Friday, February 19, 2010

Wooden Boat Forum: Sailing with No Engine?

(This blog post is a slight edit of a response I wrote on Wooden Boat magazine's online discussion forum. You can find the whole conversation here.)

We have a fiberglass hull, but I read this forum because I love OTHER people's wooden boats, and because wooden boat geeks frequently have insights and wisdom to share about gaffers, traditional seamanship, etc.

I was really very impressed to see how respectful and thoughtful this thread was! Normally, discussions of engineless sailing quickly devolve into explorations of alternative propulsion (electric engines, bicycle geared propellers, cold fusion drives, etc.) -- which respectfully is a completely different topic than sailing without any sort of engine.

Nevertheless, the various forum posters collectively enumerated many of the tropes, misunderstandings, and frequently asked questions we hear about sailing without an engine.

"For open water sailing the engine is just dead weight and wasted space, but if you routinely sail where there is lots of traffic and tricky channels, the engine is a piece of safety equipment and definitely worth the trouble."

"For long distance stuff an engine is nice. I remember reading something by the wife of the builder of the Spray replica Scud, about how painful it was to sail past beautiful Pacific atolls because they would have needed an engine to get in or out."

What I love about these mutually contradictory opinions is that they really elluminate the difference in philosophy between cruising by motorsailing, and cruising under sail.

Yeah, it's too bad that there are parts of the world that you can't get to with an engineless sailboat. But, if you're a skier, it's also too bad that there are parts of the world that don't have snow.

If you're a surfer, it's too bad that there are beaches in the world that don't have waves.

But for sailors, skiers, surfers, and anyone else who takes part in a weather dependent sport, it seems to me that seeking out or waiting for proper conditions is part of the sport.

I choose to focus on all the places in the world I CAN sail to, rather than the few places I can't. And I also realize that as my skills improve, there are more and more places I can get in an out of. For example, the latest edition of the Pardey's book describes sailing in and out of the coral atolls described above.

"For me using the engine is largely a safety thing."

Another way of saying this is: "Every time I motorsail somewhere that an engine is REQUIRED for safety, I'm implicitly trusting my life to my impeller, my fuel filter, my alternator, etc., etc." Modern diesels are pretty reliable, but there are still way to many single-points-of-failure for me to feel comfortable trusting my life to one.

I've heard somewhere that mountaineers say, "it's never the first thing going wrong that kills you, it's the third thing going wrong" I would argue that motorsailors often forge the first few chain-links of a tragic cascading failure without even realizing it, by placing their craft into a pickle they can't safely sail out of. By the way, this is true whether or not they actually even use their engines when sailing. The point is if and when they NEED their motor, they are literally betting their boat and maybe their lives that it will start on cue.

"Our Great Grandfathers sailed in a world with far far fewer vessels in it."

Not necessarily true. At my marina in Alameda California, there were more (and bigger three masted) sailboats at the turn of the last century than now. You could practically walk across the Oakland Estuary on the decks of the Alaska Packer fleet tied up there.

Of course, in those days there were harbor pilots and warping bollards and skilled line handlers, etc. See below.

"Yacht harbours are no longer set up for pure sailing."

That is definitely true!!! If you want to sail without an engine, you need to be choosy about where you keep your boat. Mooring or anchoring is definitely easier than docking. We keep our boat in a marina, but we shopped around carefully for an end-tie that would be easy to sail in and out of. Again, I think this is part of the sport for me. I would no more choose a slip I HAD to motor out of than I would choose a bicycle trail I HAD to drive to. Interesting thing is that side-ties around here seem to be easy to find, since the long walk from the parking lot is perceived to outweigh the short sail from the Estuary... :-)

"If you work for a living and need to get back, you probably could use an engine."

I totally agree. This is the main argument I see for engines. This is me trimming a gennaker with my teeth AND rowing so I could get home in time for a school-related conference call. Sarah was on baby duty down below.

But there is a difference in priority between boaters and sailors. If there is light wind, I find it insanely challenging and fun to try to keep the boat moving. If there is NO wind, I'd rather be reading a book than motorboating. And if there's an irreconcilable contradiction between working for a living, and sailing, who to say it's the sailing in your life that's the problem? :-)

"What did our great great grand fathers know about sailing that we dont? they sailed up the rivers what did we loose when the engine became king?"

Ultimately, this is why I sail engineless. I want to learn how to SAIL. If those salty old buggers could do it back in the day, why can't we?

I hear a lot of people say things like, I can't sail engineless in (location X) because there are currents of up to X knots here and the wind is unpredictable. I always want to say, "Yes, the moon's gravity also affects the ocean near where I live!" Pretty much anywhere you go, there will be tidal currents.

Pretty much anywhere you go, the weather man's forecast will not be 100% right. And yet, intrepid sailors have historically ventured into all these areas. (Hopefully at slack tide!!!)

To quote Charles Stock:

"the cruising man will take a fair tide as naturally as he selects the up or down escalator at the underground station depending on which direction he wants to take."

When people say they NEED a 50 horsepower engine to stem a 5 knot tidal current, to me it's like saying you need a gasoline-powered pogo stick to go up a down escalator!

- Ari


Kate said...

Excellent. I had always wondered why you guys didn't have an engine. This makes a much better answer than, "I don't know, they may be cheap, or crazy."

SV Estrellita 5.10b said...

I think the analogy might be better to say that engineless sailing is for people who only like to ski and motor-sailing as you are calling it is for people who like to ski, but when there is no snow, instead of waiting for snow, they go hiking on the same mountains because ultimately, they love just being out on the mountains (i.e., travel or boating) as much as they love skiing :)

Ari said...

Hey there Estrellita crew,

I could probably agree with that analogy: there are sailors and there are boaters. We met a guy in our marina who put 1000+ hours on his Yanmar whilst moving his Westsail from Seattle down the coast. It's clear that he's a cruiser... but I'd hesitate to call his trip "sailing."

I do think it's funny when people react to "motorsailing" as though it's an insult. I mean, if you're sailing with a motor, aren't you motorsailing? What's the big deal? :-)

To extend your analogy, would you consider someone who enjoys the mountains in summer by riding a motorized dirtbike a bicyclist? Are they motorbiking only when they have the throttle engaged and bicycling when coasting?

Or, to belabor the skiing metaphor, there is also probably a parallel here between backcountry skiiers who feel they must "earn their turns" by hiking uphill, and those of us who choose to stand in line for the ski-lift. If I were to call myself a backcountry snowboarder (rather than the groomed-track resort-riding softie that I am) I think people would rightly feel I was claiming to be something I'm not. No?


- Ari

SV Estrellita 5.10b said...

Hi Ari,

First, I find this fascinating and hope you don't feel that I'm coming to your blog and playing party pooper :)

I personally don't find "motorsailing" offensive at all just confusing in your usage because to me the term has a specific meaning already that is different from yours - using both the motor and sails simultaneously (for example, leaving the main up because it is producing some power while also having the engine in gear). I am not motorsailing when running the engine on my sailboat if I'm not also sailing.

Generally, I find that people who are concerned with a strict usage of a term are using the term to define an "us" and a "them" as part of creating their own identity. By creating something they are, and others aren't, they have helped to define themselves.

You asked why people find it offensive.

I think that one reason that people react poorly to the labeling (the strict definition) is that they understand intuitively that, whether the speaker acknowledges it or not, there is a reason for drawing the line in the sand that goes beyond simple word choice/definition. By restricting the definition, the speaker is creating an us-them that the speaker has, whether spoken or not, different value judgments for.

Perhaps you might address why it is important to you that the definition is held strictly rather than inclusively?

From a strictly definitional vantage point, I think that someone in a motorized bike that sometimes peddles to a destination and sometimes uses the motor could surely be a cyclist...and also a motorcyclist.

Cheers and good sailing or motorsailing for us because we definitely use our engine :)


Zen said...


Anonymous said...

What an unmitigated crock of crap.

Justifying not having a motor because it might fail in an emergency?

Leave your flares at home, they might fail when you need them most.

Ignore weather forecasts, they might be wrong, and remember tradition too, your great great Grandaddy never had NOAA to warn him.

Don't trust those sails, a tang might fail when you need it most sailing in tight quarters.

Sail with or without an engine, that's your choice but please don't try to justify your decision by insulting the intelligence of the reader.

Ari said...

Hehe. Hi "Anonymous". That's more the ignorance and flaming invective I'm used to seeing when discussing engineless sailing. That's why the discussion at the Wooden Boat forum was so refreshing.

Whether to have an engine or not is your choice. My point is that I see a lot of boats motoring near lee shores with their sail covers on. Engineless sailors, by definition, have to be more conservative about putting themselves in situations like that.

By the way: who are you? Why don't you have the strength of your convictions and post with a real identity?


- Ari

- Ari

Ari said...


"Perhaps you might address why it is important to you that the definition is held strictly rather than inclusively?"

First of all, I don't think it's an us-vs-them dichotomy, but more of a sliding scale. Many of our friends and neighbors drive or live aboard trawlers and motorsailors, and I definitely think we're all part of the same "tribe" as boaters.

As to why the definitions are important, indulge me with one more analogy. Friends of ours, two twin brothers, hiked the entire length of the pacific crest trail from Mexico to Canada. It was a life changing trip (one brother met his future wife) and they saw scenery they COULD NOT have seen or experienced the same way from an SUV. I have total respect and admiration for their accomplishment and what it says about their characters.

If they said "Oh wait, did we say hike? We meant HITCH HIKE" and it turned out their trip took 3 days instead of 3 months, then their accomplishment would certainly be diminished in my eyes.

By the same token, when I see (as I commonly do) some jackass in a Hunter motoring down the Estuary with a perfect 10 knot wind on their quarter and all sail covers neatly in place, it bugs me that these motorboaters have the nerve to swagger and bluster and call themselves "sailors."

- Ari

SV Estrellita 5.10b said...

Agreed - anonymously posting flames = lame.

If I may summarize, we both believe:
1) that all kinds of boaters are "boaters"
2) that implying that you have done something that you haven't done is lame
3) that getting a boat from point a to point b entirely without an engine is much more difficult than sometimes or often using an engine

Where we differ is that if I've done something hard, and someone uses a label to describe what they've done that implies that they've done the same thing, I don't feel the need to deflate them (and inflate myself) by pointing it out.

For example, because we are on the analogies path, if I'm a trad climber, and someone else tells me that they have climbed the same route as me, and I know that they've clipped bolts to climb it, I don't feel the need to say "yeah, but I climbed it with my own pro".

I believe that the source of the energy that would cause someone to say that (in person or on a forum) is insecurity, a need to feel superior, and that the truly confident person would smile and get excited for the person who has shared in the tribe if not in the exact same sub-part of it.

I disagree with your statement that you aren't making it an us-them because you are using a sliding scale rather than a dichotomoy. I think it amounts to the same thing if you use that scale to create a hierarchy.

I agree, that if they are being a jerk about it (e.g., swaggering and bragging), then they've made themselves fair game.

Ari said...


The discussion of why are boat doesn't have an engine is a long an interesting one. However, once that choice is made, I have found that there are no shortage of naysayers ready to tell you that sailing without an engine is impossible.

This sets in motion a self-reinforcing cycle whereby anyone who chooses to sail in a non-commercial or minimalist fashion must continually defend their choice.

It's dynamic more than anything that motivates me to attempt to justify engineless sailing as a pragmatic, conservative, safe choice. One choice among many to be sure. I find online rather than in person, words come across differently. In real life I have NO interest in judging others choices. This blog is about our boat, our family, our life choices, so it tends to have a self centered quality that is absent from our day to day dealings with our sailing and boating friends and neighbours.

By the way, I'm not even that dogmatic or purist about it. There are definitely times when an engine is a wonder convenience feature! Like the other day, we were sailing on a buddy's boat and running late to pick up the baby from her great-Aunts. We were drifting 1.5 knots with a 0.5 knot flood helping us. We were despairing of getting home in time when all of a sudden we were like "Oh yeah! This boat has a diesel" and made it back in 20 minutes flat. I say "Never say never." We've looked at diesels and even electric drive. I could see situations where having a motor could be useful or fun.

But I still maintain that if your engine is essential for safety, rather than convenience, then your boat ain't set up right... :-)

- Ari

Zen said...

I say whatever works for you. It's your boat do what you want, Only if you do use a engine, have some respect for the environment. If you do not, good for you!

Christie of s/v Kaleo said...

We don't know each other but we have a lot in common.

My husband, Matt, and I are in full preparations for throwing off the bowlines in pursuit of our own dream of cruising about the world within the next year.

It's encouraging to see other successful cruisers out there living this dream.

We admire your drive, tenacity, and resourcefulness along this journey and are learning from your experiences. Thank you for sharing them here.

Would you mind if we listed your site as "other cruisers we follow" on our site?

Fair winds,
Christie and Matt Butcher of s/v Kaleo

SV Estrellita 5.10b said...

Ari - So very true. I am fairly certain that for people who haven't spoken to me in person I alternate between cheeseball and pompous in our own blog! Take care, Livia

Ari said...

Christie, Matt,

In regard to "Would you mind if we listed your site as "other cruisers we follow" on our site?", of course, we'd be honored. My wife's blog has more on the childrearind aspects of living on a boat, and I tend to focus more on sailing and philosophical rants. :-)

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say we haven't really gone anywhere yet, but like you, our dream is to throw off the docklines someday.

Bill said...

I think that you have made some valid points and you present your views in a very considerate manner. As I also sail engineless I follow many sailing blog and try to keep up with engineless sailing discussion that rarely occur on the web. And my observations are very similar to Ari’s. Just about every discussion on engineless sailing turns into motorsailor discussion discrediting the engineless choice because it differs from their own. It really isn’t the engineless sailor creating an us or them. I have never seen a discussion where someone is talking about diesel maintenance where an engineless sailor jumps in and suggests they toss their engine overboard. But that is pretty much what happens when an engineless discussion comes up. We hear the same tired old examples of why sailing is so dangerous.

In this debate there is an elephant in the room. And that is that sailing is a skill. And most often the engine is used to replace the skilled portion of sailing. I took sailplane flying lessons when I was younger. And anybody can fly but not anyone can takeoff and land. Would it be fair to call myself a sailplane pilot for the time I flew between the takeoff and landing? I think not.

I do think this goes both ways. I am pretty mechanically inept, one of the reasons I sail engineless, so I have a great deal of respect for those with mechanical skill. I recently set up a small workshop and am working on improving this deficiency but I will never have the skill of those who do. Nor will I ever call myself a mechanic since that wouldn’t properly honor those who have rightfully earned that title.

This really isn’t about arrogance it is about respect. I don’t claim to be a sailor, the Pardey’s are sailors. I claim to be a student of sailing. And I don’t really care if others make different choices. I just get frustrated when they need to put down my passion to justify their own.

Cheers, Bill

SV Estrellita 5.10b said...

@Bill - I hadn't considered the post in the context of a reaction to trash talking. Interesting to think of it that way. Whenever I hear a group of motorsailor-engine-sailors talk about others who are sailing engineless it is in a tone of respect tinged with awe -- of course this is "in person" and forums are always more volatile. And of course I'm probably just hanging around with cool people ;)

Bill said...


I hadn't meant to imply that other different views were "trash talking". More that it sometimes seems difficult for motorsailors to honor the choice of sailing engineless as equal to their own. Somehow they seems to feel attacked or threatened when others chose to make sailing their choice of how to boat.

My only purpose in replying to topics concerning engineless sailing is to provide an alternate and balanced set of experiences so others can make their own choice. I don't think it is fair, or honest, to the new boater to spread fear and safety myths about engineless sailing.

Sailing without and engine is difficult, challenging, rewarding and big fun.

And I am just a beginner:)

Cheers, Bill

Anonymous said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

SV Estrellita 5.10b said...

PS - Thank you for adding the IWAC (and our) blog to your sidebar. I've noticed traffic coming from here! Also, do you happen to know any engineless > 2 year cruisers or have a good forum to find some? I would love to have interviews with some. If so, do you mind to shoot me an email at

James said...

Hey Ari,

Funny, I randomly stumbled across your site and didn't even realize it was you until just now. - We exchanged a couple emails last year, but still haven't met.

Good on you for sailing without an engine. It's made me a much better sailor, and the nights where I have been flushed out the bridge or becalmed on the backside of Angel Island have been the most memorable.

I'm out of town for the next 6 weeks, but we should meet up for a sail sometime soon!

#618 - Pip

PacEth: Applied Anthropology Just About Everywhere said...

A combination of sloth and poverty, and a bit of ego, have made me a a motorless sailor. I started out that way, on lakes, and in small planing hull boats, so it ain't that tough for me. And my Islander 30 MKII sits head to wind in a 40 foot slip (occasionally the marina guys try to get me to move but I've been here so long they mostly leave me alone). The alley is wide enough for me. And I'm putting in a block to hold the oar-lock for the lifeboat oar that I'm putting in as a scull. (Pulling the boat with the dink works, on those occasions when I've had to row/tow the boat in on a calm, the last mile, which is what the old guys used to do, I suppose). I still have the Universal three banger in the Chamber of Horrors, but the transmission has been busted for three years, and I actually sail about as much as before. Don't have the balls to try anchoring, yet, and I usually noodle around on weekdays when things are not too crowded, but with reasonable caution and local knowledge, I feel safe enough without the diesel, and there is a kind of smug pride (the kind that commeth before a fall, maybe) that I've had the pleasure of feeling for many years, since I almost never, ever would motor into my slip. I got so much cavitation that I could never motor worth a shit. And our 90+ year old harbor mistress once said to me, "say, you are not a bad sailor." High praise from a woman who has made it to Thahiti under wind power. When the wind is light, I go slow. When its heavy, I reef. When I have to go out the gate and there's traffic, I look out and wait until I know I have enough fairway to get my ass out of trouble, and I keep a decent distance between me and pointy, hard objects like pilings and seawalls (well, mostly I do. . . there is this bend in my bow pulpit, a reminder of inattention one afternoon. . . ).

Next step: anchoring practice under sail. That will be interesting.

Glad I found this blog. Anybody have recommendations about sculling technique?

James OKelly said...

My girlfriend and I sail a Cat 27 without an engine. People think we are either poor (not true) or crazy (I take this as really meaning any-lazy).

I don't think I would be doing this if the boat was heavier, but as is, I can push my boat around with my body. I can stop her from hitting anything by putting my body in between and pushing.

Who needs a gym when you have a motor-less sailboat? :D

Thanks for the inspiration, we motorless need to stick together and spread the word that it IS possible.

Personally I would rather not have an engine and know that I am doing no harm to Dolphins, Whales, and other warm blooded brethren on mine then the "illusion" of "safety" by having a petro-killer on the back of my boat.

Anonymous said...

i have been sailing for 18 years. i have owned a 9' dinghy ( sprit sail and shallow long keel ) and a holiday 20 for that time. I got the holiday 6 months after i started sailing. i have never used a motor. ever. i recently bought a 1971 cal27. i am fixing her up, as she needs a little TLC. she is missing her motor. i have been thinking of keeping it that way. at most, maybe buying a trolling motor, just in case. i have also found that, if you mention going motorless, people treat you like you are crazy. i have never had a motor, before, and am not crazy about the idea, now. i will be sailing out of a marina on nabbs creek, just off the chesapeake bay in maryland. i don't see why i need a motor but everyone on the sailing sites has been so sure you can't sail a boat, that size, without a motor that i am beginning to think i really do need to have one. i'll be honest, i have no idea how to use funny. i know how to sail, which most would consider the more difficult thing, but not use a motor. then again, i can't swim, either. it's good to read your words. makes me feel i am not so alone in thinking a motor isn't a necessity.


Ash said...

Going Engineless

Any time I start a motor on a sailboat, I feel like some principal is being violated. Here is a spontaneous contemplation about this. Let's see where it goes...

The very term 'engineless' posits the notion of engine first because the core concept in the term itself is not the 'less' part but the 'engine' part.

Sailboat – a vehicle using the power of wind via the medium of sails to move over water. A sailboat is one whether or not there is an engine on board; an engine is not integral to the existence of a sailboat.

The soul of a sailboat is perceived differently when there is no engine versus when there is an engine. An engine, once engaged, throbs and drives the vessel like a heart. It hums, throbs, powers - amazingly so. But that same engine is just as happy driving a vessel with or without sails; from its point of view, sailing per se doesn't exist, and it cannot perceive natural forces such as wind, current or waves.

In short: sail power and engine power are essentially different, though both can be used on boats.

A boat under power is no longer sailing even if you do keep the sails up for whatever reason. A boat not sailing is not a sailboat.

Finally, and what inspired me to contribute here on this: not only is there some quality of soul that allows an engineless sailboat experience to seem far more in tune with Nature, and put you far more in touch with the domain of water, wind, weather, wave and so on, but also – and this is the same thing – there is a different and natural sense of time.

One of the main uses of a motor is to take mastery of direction and speed away from natural forces – principally weather and currents. If wind or tides are against us we can use the motor to manage time to suit our desires. We take charge of time.

Time is a sense of voyaging, passaging, winding, waving, journeying, being, sailing. Wind comes, wind goes. Waves rise; waves fall. Speed accelerates and decelerates. Journeys begin; journeys end. Landfall approaches or falls away; shores are welcoming or hostile. Wind is relaxing or dangerous. Indeed, our entire life comprises no more than an endless cycle of moments which like waves arise, dwell and then cease. This process is what we call 'time'. You cannot, therefore, separate the notion of 'life' and 'time'. Life is time, nothing more, nothing less. So also: time is life.

Our lives are a collection of experiences which arise, dwell and cease in the medium of time. Time, therefore, is the medium in which all such experiences take place, just as water is the medium on which all sailboats sail, wind is the medium through which all sailboats derive movement all of which phenomena, like all phenomena, take place within the medium of Time which is an ongoing, never-ending sense of journeying.

So every journey takes place in the medium of time. That includes a journey in a vessel with a motor, but for me, the natural sailboat's limitations of working principally with natural phenomena - weather, wind, water, sun, temperature, seasons, geographical features (ocean, river, estuary, tidal currents etc.) - such essential naturalness, or decency even, allows one to become part of the terrain, to settle into Natural Time.

Even as the satisfaction of making a successful passage, be it after one hour or one year, followed by landfall, is always new, always fresh, always worth working towards, still true sailing is about being; being in Time.

I don't know why, but whenever I turn on the motor, that sense feels violated. It's a personal thing, no doubt, but I find it quite important in considering why I love to sail, and how to contemplate my upcoming passage from the Chesapeake to Cape Breton Island.

sail boats said...

Hey there,amazing post.My most loved piece of sailing is the manner by which awake and alive and tuned in it makes me.Basically,making a sailboat go quick obliges that you trim the sails so they have a particular shape and angle in connection to the wind that is going crosswise over them.There are a ton of subtleties to the angle and the shape that I could continue forever about -you can conform the angle and shape with a mixed bag of diverse controls,that do everything from bending the pole,to flattening the bottom of the sail, to making the sail curve or hook more at its trailing edge or a million zillion different things,that vary relying upon the sort of pontoon you are sailing and the quality of the wind and the measure of the waves you're sailing through.In any case the eminent piece of the majority of this is that the thing you are reacting to,the wind,is completely invisible.
@Tina Long.