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

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Scull This

Looks like the oarsmen is relocating his floating home as well as a goodly number of his neighbours.