Engines on Sailboats

This is a tricky subject to tackle. Whole books have been written about what place an  engine has on a sailing vessel. The Pardeys and Jay Fitzgerald are powerful proponents of sailing without engines on board.Then there is the whole “blow boater” vs “Stinkpotter” rivalry.

I’m no purist by any stretch of the imagination. In my 20 year career of professional boating (18 as a captain) all but one of the boats I ran was a power boat. My last gig was on a boat unabashedly labeled as a motor sailer.

Jolie Aire-Golfe Juan

(You have to excuse the condition of the picture as it lived in the humid atmosphere of a boat)

Jolie Aire had a pair of Gardiner diesels which are, in my opinion, the finest engines ever built. Even if you know absolutely nothing about engines the reaction to your first glimpse of a Gardiner will be “now THAT’S what an engine should look like.”

And we used those engines, too. When we brought the boat from Europe to the States we ran the engines to keep the battery banks charged up and admittedly when wind power wasn’t enough to maintain what we thought was a suitable speed we kept one of the engines engaged. We made the crossing from Grand Canary Island to St. Thomas, USVI, in 13 days 6-1/2 hours. Since we were doing a delivery time was important but if it had simply been a “cruise” I don’t think I would have run the engines any longer than it was necessary to keep the batteries topped off.

It always amazes me when I’m down by the beach in Fort Lauderdale to see probably the majority of sailboats running under power alone without a single sail up. If that’s the case why not just get a power boat? Sailboats are for SAILING!!!

When I first saw my Nancy Dawson one of the things that caught my attention was the outboard motor bracket on her transom. I knew that 1) the price would be less than if it had an inboard engine and 2) the space where an engine would reside would give me a lot more storage space for the cruising I intended on doing.

Again, I have to admit that I did use the outboard from time to time. For instance during the two and a half days when there wasn’t a breath of wind as I was trying to get across the Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Isla Mujeres, Mexico. That section of ocean is one of the most heavily trafficked in the world. Trying to get across it is akin to being a pedestrian trying to cross an interstate during rush hour.

For the most part, though, I SAILED my boat. One afternoon stands out vividly in my mind. I wanted to visit Ranguana Caye in Belize. I’d met the man who owned the island and was putting up three cottages that he intended on renting out to tourists. Unfortunately the island was dead to windward. I spent the entire afternoon tacking into the trade winds for several hours gaining headway bit by bit until I finally reached the anchorage. Honestly it never once crossed my mind to lower the sails, drop the outboard and motor in. I could have accomplished the whole exercise in one tenth the time it actually took me. I did the same thing Colombus, Magellan and Slocum would have done. I SAILED to my destination. After all, it was a beautiful day. The wind was strong, the sky was blue, the puffy clouds were like cotton balls. What else did I have to do?

A couple of months later when I was on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala I sailed everywhere. I would sail off my anchor and would come to my spot in the anchorage under sail as well. I spent most of my time either anchored off of what passed for a downtown area of Fronteras or by Mario’s Marina. I’d pull out as much anchor chain as I needed (I carried ALL chain rode and it was a blessing) and flake it out on the deck. I’d find a spot in the anchorage where I could pull up to head into the wind, get to where I wanted to drop the hook, let the sheets fly, scamper up to the bow, lower the anchor and then, back in the cockpit I’d manually back the mainsail which, in effect, put the boat in reverse. The chain would rush out over the bow as I backed up until the anchor bit into the bottom and held. I never once had to try a second time and I never dragged, either.

You just have to read a few cruising blogs before you find someone on a sailboat who, in the middle of their cruise, go into a complete panic because their engine stops running. Instead of continuing on their adventure they spend days and sometimes weeks paying dockage somewhere waiting for spare parts to arrive.

One of the excuses people give for having a stinky, oily hunk of iron on their boats is for a “safety factor,” but I bet more sailing vessels in the past half century or more have been lost because the engine failed than for any other reason. Engines are nasty, evil entities just waiting to screw their owners.

I’m actually looking for a new sailboat again, and there are some with engines in them that are actually deal breakers. I wouldn’t buy a boat with a Volvo in it if you held a gun to my head. I’d tell them to pull the trigger and hope they missed a vital organ. Parts for Volvos are almost impossible to get in any third-world country and will devour most of your cruising kitty if you’re able to ever get them anyway.

I’m not a no-engine fanatic like Pardeys or Jay Fitzgerald but pretty close. One thing I liked about Nancy having the outboard was that it served double duty. It got me out of the shipping lanes when there was no wind and it was also my dinghy engine. I’d go for the same set up in the future.

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