Cruising without an Engine - SailNet Community
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Cruising without an Engine

It was an unexpected failure by his transmission that presented the author a chance to explore life underway without an engine.

"The engine sounds funny," my better half yelled up to me on the bow as we nosed in among coral heads and rocky outcroppings off both port and starboard. Temporarily abandoning my post, I ran back to the cockpit. Laurie had already instinctively put the boat in neutral and we barely coasted along toward a narrow anchorage.

"What kind of funny?" I asked.

"Like, just really not right," she said. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the worst, grabbed the shifter and put the engine in gear. The noise was not unlike the sound a lawnmower makes with the blade set too low as it is dragged across asphalt. I quickly put the engine back into neutral. We did not need a diesel mechanic to tell us something was indeed not right. We anchored, shut off the engine, and a stifling gloom settled over us. We were in the Exumas, lucky to find bread, bananas, or a phone that worked in the small towns around us let alone a transmission shop. What now?

‘Crisis breeds opportunity,' so the saying goes. After a bit of a debate as to whether to turn around and head for civilization or continue cruising without an engine, we opted for the later and to continue on our original itinerary of heading south. We should probably state from the onset that we're no Lynn and Larry Pardey purists. I like diesel engines, especially when they work, and have said many a private thanks for the unceasing clockwork like purr of a well-maintained engine during periods of calm winds or making miles into a headwind at a prescribed and predictable rate. When the engine quits, however, it's time to be thankful you're not a powerboater and rely on your full sailing faculties and rise to the occasion the added challenge such sailing presents.

When your engine isn't working, it becomes doubly important that all the sails and sail-handling systems are.
Gear Maintenance    
One of the first things we decided needed doing was to reprioritize the project list. Jumping to the top of that list was ensuring that sails, winches, and other load handling devices were all in working order. Sailing without an engine puts a new priority on performance: the difference between getting off the hook in a crowded anchorage without impaling your neighbor can often be measured in a few boat lengths. A sticky pawl in a winch or a frayed halyard caught in a sheave at the wrong time can bring if not disaster, at least an unwelcome dose of humility and some dings in the hull. Ideally we'd have dug in the lazarette and come up with a brand new pair of Anderson self tailing winches and put them on, instead our 60s-era winches got a good cleaning and re-greasing, that pesky leech line cleat finally got a new rivet, a loose bolt in the windlass got tightened, and the anchor roller got a bit of a rebuild to make it easier to pick up the anchor.

The first engineless sail from pulling the anchor up to setting it down where we intended brought a sense of accomplishment. Even though we've sailed off the hook and into anchorages many times before, being able to do it when you have to do it brings a special kind of sailing fulfillment. It helps to remember that most of the sailing vessels in history lacked engines. Practice beforehand brings confidence that can be critical in tight spots.

Before leaving there's a list of criteria to examine. You want as many factors lined up in your favor as possible. Once we're happy with the weather forecasts, tide, and current, we discuss our exit strategy, what boats are where and how we hope to pass them as well as where any immediate navigation hazards may be. The anchor is then pulled up to a short scope. The main is raised smartly—the less flapping and flogging the better, the main goal is to get weigh on as soon as possible and to minimize that ‘in between' drifting and sailing feeling. As the boat swings around into the wind we raise the remaining scope and the anchor and pinch the bow up into the wind, getting the boat to sail over the anchor and—most importantly—pointed in the right direction. The anchor is then up and stowed and then the jib goes up. Depending on the wind conditions we may already have a reef in the main to start with, or have a small jib up. Keeping sail loads manageable needling in and around sand bars, rocks, or other boats helps keep the boat balanced as well as keep crash tacks or jibes off the exit strategy.

Of course in the tropics it's not hard to judge depths by the color of the water, and that too can assist sailors with a disabled engine.
While the basic tenets of how you navigate your vessel don't change, we've found ourselves a bit more diligent in the area. Without the capacity for diesel power in either forward or reverse in the event of running aground, there's one less option should the keel plow into some underwater structure of the earth. Likewise too, the effect of tides and currents are apt to be felt a bit more along the route since you're likely to travel at slower speeds than if the iron genny is humming a long at top rpms. If your cruising grounds can only be negotiated during daylight, be realistic about how much ground you can cover during those hours and adjust accordingly. We had to recently wait three days just to time a narrow cut right and catch favorable winds to make sure we would arrive during daylight hours at our destination, a lot of work for a destination 50 miles away. We ended up traveling too fast in an approaching cold front and would have reached our destination in the early hours of the morning and had to heave to and wait for daylight. Traffic on the high seas also needs careful consideration, as there isn't an emergency boost of power to get you out of a tight spot. If a crossing looks close, react before it gets tight.

Anchoring    Anchoring in a crowded anchorage can be tricky when you have a forward and reverse gear, doing so under sail power alone ups the ante. In many ways, it's a one shot event. One thing that may bear keeping in mind is that just because a small armada of cruising boats is clustered in one area doesn't mean that it may be the safest area to anchor in, especially hold boats start dragging their anchors. You have to be diligent when it comes to weather and know before hand what types of winds you can expect each night. We find ourselves anchoring further out than most of the fleet, leading the crew of one boat we met to speculate whether we were on our honeymoon or not. Sea room is not often thought of as a term that applies to anchorages, but without an engine, we're a bit more comfortable keeping our neighbors at a distance and have the jib hanked on at all times.

Ideally you can find a cove all to yourself so you needn't worry about traffic while anchoring and weighing anchor under sail alone.
The overall strategy for dropping the anchor while underway usually has us sailing along under main alone. We find our boat points satisfactorily enough under just the main to get us up into the wind and luffing to a stop, and there is the added benefit of being able to see more with the headsail down. Having a clear picture in your mind where you want the boat to end up and getting upwind of that point to drop the ground tackle is perhaps the most important part of ending up where you want to. Hopefully the ground tackle gets a good bite early on. Try not to anchor directly in front of another boat, just in case the anchor plows along a bit before finding a bite. Paying out ample amounts of chain or rode helps. We haven't experimented with setting the anchor by back-winding the main to set the hook and instead opt to don a snorkel mask and jump over the side to make sure the hook is set securely.

If there's a ‘secret' to sailing without an engine, it would have to be a combination of patience and diligence. Internal combustion mentalities are hard to change and don't allow for windshifts, or wind that just plain dissipates or mysterious currents that start sweeping you along at an unexpected clip. Being aware of your boat's progress in the conditions and being flexible in your destination and willing to change it to stack the tide, wind, and evolving weather in your favor are some good ways to keep out of trouble and to make sure that you, your crew, and boat get to where you're headed by wind power alone.

Mark Matthews is offline  
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