Power versus Sail - SailNet Community
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Power versus Sail

I seek some wisdom and perhaps the chance to dispel a myth regarding the cost advantage of sailing versus motoring. One of the main economic benefits believed about sailing is the cost efficiency, or the savings in fuel for travel. Because sailboats use an inexhaustible supply of free wind energy, obviously there are no direct costs in travelling. But there are the indirect costs: overhead/investments made in the sails themselves, rigging, winches, etc. I get the general impression that for an average 45-foot sailboat, that investment amounts to roughly $25,000. One can expect this investment to last on average five years, where the boat averages 5,000 miles of sailing a year.

That works out to $5,000/year spent on equipment needed just to take advantage of this free energy for traveling. A powerboat designed for cruising, say a trawler, seems to get on average one mile per one gallon of fuel. If you traveled 5,000 miles a year, that would mean $5,000/year spent on fuel/energy.  Diesel engines now are designed to last forever (well, almost) and the filters and such are not that expensive.

So here's my question: For the one-time cost of a diesel engine you get the benefit of a reliable source of power at a dependable speed anytime anywhere. Sailing can offer the romance and adventure, but it is not a big economical advantage. Am I wrong in this assumption, or is this in fact the painful, secret truth about sailing?

Tom Wood responds:

I don’t believe that it is a secret that sailing isn’t inexpensive. Actually, many of us are painfully aware that owning and operating a cruising sailboat is probably more expensive than operating a single-engine trawler of a similar size. The maintenance of the two boats in terms of hulls, decks, steering, engines, plumbing, electrical, and electronic systems is virtually identical. But the sailboat must add spars, running and standing rigging, sails, and canvas to that list.

Many retired sailors are finding trawlers a good replacement for their sailboats for coastal and near-island cruising. Actually, as the baby boomers become AARP members, I would expect to see the number and value of trawlers to continue to climb as their owner’s aging muscles and desire for a little more space and comfort lead them away from sailing.

As you mentioned, there are parts of the decision that are more formed by the individual’s personality. Sailing is more of a challenge, it does demand more knowledge, it is non-polluting, it offers quiet instead of the constant thrumming of diesels, and the motion is kindly even in a big sea by comparison to trawlers. Only the owner or buyer of each type of boat can account for these factors.

But, all that said, your analysis misses two key points. Note that I rated trawlers highly for coastal and near-island cruising. Most power-only vessels lack one thing—range. There are, of course, ocean-going power vessels, but most mom-and-pop cruising couples are not going to spring for a 60-plus-foot mini-megayacht in the multi-million dollar category.

A typical small trawler does a little better than one mile per gallon. With a 500 gallon fuel capacity, she would have a 450-mile range leaving a little reserve capacity. This boat could go from Maine to Rio de Janeiro by island hopping and coastal cruising. But it could not cross the Atlantic, Pacific, or Indian Oceans. Even some remote coastal cruises could turn into little more than a constant search for fuel.

The second thing you missed is that a sailboat has built-in propulsion redundancy. We once had an engine failure in a remote spot that required a part we didn’t have. Up went the sails, up came the hook, and off we sailed to the nearest telephone and UPS office over 500 miles away. Of course, a trawler can build in redundancy by having twin engines, but this raises the initial and maintenance costs and doubles the fuel usage. So now we need a bigger trawler with more fuel capacity—essentially a never ending circle. And since twin-engine trawlers have their props and rudders exposed, they are much more prone to damaging both sets of running gear simultaneously thereby defeating the whole purpose of having twin engines in the first place.

While the cost per mile may well be even higher for a sailboat, the sailor can go places that a powerboat owner couldn’t even dream of. A quick hop out to Bermuda, a fast passage direct from Norfolk to the Virgin Islands, a trade-wind romp from California to Hawaii—forget about them if you buy a trawler. And if that engine goes down, you’d better have a tow-boat insurance card in your wallet and a fat checkbook. But if you just want to sit on the flybridge watching the landscape go by, a trawler might just be the way to go.

Tom Wood is offline  
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