a lift out.
Other than that, I have always been able to clear the prop myself but experience has refined my kit bag. My fins are for body surfing as they are stubby and powerful, and therefore perfect for working under water.
I once cleared a prop in Dover harbour during the winter and the greatest challenge was cold shock robbing the air from my lungs. As such I always carry a light flexible wetsuit with a thick cold-weather surfer’s cap. This not only keeps my head warm but more importantly offers protection from the often-bouncing hull.
I always install a rope cutter – they are remarkable – but on two occasions I have had them overwhelmed with an engine stall at full revs. On one occasion the rope had heated up and melted into a hardened glass-like collar that my diver’s knife merely scratched. The hacksaw frame was too big so I now carry a thick hacksaw blade with a gaffer tape handle. To save it bending, the cut should be on the pull.
The other stall was thanks to a huge ball of rope that took ages to cut through. Thinking about it, I am going to add a set of quality secateurs to my bag of tricks.
For Pearl I have invested in a compressor that means I can remain underwater for long periods of time. This means I can scrub the bottom at anchor, change the prop anode and polish the blades. I am amazed at the difference in speed that polishing the blades can make.
My relationship with the engine has evolved over time. Rather than look down on it with an elitist’s disdain, nowadays I am delighted to embrace it.
A tipping point for me was sailing in company. There was enough wind to sail but not enough oomph for the short, choppy sea. A wonderful day was in the bag and low revs gave us the punch to top things off with a convivial pub supper. The crew were newcomers to sailing and that day will remain with them forever.
The other skipper gifted his crew a frustrating and stomach-turning hobby horse that missed closing time. I rest my case.
The benefits of motor sailing
- An engine is of significant use and could be a life-saver in an emergency, but it also serves other purposes with the sails up too. In large waves, the prop wash over the rudder helps with steerage.
- Know where and when you intend to use the engine. What is the goal of your sail? If it is simply to be out on the water enjoying yourself then time might not be something that you need to consider. But it is worth remembering the engine is there to be used if you want or need to cover a certain distance in a certain time frame – or if the weather turns, such that getting to your destination fast is desirable.
- There are plenty of moments on passage where switching on the engine can save you a great deal of frustration and significant time. Instead of lolling in the middle of a high-pressure system, motoring to the next front will get you to your final destination far quicker and will help top up batteries and make water if you have a watermaker fitted.
- Using the motor with sails pulling upwind can significantly narrow your tacking angle – though if the wind is too light it will bring your apparent wind angle forward and result in flogging sails.
- Make sure you think about your prop. Reducing drag when under sail is well worth considering, but so too is an efficient prop for sudden manoeuvring and covering distance in a fuel-efficient manner. Be realistic about what your style of cruising when choosing the best prop for your boat.
- If you are going to be relying on your engine, be sure it is in good working order and carry some spares. Being familiar with the basic workings of your engine is an important part of good seamanship. If you need to use it and it fails, you want to be able to fix it quickly, or at least identify the problem and assess how long a repair might take and whether the repair is possible.
First published in the July 2020 edition of Yachting Monthly.