Why motor-sailing is good seamanship

Yachting Monthly|July 2020

Why motor-sailing is good seamanship
Pete Goss looks at the times it can pay to switch on the engine, making life easier and allowing for better sailing
Pete Goss

I have raced many types of boats without an engine to save weight, drag and cost. Indeed, I happily sailed around the world without an engine during the Vendée Globe, but experience and cruising have made me realise how narrow and one-dimensional this viewpoint was.

Fortunately, even for the racers out there competing in the Vendée Globe, engines are now mandatory, so that everyone shares the benefits without compromising competition.

In my younger days a similarly narrow focus had me marvelling as French cruisers sculled in and out of marinas. I was subsequently disappointed to learn that they weren’t purists at all; they were driven, instead, by tax. An unintended consequence was that it elevated French seamanship to another level.

Objectively there are far broader benefits to having an engine than the interests of speed, cost and drag to sailing. I would always have one but why do we often feel a sense of guilty failure when we turn it on, or admit to using it in the bar? Perhaps it is a throwback to when smoke-billowing steamships swept the purity, romance and majesty of clippers from our oceans. Lingering shame would have been given short shrift during Raphael Dinelli’s rescue in the Southern Ocean if I had been able to magic an engine on board. Fortunately, my boat-handling skills, polished by having to sail in and out of marinas with fee-paying guests, saved the day.


Perhaps we should review our relationship and not allow an engine to become a cuckoo that elbows boat handling under sail from the nest. Switching on the engine needn’t preclude the pleasure found in good boat handling under sail – it is an essential skill that can be honed with the engine in neutral. To an extent, running the engine can encourage us to take on manoeuvres that we might not otherwise, laying ready to reverse us out of mistakes and grasping a priceless lesson without the butcher’s bill of a collision to pay for it.

There is nothing more satisfying than nailing it under sail and as with all things in life, practice makes perfect. In fact, there is one thing more satisfying and that is to offer it to the crew and watch them grow in stature as their skills develop. Skills that might one day save your life should you fall over the side. Again, this is made all the better as a learning experience with the engine on, reducing stress for all concerned.


Some traditionalists will turn their nose up at use of the engine but I wonder if they have blindly overlooked its wonderful benefits. The most obvious is safety; when British Steel was dismasted deep in the Southern Ocean, it triggered an epic motor to safety and back into the race. A resupply from a ship followed by a pit stop in Chatham Island got them out of danger and on to Tasmania for the start of the next leg. Clearly we are not all going to need to motor out of danger in the middle of the ocean, but the ability to motor out of trouble, even when that trouble is a more commonplace situation, such as torn sails, is essential. When crossing a shallow bar with wind over tide and large standing waves, it’s the prop wash across the rudder that provides the extra kick to negate a catastrophic broach. We’ve all heard of the injured crew that survived because the skipper was able to make the ambulance a couple of hours early by motoring to windward. I remember welling up as a skipper, heavy with emotion, quietly told me how on being dismasted, he was forced to watch powerlessly as a friend drifted away to be lost forever.


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July 2020