To mo­tor or not to mo­tor, that is the ques­tion

If we’re hon­est, pas­sage-mak­ing of­ten means mo­tor­sail­ing, says Jess Lloyd-Mostyn

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If we're hon­est, pas­sage-mak­ing of­ten means mo­tor­sail­ing, says Jess Lloyd-Mostyn

‘ The en­gine is a god­send, but I do have mis­giv­ings about us­ing it’

Imag­ine your­self on our boat. We are off the Pa­cific coast of Nicaragua. The moon is set­ting. It’s five in the morn­ing, the wind is nine knots from the north­west and we have plot­ted our lat­est po­si­tion on the paper chart on the nav-table. We have trav­elled only seven miles closer to our des­ti­na­tion in the last 12 hours. We know there is a lit­tle cur­rent against us and the small light­house to star­board hardly seems to have moved for a day.

The fore­cast is for light winds for the fore­see­able fu­ture. We left know­ing the wind would die and took this in pref­er­ence to the 50-knot winds that kick up in this area be­tween lulls. We are lucky, though, that the sea is flat. We have a choice: con­tinue tack­ing up into this mild head­wind for the fore­see­able fu­ture – at this rate the 120 miles we have left will take us nearly nine days – or we crank up the en­gine and reach our des­ti­na­tion in a day. Would you stick to your en­gine­less ideals, or opt prag­mat­i­cally for mo­tor­sail­ing?

We would love to say that we sail ev­ery­where, but it sim­ply isn’t true. We are not day­sail­ing and go­ing out only when the wind is good. We are pas­sage-mak­ing, cov­er­ing hun­dreds of miles and some­times we have to take a mixed bag of a fore­cast. In re­al­ity, the en­gine is a god­send, but I do have mis­giv­ings about us­ing it. My main prob­lem with the mo­tor is that it costs money to run. Then, ev­ery hour it runs, it gets closer to the in­evitable mo­ment when it breaks down be­yond my knowl­edge of fix­ing it, at which point we will find out if we can re­ally sail. Fur­ther­more, our 42hp en­gine only just pro­vides enough mo­men­tum to keep our 42-footer go­ing. It’s a def­i­nite help but it isn’t a trump card by any means. Turn­ing to the dark side and mo­tor­ing is there­fore not a sim­ple choice.

We don’t only use the en­gine when there is no wind, ei­ther. We’ve had oc­ca­sions where we de­cide to put the en­gine on to help with the mo­tion of a sloppy sea state, and the boat stead­ies up markedly. Other times we use it to mo­tor­sail closer to the wind than we would be able to point un­der sail alone. Or some­times, it is the last line of de­fence against an ad­verse cur­rent. Our mo­tor is there­fore a use­ful tool in mak­ing pas­sages quickly, com­fort­ably and safely.

En­gines, how­ever, like all things on a boat, can fail you just when you need them most.

Friends on one boat were 15 miles south of their des­ti­na­tion, Aca­pulco in Mex­ico, af­ter three days at sea. Af­ter fight­ing the cur­rent and a head­wind for most of that time, they ran out of fuel. They per­sisted to sail into wind, cur­rent and choppy swell but af­ter two days and hardly a mile’s progress they swung the tiller around and re­turned to their last port, which they reached seven days af­ter hav­ing left it. Pretty soul-de­stroy­ing stuff.

Around the same time, other friends were pas­sage-mak­ing along the coast of El Sal­vador and had en­gine fail­ure. They made ev­ery ef­fort to fix it but to no avail. They needed to get to Chi­a­pas in south­ern Mex­ico where their boat could be safely and cheaply left over the hur­ri­cane sea­son while they flew home. What should have been a two-day pas­sage took them 16 days as they had both wind and cur­rent push­ing them back. On one par­tic­u­lar day they ended up 20 miles fur­ther back than where they started the day. They did even­tu­ally make it and when we caught up with them a cou­ple of days later they were quite non­cha­lant about the ex­pe­ri­ence. They hadn’t pro­vi­sioned for so long a pas­sage but had man­aged to make it work, and they now feel quite ready for an ocean cross­ing, which, to be hon­est, is a lot more straight­for­ward than coastal sail­ing.

Even if you have the lux­ury of time to wait for favourable winds, go to sea for long enough and you’ll face ad­verse con­di­tions at some point. And when you do, there is no ques­tion; you just have to swal­low your pride and stick the en­gine on. In cer­tain parts of the world, or in cer­tain sea­sons – like a sum­mer of south­west­er­lies on the English south coast – the only way to get around the next head­land is un­der en­gine. Just do the maths first and make sure you’ve got enough fuel.

Ev­ery hour the engine runs brings us closer to the point of it break­ing be­yond our knowl­edge of re­pair

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