In the discussion thread - engineless cruising, a few folks wrote about finding themselves having to sail when their engine
failed, then enjoying the expereince. though we choose to sail engine-free because of the challenge it presented, not to mention the space and cost it saved us when we wanted to go cruising as young as we could. We have never suggested it is the way to go for others - but we do think folks are forgetting that their sails
may, at times, be more reliable than their engines. Below is the text from a chapter in our book, The Capable Cruiser
which we think might be of interest. (To keep this from taking up too much space, I haven't included the photos.)
Sail Insurance: Take the Emergency Out of Engine Shutdowns
A golden, early morning sun glistens down on a perfect French Polynesian sailing day. The trade
winds blow across the deep waters of the pass that cuts through the reef between Huahine and the open sea. The 35-foot sloop
cuts a gentle wake as it powers seaward
; its crewman, Chuck Ryan, a lifelong sailor, had attached the halyards to the sails
before he raised the anchor
. Now he is clearing up the foredeck while the owner stands at the helm steering
toward their next destination
, Raiatea. Halfway through the pass, the engine quits. Chuck watches bemusedly as the skipper
dives below into the engine room. With barely a pause, Chuck reaches for the halyard
, hoists the headsail, then goes back to the cockpit
, trims the sheet for a beam reach, and then relaxes as the sloop
gains way. The stem continues to part the DayGlo green waters of the pass. When the water
around the boat
turns to the deep indigo of the open sea, the engine is still completely silent. The skipper
pokes his head
out of the companionway hatch
, looks around at the open water
, glances up at the wind-filled sails, and says, “Gee, that was a good idea!”
Fifty-knot gusts roar into the open roadstead at Cabo San Lucas, Baja California
Sur, catching the crews of almost 50 cruising boats on a raging lee shore right during the pre-Christmas festivities—a time of year when this roadstead anchorage normally is blessed with warm offshore
breezes. In the ensuing melee, 29 boats are washed ashore through the 14-foot-high surf. Dreams, boats, and confidence are crushed. During the height of the storm, however, the crew of the Cal
40 Amola II
hank their storm staysail to the headstay, put a deep reef in the mainsail
, and then start their engine to motor
to freedom before their anchor
starts to drag and they too become victims. One of a dozen stray floating lines—left over from boats that have already dragged to destruction—snags Amola’
, and her engine quits. The crew swiftly moves to hoist the sails. With the skills gained from working together on dozens of races, they short-tack to the safety
of the open sea.
Two exotic, far-from-home locations, two dramatic success stories that might seem unrelated to the sailing you do each weekend, but these are two perfect examples of what Lin and I call self-help sail-insurance payoffs. Each time you go sailing--whether for an afternoon jaunt outside the harbor or when you enter an exciting new coral-reef pass on the far side of an ocean—there is a chance that your engine, or one of the systems supporting it, could shut down unexpectedly. Yet in every one of the more than 75 countries Lin and I have visited, we have seen countless sailors motoring in or out of marina and harbor entrances, or meandering through rock-strewn passages while fresh trade
winds blow, with their sail covers on, halyards and sheets
stowed, no anchor visible, and, in warmer climates, the added impediment to quick sailhandling of a fully rigged sun cover.
As I watch them, I think of an incident that left me quite shaken (and influenced me deeply) in Newport Beach
, when I was building Seraffyn,
our first cruising boat
, and working as a charter-boat skipper. The beautiful 53-foot yawl Kirawan
became a total loss 200 yards inside the eastern breakwater on a day just like the one described at Huahine—light breezes, sunny skies. But, just after she passed the breakwater, her engine stopped. With sail covers on, halyards tied off, no anchor on deck
was driven toward the rocks by an onshore breeze and by the 4-foot swells that wrapped around the end of the breakwater (remnants of the much bigger ocean swell running outside). Lift
, drop, and the magnificent teak-decked yacht was smashed like a Styrofoam cup. Within two minutes, she sank. For the next few weeks, sailors around the waterfront talked of the ways they could have sailed her free if . . . . If the sail covers had been off, if her skipper had chosen to be on the windward side of the 800-foot-wide channel so he would have had the vital sea room that would have given him time to react, time to anchor or set sail.
Sea room, time to react—the classic
concerns of the sailor as well as the aircraft pilot. Airline pilots spend hours practicing how to react if an engine quits (read “altitude” for “sea room”). An interesting fact is that many airline pilots fly gliders for sport, but also, as one airline pilot told us, “Because the gliding skills could come in handy if we lost
power on a commercial
flight.” That is why we feel that prudent sailors should begin looking at their sails for added security
, for what we call “no-premium sail insurance
.” The crews described in the first two incidents found that sailing skills and handy sails were the keys to carrying on without fuss when their engines quit. Although it is unlikely that there will be absolutely no wind
when your engine acts up, Murphy was a sailor, so we like to include anchors and anchor-handling gear
that is at-the-ready as the extra element in making sure that an engine shutdown means only a smooth switch to sail power or anchor grip, and not the catalyst for a confidence- or boat- destroying event.
What allows you to make that smooth transition? Handy sails, confidence in your sailing skills, complete trust in your boat and practice.
What are handy sails? These would be sails that are set before you leave the marina and left up until you are back on your mooring
, or ones that can be pulled up in less than 60 seconds each, on any point of the wind
. On the average 35-footer, an “instant sail” would be either a jib
with normal hanks that is uncovered and has its halyard
attached or a roller-furling jib
with the sheets
ready to go. Unfortunately, a jib alone could be the wrong sail to hoist first in an engine shutdown. If the situation demands that you sail close-hauled, you need the power of the mainsail
aft to urge your bow up toward the wind. The quickest-to-set mainsail is the leg-o’-mutton (jibheaded ) mainsail, which is set on an external mast
track with claw-type slides. This sail has no headboard or battens to hang up on spreaders or shrouds as it is being hoisted and the slides offer minimal friction (especially if you give the track an occasional rub with beeswax or use silicone spray). Those few sailors who voyage without engines usually choose one of these easy-to-hoist mainsails.
Over the years, ideas from the racing
fleet have filtered into all aspects of cruising and daysailing mainsail design, adding headboards, short battens, and then eventually full-length battens to enhance sail area and racing
performance. Unfortunately, these sails are usually difficult to raise unless the boat is head-to-wind. With alloy spars come internal track and extruded luff grooves that require the use of slug slides. This means extra friction that slows mainsail hoisting. Add cockpit-led halyards, which mean more turning, and fairlead blocks, with more friction in the system, and you will find that a winch
becomes necessary to hoist the mainsail. At this point, you have a mainsail that does not fit into your “sail insurance” program. To make it work
in an emergency
, it would be wise to have this type of mainsail hoisted before you leave any harbor or negotiate among islands and rocks so it is ready to help out should the engine quit.
Sail insurance also means having the appropriate sail area available for the situation. We have a strong preference for the cutter
rig, with the staysail secured permanently on the inner stay. This means that the staysail is always on deck
, ready to act as an instant heavy-weather headsail choice. Combine this with a mainsail built with three sets of slab reefing and you have quick sail-reduction options that will let you sail to windward in winds ranging from 8 to 45 knots should your engine quit.
We have anchored in dozens of open roadsteads around the world, ones that offered good protection from the prevailing winds but left us feeling uneasy because of unsettled weather
conditions—places as diverse as the east side of California’s Catalina Island
or the desolate lee of Double Island Point, Australia
. In late 2009 we lay very comfortably in the lee offered by the reefs
of Penrhyn Atoll in the South Pacific
reports from WWVH mentioned that the South Pacific
Convergence Zone was drifting closer to our position, and with it would come a potential wind shift and squally, intensified trade winds. To keep our “sail insurance” fully topped up, we put two reefs
in the mainsail before we turned in for the night, and we left the staysail lying on the foredeck, ready to use with its sheets fully rigged, just in case the wind changed and blew in from seaward
. By morning, the wind had shifted about 20 degrees, and even though the reef still offered some protection, the anchorage began to get restless. With the perfect sail combination ready to use, we didn’t hesitate to raise sail and head
. Even if you have an engine, it is important to have sails ready to use, sails the correct size for worst-case conditions. Shutdown can occur even with the most trustworthy engine in the world. (See reasons for engine shut downs at the end of the chapter.) Sails of the correct size at the ready can act as a backup if you have the confidence to use them.
How do you gain this confidence? First you have to consider the sheer simplicity of the basic sailing machine, compared to your engine with its hundreds of moving parts
and myriad components. You personally can inspect and repair all of the gear
that is required to get your sails up and pulling. If the sails are strongly built, they will work
in winds from as light as 3 knots right up to 70 knots or more.
Once you consider this, you should begin practicing what we call “engine-quits drills.” Each time you are under power, think of what you would do if the engine quit “right now.” Quiz your crew and discuss possible actions. (See chapter 24 to get some ideas of possible actions to consider.)
Learn more about maneuvering under sail by leaving your engine idling in neutral and practice using sail power only—to anchor, to sail away from your anchor, to sail into a protected cove. Practice buoying the inboard end of your anchor rode
and sailing free of your ground tackle. And, hardest yet most important of all, next time you are out sailing and find yourself running homeward before a fresh wind, don’t head for the harbor, even if you’re tempted by the allure of a hot rum
punch and a warm shower
. Instead, make the hard choice. Turn around while you still have plenty of sea room. Reef the sails and practice getting your boat to sail to windward effectively. Not only will this help you become more comfortable about sailing in strong winds, but you will gain the vital knowledge of what sail area your boat will comfortably carry in different wind and sea conditions—just like the crew of Amola II,
who were able to estimate what sail area they needed to beat to windward and reach the safety
of the open sea. You’ll learn what sail combination balances best, and you can assess and improve leads and sailhandling gear and maybe even decide to add some handholds or improve the nonskid areas of your deck. As your confidence grows, it pays to consider joining local sailing regattas. The close-quarters sailing offered at race
start lines, plus the need to sail in both strong and light winds in order to finish the race
, will help you gain confidence in your overall sailing skills.
The late Eric Hiscock, dean of cruising under sail, told us many years ago: “The biggest change I’ve seen over the past 40 years is that people have stopped thinking of their boats as sailing vessels with auxiliary motors and come to consider them motor
boats with auxiliary sails. Therefore, few are learning
to maneuver well under sail.” Our most recent voyaging has shown that this trend has continued, to the point that during our monthlong stay in 2008 in Tonga’s islands—where winds are steady, passages and anchorages
are open and easy to enter—we rarely saw the visiting yachts use their sails. In 1985, 18 of the 21 yachts anchored at Neiafu participated when an impromptu race was organized (and folks from the other three boats crewed that day), but in 2008, only seven or eight boats of almost 100 cruising yachts joined the Friday-night races, even though the winning crew was offered a free round of drinks at the local café. Consider turning the tables and relegating your engine to its place as an auxiliary. By getting out sailing more and motoring less, by practicing engine-quits drills in ever-closer quarters and then upgrading your boat and its gear so you can swiftly switch to sail power, you will be prepared to take advantage of “sail insurance.” This could convert an actual engine shutdown from a frightening or even life-endangering “Mayday” situation into just a minor incident, one that gives a sense of inner satisfaction. Let your smooth transition be visible to dockside loungers and it could also give a real a boost to your reputation—as the crew of the Cal
40 Amola II
learned after their excellent performance at Cabo San Lucas.
Some Causes of Engine Shutdown and Possible Solutions
Reason for Shutdown Possible Solution
Add a fuel
gauge that is visible in the cockpit
. Carry a spare jug of fuel.
in fuel pickup system
Use a header tank instead of fuel pump
. Add a pressure pump
to the fuel line (as used for outboard
*Dirt or water in fuel
Two switchable fuel filters with clear sediment bowls in easy-to-view positions. Plan regular inspections and check them off in the logbook.
*Dirt in tanks
(sediment, rust, or bits left over from original construction can be shaken loose in rough seas or in a grounding)
plates on each tank. Clean out tanks
on a regular basis.
*Airlock in seawater cooling
system (sometimes caused by intake lifting clear of the water during a heavy roll in a beam sea)
Reposition saltwater intake through-hulls as low as possible on the hull
Plastic bag plugs cooling-water intake
Install two through-hull fittings for saltwater intake. Very low chance of both becoming blocked at the same time.
Mangrove seed plugs intake (it happened to a neighbor twice in one month)
Be sure there is a screen
over any intake through-hulls.
Consider a possible override of the system for emergency situations. (Several boats at Cabo San Lucas had engines overheat and shut down due to sand and debris stirred up by the storm. A few more minutes of engine use could have helped them reach open water, where they could have set sails.)
Possible override of the system or switch to an alarm-only system instead of one that shuts down the engine.
*Line in the propeller
Line-cutting spurs on shaft.
Consider sailing instead of using power in places like Maine
, where lobsterpots are as thick as mosquitoes. When you have a stern anchor set, place a can or plastic container over the gearshift lever to remind you to take in all slack on the line (and also to check overboard
for jibsheets) before putting the engine in gear.
starting motor fails due to any number of problems—including, but not limited to, flat battery
Have a backup starting system. For small boats, try hand-crank systems. For larger ones, consider hydraulic or spring starters.
(We discuss these options in The Self-Sufficient Sailor.)
* indicates those situations we have encountered on delivery
For more on battenless mainsails, see The Self-Sufficient Sailor.