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Experience the Zen of engineless sailing; a little bit will do

2008 July 17
A friend of mine, a yachtsman of the motorboat persuasion, told me he was going ahead with his summer cruise even though the fuel bill would exceed $7,000. The same cruise last year would have cost him $4,000 in diesel fuel. "It hurts, but the experience will be worth the extra cost," he told me.

I agreed, but couldn't resist making the needling suggestion that if he owned a sailboat the experience would be a lot cheaper.

To which he riposted: "Really? How much did you spend on new sails this year?"

Ouch. Point taken. The wind may be free, but harnessing it isn't.

What's more, sailors buy fuel too, at least those of us who own what used to be quaintly called sailing auxiliaries-sailboats with engines. Even though I blame the unreasonably low fuel prices of the past for contributing to our oil dependency, I'll admit to being annoyed by having to pay more than 50 bucks for two jerrycans of diesel for my boat.

If I didn't want to be annoyed, of course, I would have a simple remedy: Don't use the engine. That's probably the most radical thing I've written in a long time. Sailing without using, or even having, an engine in a cruising boat is a discipline so esoteric its adherents are often thought of as cultists.

Many in the cult, small in number but large in devotion to their wholesome cause, were inspired by Lin and Larry Pardey, the engaging couple and prolific authors who have sailed the equivalent of five or six times around the world in engineless boats. Their books present fuel-free cruising as sensible and easy and rewarding in many ways, no doubt leaving some readers awash in guilt the next time they start their noisy, smelly auxiliary engines.
The Pardeys have had the advantage of doing most of their unassisted sailing in small boats. This doesn't make it easy to set and weigh anchors in tight quarters without an engine or thread a narrow channel with the wind on the nose, but it's easier than if they were in a big, heavy, less handy vessel.

For that we turn to one of the most colorful practitioners of the Zen of engineless sailing. Don Street sailed his Iolaire without auxiliary power for half a century. The 53-foot yawl, built in 1905, surely displaces (I'm guessing here but keep in mind the boat is built of teak on oak) upwards of 25 tons.

With no engine to help maneuver his formidable yacht, Street sailed into treacherous harbors on the coast of England, into New York harbor and East River and every nook and cranny of the Caribbean, using his jib and jigger (mizzen) sail combination as though it were an engine throttle and gear shifter.

Street didn't just sail in the Caribbean, he explored it from top to bottom gathering information for the cruising guides he authored. My appreciation for his mastery of engineless sailing, not to mention his intrepidity, peaked when I followed the instructions in one of his guidebooks to enter a lonely cove in the Spanish Virgins through a skinny channel. I don't mind telling you I was a bit daunted, even with a powerful diesel and a GPS plotter at the helm station. As for Street, who had neither of those crutches, well, he not only sailed up the channel, he did it tacking into a head wind. And if I know Don, he did it with a Heineken in one hand and the tiller in the other.

We should probably leave that sort of thing to true believers, and true experts, like Don Street and the Pardeys. (I'm sure charter companies would agree.) But it shouldn't be too much to ask that sailboat owners be able to handle their boats under sail when engine power fails.

One of the more embarrassing things for a sailor to witness is a sailboat owner calling for a tow, in some cases from emergency rescue boats that have more noble things to do, when they run out of fuel.

Tom Cunliffe put it well in his book The Complete Yachtmaster: "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."

I don't mean to minimize the challenge of bringing a large sailboat to a dock under sail. Most of us who learned to sail in dinghies and small one-designs know how to dock a sailboat without an engine, but small-boat lessons are not necessarily applicable when you factor in the momentum and inertia of bigger boats.

In The Complete Sailing Handbook, Roland Denk gives step-by-step instructions on docking under sail. Under the heading "common mistakes," he lists: "Misjudging distance (generally by underestimating way). Bumping into dock." Yes, that can ruin your day, especially when it's witnessed by an audience, which you can usually count on for stressed dockings.

My own docking-under-sail experiences fall into two categories-voluntary and forced. In the former, I once docked a 33-foot boat under a mainsail and spinnaker. In retrospect, this seems like a rather silly act of showing off. But at the time, my cocky crew and I thought it was great fun. And it was surprisingly easy. We entered harbor with a full chute, sailed a bit past the dock and rounded up. I learned that a spinnaker plastered against the rigging makes a very effective brake.

The forced landings, precipitated by a variety of engine failures, have taught me lessons too. One is that boaters generally have a low opinion of sailors' ability to handle their boats without engines. Once in a blow, with the engine out of commission due to a clogged fuel line, we sailed into a harbor, going fast with just a small jib. There was one small space at the fuel dock in a lineup of powerboats. When I hailed that we were going to take that space without an engine, the boats scattered like sheep fleeing a wolf, leaving a nice open dock for a smooth landing.

A useful exercise when you're maneuvering under power is to imagine what you would do if the engine conked out. I do this a lot, and when I have it figured out, I carry on with the propeller churning and don't feel a bit guilty.

With due respect to Lin, Larry and Don, I like my diesel.