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Dave and Anke
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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Might and Main: Tactics for Engine-Free Sailboats

Hear no Engine,See no Engine,
Smell no Engine.

A sailor's task is to make his/her boat move.
-- Paraphrased from Tristan Jones

Might and Main: Tactics for Engine-Free Sailboats

OKAY. I ADMIT IT! Engines are pretty handy things!

At the same time, they're expensive, hungry, noisy, smelly, needy beasts with big feet. The effort they save in boat handling is offset by effort in labor (to pay for them, their accessories, parts and fuel). And yada, yada, yada... in our lives, we calculate the offset to represent a net loss.

When engines fail (as they do), many vessels feel themselves to be dead-in-the-water. I'm embarrased (as a sailor) to hear Maydays from sailboats who've 'suffered' engine failure or run out of fuel. I'm concerned for power boaters -- many with zero-redundancy -- who find themselves helpless (at best) and/or endangered through lack of alternatives.

We're often asked if we don't want an engine for safety. Answer is No; we develop more power than we need under sail. We reef to dump power when things whump up. Otherwise, no emergency. Their one possible safety advantage would be for scampering into shelter in 'the calm that precedes the storm'. Still, in nearly a quarter century practicing defensive sailing in the Pacific NW, we've never gotten caught out.

Engines answer three basic needs; propulsion, maneuvering and backing down to set anchor. If we're going to get around with out 'em, we have to find other ways to get along. None of these ways are new, but scattered and dimmed since the Age of Sail.


Sailboats come alive when the wind blows. Sailing techniques are well known and documented, even unto anchoring and approaching docks under sail. I'll only mention such techniques as seem less familiar, here.

Rowing / Sculling  -- On board we might have one or two oars over the side, or a sculling oar over the stern. These are big guys; stowage, deployment,  use and stowage again take crafty thought.

Two oars make for a 'sword-dance' of the cockpit, and resist quick set-up and take-down. One oar is better, but wants to turn the vessel, which tendency can by countered by rudder (which needs initial steerageway. Consider an oversized lock, positioned so the single oar can scull for steerageway before being used as a sweep.

Sculling oars (particularly Asian types (yuloh, ryo, etc.) are effective, leave the cockpit relatively uncluttered and can be let go of without shipping (for sail-handling, say). Plus, they work well in tight (narrow) waters.

Poling -- In shallow waters, the mighty pole can be used for propulsion, to force a tack, and even - with the fat end out - as an oar to supplement the main set. With a soft cover for the tip, it can fend off the fancyboats. With other, sleeved and fixed accessories, it could be a bladed oar, pike pole, crab rake, net, or ???

Kedging -- This is using anchors like hands to grab the bottom, and their rode like arms to pull us along.

To begin, set one anchor as close to your destination as possible in the circumstances, and lie to it on short scope. Row out a second anchor on a long rode, pulling the first as you pass it by. Repeat as often as necessary.

More complicated maneuvers can be executed (zigs and zags). In some cases, you might want to Kedge between two anchors for better control, buoying and slipping the one behind for later retrieval, or as a fixed point for your future exit.

Warping -- This is like Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine. Except we hang the vines and never let go! The vines, in our case, are lines, aka warps, when used in this manner.

With this technique, we move from one fixed point to another. Fix a line at the next reachable point (walk, throw or row it). Recover your last line and haul in on this one. Repeat.

Warping is handy for gusty approaches to a dock... anchor in clear water, close in, and then row a line over to the cleat, or merely throw it to a crew-member who's rowed in ahead. Consider a grapnel, to get a hold when short-handed.

Multiple lines can be used at once to control drift set or make turns, etc.. Take your time to work out a plan for your conditions, and make sure everyone understands what's to happen.

Kedging and Warping are often useful for wriggling deep into a harbor's dock/finger layout. Harbors are usually built on shallow, first class anchoring bottom. On occasion, you might want to trail a dredge to limit your swing in tight quarters. Be aware that lots of junk can accumulate on the bottoms of some harbors. Often the Harbormaster can advise you, ahead of time.

-- In this methhod, the tender (aka 'yawl-boat') is used to tow, push with its bow, or tie alongside (use good springlines!) to transfer thrust to our cruiser. This method is still used by Schooners of the Northeast coasts.

The tender can even be equipped wiht an engine. One big advantage is that is then has power for long runs away from an anchorage. The sailboat proper will function better without engine accommodations. The combination is perhaps not quite as turn-key, but more versatile.

Pedal Power -- Various units can use your strong leg muscles to move faster than arm powered oar/scull speed. They take up space and don't have that righteous, organic feel, but we like it well enough.

Two commercial systems that intrigue are the Sea-Cycle Drive Unit and the Hobie Mirage Drive.


Sailing Backwards -- Reverse is very handy for coming out of irons, fine-tuning anchor drops, positioning in current-against-headwind, slowing in a headwind (beating into a slip, say)... even parallel parking,

The basic method is to back a sail. Headsails (the well known method) affect the bow, while Aftsails affect the stern... by manipulating them, we can spin a vessel around her CLR (Center of Lateral Resistence). The farther ahead or abaft a sail's CE (Center of Effort), relative to the CLR, the more effectively it can be used for spinning the boat.

A fine point to keep in mind is that a backed sail can be trimmed to the wind -- just as if it were sailing forward -- for optimal effect. Consider where its force vectors point to get a better picture of cause and effect.

The rudder, too, is used in backing down; it pushes the stern one way or the other (reversed from forward operation), and still needs steerageway to be effective. Pump it at stand-still, if necessary.

Ketches, Yawls and the odd three+masted Schooner  facilitate sailing backwards, and maneuvering in general.  Each has a sail set well aft of the CLR (the point around which a vessel spins). It can be backed from the cockpit all the way to the beam (hard to do with a headsail). With an extra person, both fore and aft sails can be backed opposite one another to spin the boat on a dime.

If not wishing to fall off, alternate sides to keep the vessel fairly close to head-to-wind. Once you fall beam-to, steerage-way is lost and hull windage picks up to the point that recovery takes (possibly) valuable time. Or, if you've got an after sail, sheet it tight (to keep head to wind) and back a headsail. On many vessels, it's almost impossible to fall far off the wind with a strapped in aftersail.

Crabbing -- Similar to sailing backwards, but more sideways. Can be used for veering out a second anchor and positioning. Sails are backed opposite where you wish to go. At anchor, you'll crab out along your swing radius, while when sailing free, you'll crab aft and over. Watch your ranges to keep track of progress.

Sheering -- Similar to Crabbing, but uses current instead of wind. Use any tool (sails, rudder, pole, oars, tender) to cock the hull to the current. If you've got the power to match the current, you will sheer sideways; with less, you will sheer aft and across.

Note that a rudder often develops steerage-way in a current, so long as you are moving relative to the water. A following or headwind (back the rudder in this case), anchor, or propulsion can provide this relative motion.

This technique may be useful at anchor. One night we'd managed to sound in several reassuring pot-holes before anchoring along the edge of a high current channel. We woke at low tide, cheek on jowl with a long reef!. By cocking the rudder (which has steerageway when anchored in a current) and letting the rode run from mid-ships (to control angle of hull), we sheered away from the reef to deeper water (where we dropped a second, swing limiting anchor).

Lee Bowing -- Here, one tacks across a current running from the lee side. Current counters leeway, while sheer effect increases drive at right angles to the current. Used strategically (often timed for tidal currents) it can shave many's the mile from a traverse.

Dredging -- This is adapted from a technique used by (at least) Thames Barge sailors. To slow down on a down-wind approach, a shot of chain is payed out over the stern, which drags along the bottom. Drag is adjusted by more or less chain. The real deal used an iron sled (the dredge) at the end.

The advantage is that a (time consuming) reef may be avoided, and more sail power is available for manuevers, should they become necessary.


Classic Set -- Sail or scull up to the drop point, rounding into the wind. Drop. Fall back paying out rode and make fast at desired scope (adjusted upward for tide range).

Problem is, a snug harbor will seldom have enough wind/current to provide enough force to set the anchor firmly. So we tend to use a disreputable method...

Downwind Set -- Run down on the drop point. Drop. Turn up about 10deg (as if the boat were a cleat for the rode) while paying out rode (in clear water, you can see it paying out to one side). Make fast on long scope. DOINK (sudden, lurching stop and/or round-up)! Pull back to desired scope.

The 10deg angle delivers a goodly amount of force to anchor, while safely dumping any excess with a quick round-up. In strong conditions, this can be dramatic, so hang on! Wider angles dump more force, while an in-line DOINK (for light conditions) sends everything available to the anchor. Consider adjusting according to conditions.

The idea, here, is to get the boat moving -- if no wind, row, tow, etc. -- and use its inertia to set the anchor at the DOINK-point (for a preddygooddoink). Unfortunately, in light or no wind, sculling in high gear is a tough slog. A mushy doink means consider reset.

CAUTION: In-line, downwind sets can be positively dangerous at high speed-over-the-ground, which has given this useful technique a bad name. We use the verbal caution, "StandyBy for RoundUp!" to remind crew to hold tight.

Jerk Set --  Fall back on the anchor rode. Pull like crazy until the line comes taut -- you may have to repeat this a few times until the rode straightens out -- then give it several, hard jerks. If it skips and jumps (you'll feel it through the line), reset / retry / combine techniques until satisfied.

Here, we're trying to use the at-rest inertia of the boat to pull against the anchor. If you haul line too slowly or jerk too often, the boat accelerates toward the anchor and reduces the force you exert on it. In no wind/current you get one, smooth shot at this. Otherwise, just fall back and try again.

Consider rechecking holding if and when a wind or current arises.

Two Anchor Set -- This is the most reliable, and I recommend it if you think the holding's iffy.

Drop two anchors in a line oriented across expected conditions, pull to the middle and set them against one another. If you're hauling in line, at least one is dragging (feel each line while pulling to determine which... you can feel it skipping). If necessary, pull the laggard and reset until both are holding fast.

Once set, one anchor can be retrieved, or we can sit in the middle (limits swing radius) or fall back to V out our rodes on long scope (for a big blow).

Consider that both rodes need adequate scope. If one is short, make sure the other is set against expected trouble.

Pulling the Anchor -- If an anchor gets stuck, it may be sailed out, hauled out with mechanical advantage (using onboard gear such as winches, haulyards, etc.) or pulled with the tide. This last is slow, but mighty powerful... consider tying on with a tow-boat hitch, in case your deck starts to pop before the anchor pulls!


So that's a pretty versatile set. They can be combined, and often are. They work well, and aren't prone to failure at a critical moment (do take care that your anchors are set, however). They layer redundancy for 'safety-in-depth'. All of the gear is likely on board already, or useful to acquire.

What's not to like?


  1. Quite the tool kit!

    I hate to motor with my little boat. In fact, I often have to swap out the gas before it goes bad, even with additives.

    That being said, last trip down to FL I actually used the engine much more than normal. After a week on the water, someone was meeting me at a boat landing with the trailer. Ran out of gas with another mile and a half to go down the channel -in the dark. My own fault for trying to keep a schedule. A motor makes it tempting, yet I know better.

    At that point I could have just anchored until conditions changed and I could sail down the channel. However, a passing fishing boat gave me a tow, doing much good for my marriage.

    I do get funny looks sometimes when I sail right up to the dock, come in nice and gentle, drop the sail and tie up like nobody's business. It's a good feeling.

    1. Hi SixBears,

      Schedules are indeed the bane of engineless sailing. I suspect they spelt the end of the Age of Sail.

      A practice we've adapted when they muscle into our lives is to get there ASAP, and if we're ahead of time, putter around in the locale. That saves a lot of pushing through doldrums and darkness!

      Dave Z