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Sails are our engine, the wind is our fuel

2021 October 1

A friend finally threw in the towel after more than 12 excruciating hours in a doublehanded race sailed in a windless void so persistent that 80% of the fleet dropped out. He and his mate furled the sails, cranked up the engine and headed for their home port, cheered to feel wind in their faces instead of swarming insects. They powered through the night until, with many miles still to go, the diesel sucked air from a depleted fuel tank and conked out. There still being no wind for sailing, they called a towing service and were eventually taken back to a port they had passed earlier. At the dock, mooring lines were fastened—and the skipper was presented with a bill for $900.

That’s just a footnote to add to the annals of the frustration that derives from putting engines in sailboats. Most sailboats whose displacement is measured in tons have one. It is certainly possible to get by without auxiliary power, and some purists do, but let’s just say that an engine is pretty much essential for sailboats that frequent marinas, not only for forward movement in tight quarters, but for something more important—stopping.

Sails are less prone to malfunction than engines, so sailboats have an advantage over powerboats when engines fail. They can keep going to their destination and, depending on the available breeze, eventually get there. The rub is what to do then.

Docking under sail can be daunting. Small one-design boats do it all the time. The techniques that work for them can be used for larger boats, though the process is complicated by inertia. I’ve had my share of experiences docking under sail following engine failure, some satisfying, some not so much.

One lesson I learned is to not be bashful or soft spoken when approaching a dock under sail. Once with a dead engine in breezy conditions, we sailed into a harbor and found that the only suitable place to land was a small space on the fuel dock packed chock-a-block with power boats. A crewman with a loud voice hustled to the foredeck and hollered that we were coming to take that space without an engine. The boats scattered like chickens fleeing a fox, leaving a nice open dock for a smooth landing.

The time-honored sailor’s ethic of self-reliance puts a lot of pressure on us to handle our vessels in a seamanlike way without the crutch of engine power. Tom Cunliffe, in his book “The Complete Yachtmaster,” scolded: “Loss of engine is emphatically not a cause to call for help. Boats have been sailing without power since the time of Noah, and most of them were more unwieldy than ours.”

If that’s not motivation enough, there is always embarrassment. It’s an inescapable fact of sailing life that sail-only landings frequently have be executed before an audience of dock denizens who by nature are unforgiving critics. Mess up and you can count on being the subject of merciless critiques at the yacht club bar.

I doubt if my personal hero of engineless sailing was ever bothered by what others might have thought of his boat handling, or by anything else for that matter, as he sailed his 53-foot yawl without auxiliary power for half a century. That’s Don Street, who took his heavy teak and oak Iolaire into treacherous harbors on the coast of England, into New York harbor and the East River and into every nook and cranny of the Caribbean with no power except that provided by sails.

He explored the islands, anchorages, hurricane holes, channels and reefs of the Caribbean in his old tiller-steered boat, gathering information for the cruising guides and charts that provided some of the first reliable instructions for navigating those waters.

Entering a lonely cove in the Spanish Virgin Islands through a skinny channel into a head wind, I followed his guidebook’s instructions nervously and, with help from GPS and a powerful diesel auxiliary, made it without touching the all too visible bottom. At anchor, I imagined Street tacking his pure sailing boat up that channel, probably under jib and jigger, and felt obliged to open a cold bottle of Heineken (Street’s favorite beverage, frequently quaffed while at the tiller of Iolaire) in his honor.

Much as I admire those who are confident enough in their sailing skills to eschew auxiliary power, I am quite fond of having a reliable diesel at hand. Still, I admit it can be a corrupting influence that tempts sailors to endure its noxious racket and odors just to travel a few knots faster in light or contrary wind or maybe to avoid the physical demands of sailing. To ward off that influence, I often summon a memory of a perfectly delightful sailing experience that resulted from an engine failure.

OK, it wasn’t really an engine failure. It was a skipper failure. For a long delivery, I carefully calculated fuel consumption down to the last fraction of a gallon, put in the requisite amount, assembled the crew and set off into the teeth of a brisk headwind—powering, of course, the diesel rattling away at 2,800 rpm.

Just before nightfall, I noticed that something was terribly wrong with the fuel gauge—it was only a sliver above empty. It turned out the gauge was fine, it was my math that was terribly wrong. With 150 miles to go, we would be forced to—gulp—set the mainsail and the biggest genoa and sail into a dying breeze and a leftover lump. 

That fuel flub was surely the best sailing mistake I ever made. The engine was barely shut off before a shore breeze, warm and soft but gradually strengthening, wafted over the starboard rail, the sea flattened and a waxing gibbous moon rose. Soon we were gently heeled on a close reach, slipping through glassy water unruffled by the insistent wind aloft, making nearly the speed of engine-powering, in a world of quiet so profound the only sounds were the hiss of the bow wave and the muted gurgle of the stern wave.

We had a big enough crew to set watches, but the sailing was so blissful that the First Mate and I let the other watch sleep. We didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

That night distilled the essence of the manifold beauties of sailing. We would never have known it was there for us if serendipity had not forced us to silence the damn engine.

We arrived at the entrance to our destination with a few gallons of fuel in the tank. I was happy to use some of it to avoid having to dock the boat under sail.