Back in the day I owned a salty gaff-rigged ketch named Autant. Traditional to a fault, she had no electricity, plumbing, winches, roller-furling or any other modern conveniences. Nor did she have an engine, though there were plenty of times when I wished it were otherwise. Like it or not, those years I spent cruising without an engine were emphatically educational. Not only did I learn many sailing techniques, I also learned the value of careful planning, caution and, above all, patience.
In the decades since then I’ve skippered and owned a variety of bluewater sailboats, all of them with auxiliary engines. Like most modern sailors, I grew to rely on the “iron genny,” using it not only when it was necessary, but also when it was merely convenient. However, all that changed one afternoon while I was singlehanding my 42-foot ketch, Silverheels, up through the Exumas.
I’d been motorsailing all day in light air. Late in the afternoon, as I approached a cut leading to the lee side of the island chain, I rolled up the genoa and doused the mainsail. They weren’t helping much anyway. Like most skippers, I have my own way of squaring away the rig: mainsail tightly furled and lashed with three sail ties, sheets and furling line coiled and hung, halyards secured away from the masts, and so on. By the time I was powering through the cut against the strong ebb tide, all that remained was to put on the sail cover. All seemed shipshape and orderly, but as I was about to be shown, it was also all wrong.
I motored through the cut and around a point. Then I started up a long narrow channel that led to a remote spot where I planned to anchor for the night, motoring now against both the tide and the wind. Suddenly, I felt the boat slowing down. I gave her a little more throttle, but she slowed even more. It took a moment to realize the transmission was no longer engaging its gears. I had no forward or reverse, just neutral.
The water was shallow enough to anchor right there, but it was an awkward, exposed place, too narrow to swing in, bordered by a coral rock shore to port and what the chart called “hard grassy shoals” to starboard. I needed to get to the anchorage, then I could figure out what was wrong with the transmission. Meanwhile, the current was already starting to push me backward, while the breeze, close off the starboard bow, nudged the boat steadily closer to the shore. I needed steerage, and for that I had to get the boat sailing immediately.
I rolled out the genoa, the quickest sail to set, although first I had to free up the neatly stowed furling line and sheets. Silverheels fell off and started moving, just enough to steer and almost stem the current. Now we had to come about and get away from the shore, but with hardly any headway, little wind, and no sail aft, I wasn’t sure she’d make the tack. She didn’t. I put the helm over and almost backwinded the genny, but the boat stalled and fell off again, straight toward the shore. There wasn’t time to try again, nor was there room to fall off and jibe. In another 30 seconds we’d be aground on coral.
Quick, Do Something!
I recalled an old trick from my days on Autant. Sprinting forward, I let go an anchor in record time, speed-fed some chain after it, made it fast and positively willed the hook to bite as Silverheels dragged it sideways toward the rocks. Bite it did, just in time and just enough to coax the bow over to port tack, away from shore.
Next trick: retrieve the anchor, dash to the cockpit, tack the backed genny, and sheet it in. By the time Silverheels was moving again she was coming up on the hard shoal on the other side of the channel. I needed the mainsail. Thank goodness I hadn’t covered it! Still, it took time I could ill afford to strip off the sail ties, free the halyard, raise the sail, get back to the cockpit and sheet it in. Silverheels instantly pointed higher and gained speed. There were only inches under the keel when I tacked her back toward the coral again.
It quickly became clear that even with full sail we weren’t going to stem the current in such tight quarters with so little wind. In the end I had to fall off, backtrack through the channel, and then sail far out onto the banks, dodging coral heads and shoals in the waning light. At last, an hour later, I came into the anchorage from the other side. Home is the sailor.
The problem turned out to be the transmission oil cooler. Though only a few years old, it had failed, flushing out the transmission fluid with seawater. I needed a new one, and the nearest replacement was 500 miles away in Florida. I’d have to get somewhere civilized to order the part and receive it. Until then I was sailing an engineless boat—just like the old days.
Next morning, for the first time in a long, long time, I sailed off my anchor. The ebb tide whisked us through the narrow channel and back out the cut into Exuma Sound. The wind cooperated, too, blowing a steady 15 knots from the east-southeast. We reached up the Exumas on the outside and then caught the rising tide through another cut onto the banks, making for a town farther up the line. Black Point had an Internet connection so I could order the part, regular air service to fly it in, and also protection from a strong cold front forecast to arrive the next day.
Cruising engineless again after so many years, I recalled techniques and a mind-set I hadn’t exercised in years. Before I could just fire up my engine and power through pretty much anything. Now wind strength and direction, currents, tacking room and a host of other details were all important again. I had to pay close attention and plan each move more carefully in advance. I had to be certain my boat fell off toward open water when weighing anchor. I had to catch an ebb tide to exit a cut and a flood tide to enter one. I had to avoid narrow channels to windward and harbors that didn’t have sufficient maneuvering room. I always had to have an escape plan. Above all, I had to sail my boat like it really mattered—because it did. It was challenging, exciting and gratifying all at once.
I made Black Point without mishap, sailing smartly into the broad harbor under jib and jigger, and anchored at its head in anticipation of the coming front. Then, because it was forecast to blow 35 knots, I set a second anchor using a headsail (in lieu of the engine) to position the boat, another technique recalled from my days on Autant. It was pretty cool. A skipper on a boat nearby even came by to say how impressed he was watching me. I didn’t tell him I had no choice in the matter.
The front came and went. My new transmission oil cooler was ordered, shipped, received and installed. A week after arriving engineless, Silverheels departed with power restored, but I didn’t motor out of the harbor. I sailed out.
Losing my engine for a while reminded me of how important it is to remain proficient at pure sailing, to know your boat’s capabilities and limitations as well as your own. It also reminded me of how much fun it is! Now I tend to plan passages as if I had to sail them, and more often than not I do. Most days I sail on and off the anchor, just for fun and to keep in practice.
If I do drop my sails to enter a difficult port, I don’t square away the rig until after the anchor is set. Until then I leave lines coiled, but ready to run. The mainsail is left lying in the lazyjacks, not bound with sail ties, and its halyard is bent on. The mizzen usually stays up when anchoring whether under sail or power. It holds the bow to the wind when the boat backs down on the rode. It can also keep the rig balanced if I suddenly have to roll out the genoa and resume sailing.
A reliable engine is a wonderful tool, but using mine less has improved my cruising skills. Certainly it has made me a safer, better sailor—almost as good as I was back when I sailed aboard Autant.
Tor Pinney has logged 150,000 miles under sail and is the author of Ready for Sea: How to Outfit the Modern Cruising Sailboat (Sheridan House). You can check out his website at tor.cc