A recent problem with our engine while in the middle of the shallowest and most coral-ridden areas in the Bahamas, forced us to sail without the help or convenience of our iron topsail. The problem has long since been resolved but this episode made us think and re-evaluate the way we sail.
After we got over the initial shock, as we still didn’t know what was wrong with the engine, we started to relax and actually enjoy ourselves. We were a sailing boat after all and we still had our sails. But did we have the skills required to move our home seamlessly and safely without incident? It was a question that was soon to be answered.
We had been relying on our engine more than was necessary and a lot more than we used to when first we started cruising over ten years ago. We had become complacent but we are, by nature, cautious and safe sailors and never sail into channels or through cuts or tight anchorages without first having our sheets and lines ready to go or our mainsail prepared if it wasn’t already set. We had, however, become lazy and all too often reached for the engine key instead of a halyard or sheet.
This period of enforced sailing was a valuable lesson, a timely reminder that sailing skills should be honed and nurtured. Of course, the whole sailing without an engine thing is a controversial subject with heated opinions from both sides. This is not an argument for or against having an engine on board. But even with today’s modern engines and good maintenance it is still possible for an engine to fail. Lin Pardey calls it ‘sail insurance’.
There is no denying that at first we were fairly anxious, not only over what was wrong with the engine but over how we would deal with strong weather fronts or maneuvering in tight quarters. As the days without using our engine passed into weeks we began to operate better as a team; setting sail then weighing anchor to leave an anchorage, and reversing the procedure as we arrived. We would anchor at the back of the fleet to give us more room, backing the staysail to dig the anchor in. Always planning and watching the weather, winds and tides, studying the charts more carefully than ever—making sure the chart recommended good holding and offered good protection from whatever wind direction was forecast. Planning so carefully, for if there is anything more frustrating than too much wind, it is too little. As we found when it took us 11 hours to travel just 17 miles, what wind there was being sucked away by the many squalls, our sails limp, the boat carried only by current. In conditions such as these, it pays to know your boat – how well she sails to the various wind angles and strengths.
Planning our journey from the banks and out through a cut into the ocean to coincide with a slack tide and a beam wind; we tacked up the approach, keeping to the windward side to give us a margin of a safety. Once out in the open ocean, and with a little more sail up than we would have usually set, we enjoyed one of our best ever sails.
We are never going to be the Pardeys or the Don Streets of this world; we enjoy having an engine onboard. But losing the engine albeit temporarily turned into an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience. People commented on how wonderful it was to see a boat anchor under sail. It has made us think about how we use our boat; about how we put our boat away after a sail; that if we have any concerns with the engine or if inclement weather is forecast, the mainsail would be ready to go, perhaps already reefed, and with halyard attached. We may not be purists but we will keep improving our sailing skills and will always be thinking: What would we do now if the engine failed?
Rosie and her husband Sim Hoggarth on yacht Wandering Star have cruised the Caribbean and North America fulltime for nine years.