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Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Rant and Roar: The Problem of Purity

We'll rant and we'll roar, like true British sailors,
We'll rant and we'll roar, all across the salt sea...
-- British Sea Chanty

Rant and Roar: The Problem of Purity

Jerome 'Jay' FitzGerald is one of the sailors I very much respect, albeit across quite a gulf of attitude and approach.

Jay makes a case for 'pure' sailing vessels in fierce terms. While some are affronted, I confess to enjoying a passionate and provocative rant. He challenges me to review my own choices, ever a worthwhile venture.

For him, a vessel with a motor is not a sailboat, but rather a sail assisted powerboat.

In his Wind and Tide: An Introduction to Cruising in Pure Sailing Craft, he writes (his emphasis):
...Without the engine, had they encountered [a] hundred feet of contrary current and not been able to deal with it – even after a thousand miles, they still would have failed to make port. Properly, then, their [dependence on power] ratio should be expressed as 100% power-assisted sail, as they would have been helpless without the engine. It is important to note that in any activity that is judged by its completion, a 1% failure means a 100% failure... Let us be 100% sailors...
Strong words, and a stirring call to develop the full range of a sailor's skills for the safety and sheer joy they afford. In his writings, he shares many of those skills, and further elaborates on his themes.

I find it instructive to examine why it is that his position is not my own, despite that I'm a passionate advocate of wind-and-muscle cruising.

There is the matter of purity. I'm allergic to the notion. Purity seems to me a questionable gradient.

Which is more pure? A fiberglass or plywood hull? How about one made of timbers 'harvested' from a forest? A sail of dacron or of Egyptian cotton? How about if I grow, spin and weave the cloth? A bronze or galvanized fitting? How 'bout I make my own from drift teak? Am I pure, yet?

I'm unlikely to personally participate in any production aspect of the wholesale form of these items. None come without environmental cost. Sure, some more than others, but purity is hardly the standard in cost/benefit analysis.

In Jay's argument, “a hundred feet of contrary current”, insurmountable to the impure sailor absent engine assist, marks a 'failed voyage'.

Thing is, being thwarted within spitting distance of harbor happens frequently to us 'pure sailors'. It happens to Jay. More skill and a more able boat, the less often is all. The voyage takes another turn and takes a while longer... it may not end until that port is eventually made, but neither has it failed.

If ya survive, ya think ya had a good time!

Similarly, where Jay argues the superior aesthetics of engine-free sailing, I sympathize, but recognize personal preferences. He argues the character building virtues of adversity. Me? I go out of my way to avoid 'em!

Jay eloquently argues that pure sail is cheaper, simpler, and safer than having a motor. Now he's talkin'! Here I have no qualms or quibbles. It's not that hundred feet of contrary current that's the problem; it's the motor quitting in the jaws at port's entrance, with all sail stowed on a dark and stormy night. We'd never be there without faith in our engine.

So I find myself rather pragmatic than pure.

Sifting through the fun of a good rant, I agree that engines can slow the learning curve and substitute for skill. I agree that the aesthetic and challenge of sail can be quashed by the motor. I agree that they can tempt one into situations beyond our engine-less abilities and quit, abandoning us to fate.

They can and often do.

But we each of us face the sea with our own set of values, abilities, proclivities and context. One sailor may advise another, but we must each steer our own course, sailing a thousand choices. Ultimately, our choices, intersect with the sea and determine the voyage. Caution's a virtue, no matter how we roll. We learn as we go, usually via whatever set of hard knocks we've arranged for ourselves.

And fair winds to us all!


  1. There are no failures, only lessons.

  2. Without extremes of opinion, there would be no debate. In some cases that might be a relief, but without dissension, you have mediocrity. None here present would be satisfied with that.

    1. Hear, hear! And the world would be a dull and lusterless place!

  3. In the days of old they had Man power and would get out the dinghy and start rowing the ships into harbor or out

    Today we have horse power and a small efficient outboard is much more efficient and cheaper than sails taking into the account the Kalcker Reactor which saves 6x the fuel with no pollution and long lasting motor.. Four stroke motors can be made using OMC outdrive and 12.5 riding lawnmower motor to have electric start, alternator, muffler and cheap $20 Reactor..
    Sails put a lot of stress on the boat and cause damage and breakage.. You can get live aboard sailboats for almost nothing.. The 27'Buccaneer provides 6'1HR and 2.25draft.. The hull mold was taken from the Columbia T-26.. Fiberglass boats are outlasting steel boats and can still find a good boat that is 60yrs old..
    l still like sailing for fun but coastal cruising is another matter where winds, tides, currents not always in our favor..

    1. Hi Tim,

      Time and $$ sure do weigh in. Consider Jay's advice, though, not to motor into situations you can't sail out of!

      Dave Z

  4. I logged over 60,000 sea miles on my various boats without power. When I did eventually install a engine in our latest boat after sailing her 19,000 miles I told everyone we are no longer sailors but motor sailors now. The nice thing now is when something is not right with the engine we just carry on back into our old non engine sailing life till. The engine is there and as we get older it has made things easier at times not having to spend an extra 5 hours tacking into the Lee of an island.

    1. Hi Chris,

      In my estimation, you'll always be sailors of the first water!

      In a lot of ways, I think it's more about investing one's self enough to be more than a passenger on one's own boat, no matter how it's propelled.

      Dave Z

  5. Good interview with Jay F. in the Furled Sails podcast archives.... a man of strong opinion!

    1. Yeah, that was how I learned about him. I really appreciate his "don't fool yourself" attitude. How many people go around, all YO HO HO, preaching disdain for stink-potters, then when they are on one of these club cruises, they say, something like, "All right, mates: we're planning on getting into (whatever marina) by such-and-such time, so if you drop below 5 knots, crank up to stay with the fleet!" Some sailing. So yeah, I like his message, just not his combative tone.

    2. Hi Robert,

      I've got to go listen, sometime. Those podcasts are a real treasure trove!

      @David... yeah... the sound and fury of the combative tone. At least for Jay, I've got lots of respect for the man behind the bluster. Not one of those for whom it signifies nothing! 8)

      Dave Z

  6. I've done my fair share of sailing in engine-free boats and I enjoy the aesthetics of it. I also enjoy getting into harbour, watching the sun set and cooking my meal at leisure. I don't like sharing my space with a big, complex, smelly diesel engine, but having an outboard perched on the back is a different matter.

    However, as to its being safer not to have an engine: I'm sorry, but that's plain rubbish. There were far more wrecks, strandings and deaths per 100 boats afloat in the days of pure sail than today. Sure, a defensive sailor always sails as though the engine is about to conk out and keeps a plan running in her mind for what to do when it does. However, take a big boat, foul current and no wind and you can be in trouble. Little boats that can be sculled or yulohed are a different proposition altogether. But it's not the engine or lack thereof that makes these boats safer - it's the sailor.

    1. Hi Annie,

      I agree with you that "it's not the engine or lack thereof that makes these boats safer - it's the sailor". And I certainly agree that small is beautiful!

      Still, all but a handful of the sailors of my direct acquaintance - your company specifically excluded! - is that they INTEND to develop skills and avoid sailing cul-de-sacs, but they do not. Their motors allow them to move on the water without refining their skills... and they motor themselves time and again into tight spots. Most, eventually, have a harrowing experience, usually overcome with the assistance of others who risk themselves to aid. Several of them (either side) have not survived.

      So, at least for yachties (vs professionals who brave the elements for their living), I'd turn it around and consider this a word of caution... it's not the engine or lack thereof that makes these boats more DANGEROUS - it's the sailor.

      Dave Z

    2. Hi again, Annie,

      Thinking more about the trouble per 100 boats ratio - interesting way to think about it! - I wonder if other factors were not more prominent than the advent of engines.

      They were sailing wooden boats very often well past their prime or poorly maintained (for economic reasons, if nothing else). Most could not point anywhere near as high as we can, today. Fisherfolk were driven to sea to earn their living, while professionals drove hard in competition with their peers. Often while 'sailing under the influence'. All without modern medicine, hygiene or nutrition to pick up the pieces. Times were hard and life was cheap.

      Meanwhile, nav aids, navigation, charts, communications, etc. have all improved. Theoretical understanding (aerodynamics), skills and techniques are widely disseminated in print. Response and rescue institutions have progressed well beyond the 'lifeboat society' level.

      Engines certainly take beginners much farther than they could get under sail, and with much more general safety. They needn't know much more than the driver of a car to get themselves around.

      So I'm thinkin'... All these considerations improve that ratio/100... but does that make them safer?

      Our experience has been that we are dumping sail power about the time any outboard we could carry would be losing it (cavitation, etc.). A fixed motor might go a little longer, but carries other, deeper costs that ultimately limit our range and time on the water. And our sailing buddies often lose them in the slop and bobble of real trouble.

      So... I certainly see your point, and, on the average may even incline to agree. But out at the fringe of the bell curve, I'd still bet on well-managed sail.