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Old 01-10-2002
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Tom Wood is on a distinguished road
Gas versus Diesel

I am looking at buying a pocket cruiser, something 22 to 26 feet long. Should I look for one with a gas outboard or a diesel inboard? And if I were thinking of sailing the boat around the world, would that change your answer?

Tom Wood responds:
Why is it that sailors, who should be most concerned with sails, get so hung up on auxiliary propulsion? Boats have sailed for thousands of years with no power at all, later followed by outside assistance from oars, steam, naphtha [coaltar], gasoline, diesel, and even electric motors. The actual propulsion mechanics have been outboards, saildrives (Z drives), conventional inboard screw propellers, and jet drives. All of them work to one degree or another and most have well-known advantages and disadvantages.

Lot’s of circumnavigators have no engine at all on their vessel. Engines come into use most often in coastal work—getting into and out of harbors and working in restricted spaces with adverse winds and currents. Their value is much reduced in true offshore work where there is lots of room for error and nothing deflecting or obstructing the wind.

So the answer is, "It all depends." It depends first on your pocketbook as there is a vast difference in initial and maintenance costs between a gasoline-powered outboard motor and an inboard diesel. After that, it depends on your personal safety requirements since gasoline is far more flammable and explosive than diesel. Then it depends on your tolerance for dependability as the diesel will be far easier to use and more reliable in service.

It may also depend on your need to conserve weight and space on board since the diesel occupies a treasured spot near the balance point of the boat. It could depend on your mechanical aptitude and willingness to make repairs while hanging upside down in the bilge. And it may depend on how much of a hurry you are in to get around the world because unpowered or low-powered boats often sit for weeks waiting out an unfavorable wind so they can leave a harbor.

Now that all of that is behind us, I have met only a few sailors in my life who claimed that their boats had too much power. But I have talked to literally hundreds who wished their boat had more. Boatyards normally have one or two vessels in the yard that are being refit with more powerful engines. The reason is simple—if you don’t have reliable power when you need it, you’ll regret not having it. That solid, well-maintained diesel in the basement can make the difference between a close call and a collision with a reef, between a two-day passage and a five-day ordeal, or between getting up current to a secure anchorage or rolling away in the outer harbor. A good engine makes it possible to explore intricate island chains, poke around in remote bays, and travel up the world’s scenic rivers and waterways.

So the real answer is, "It depends." It depends on what you can comfortably afford juxtaposed with what you want to see and accomplish on your cruise. If you want the greatest flexibility, and can stand to pay the bill, buy the luxury of a reliable inboard diesel. If you have unlimited time and not many bucks in the kitty, with a little grit and determination an outboard will do the job.

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