Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Motorsailing as Art

Ok, maybe it’s not an art, but there is a certain technique to motorsailing. Under the right conditions, one can make big miles motorsailing, clipping along in high style with a steady, fine ride, the motor ticking away at half throttle.

I used to look at a motorsailer and wonder why anyone would want a boat that’s too heavy to sail in short of a gale, and too underpowered to really motor. I didn’t get that such boats are meant to be sailed under power.

One July morning we were 80 miles offshore in a fifty foot yawl with an 85 horsepower diesel. The wind was southwest about 8 to 10 knots, our course was north and we wanted to get to Newport by dark. Under sail (which would have included a spinnaker) we’d have made maybe 4 or 5 knots. Under power, the two-cycle Jimmy banging away, maybe 7 knots. There was a swell, and under power or under the spinnaker we’d roll and be in for slatting sails and an uncomfortable ride.

Instead, we put up a big genoa, the full main and the mizzen, and we got on course with the engine at about half throttle or a little more. The boat’s speed brought the apparent wind forward, of course, and we found ourselves reaching, with maybe 12 to 14 knots over the deck, at a speed approaching 9 knots. The boat rolled not at all, we made miles like a freight train, and steering was a pleasure. Hour after hour it was a sweet sail. The swell was behind us and at our speed we rode some swells and got to nearly 10 knots time and again. I remember coming in past Breton Reef with the sun just above the horizon, lighting the cliffs in gold. We were on the mooring half an hour later.

That kind of motorsailing requires a breeze that’s not too light, and “across the deck”: a little forward of the beam, abeam, or a little aft of the beam. When you are under power you’ll bring the wind abeam or forward of the beam, so the sails will steady the boat and you’ll get the smooth ride motor cruisers envy. You can’t really motorsail, therefore, if the true wind is already ahead or nearly so, nor when the wind is dead astern or nearly so.

I usually end up motorsailing when I am motoring in a calm, see a breeze beginning to build, and I notice that the masthead telltale shows the wind abeam or so. We usually motor with the main up anyway, as a steadying sail, so up goes the jib or the reacher, the main gets trimmed, we throttle back, adjust the sails again to the new apparent wind, and off we go.

Not so long ago a cruising sailboat with an engine was called an “auxiliary cruiser.” If you have a sailboat and it has an engine, you have an auxiliary cruiser, which you could call a “motorsailer”. (You want a “sailboat”? Take out the engine.) Get the most out of the engine, and add motorsailing to your bag of tricks.

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