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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales



© 2012 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

Lessons Learned Between a Rock and a Hard Place


"The technique of cruising under sail alone is very different from, and much more interesting than, cruising under sail with the knowledge that beneath the cockpit floor is a power unit which... (can) spring to life and whisk one away from dangerous or difficult situations. Without the help of an auxiliary one has to study carefully the tidal streams and insets, just as our grandfathers used to, and jockey for position so that should the wind fail at a vital moment the yacht is not endangered... Above all one has to learn to be patient."
-- Eric Hiscock, Wandering Under Sail (ca. 1939)

"It is not until one has sailed of necessity without an engine that it is possible to realise what can be done under sail alone."
-- Eric Hiscock, Wandering Under Sail (ca. 1945)


Back in the day, I owned a salty gaff-rigged ketch named Autant. Traditional to a fault, she had no electricity, plumbing, winches, roller furling or any other modern conveniences. No engine, either, and there were plenty of times I wished it were otherwise. But like it or not, those years I spent cruising engineless were emphatically educational. Not only did I learn a shipload of sailing techniques, but also the value of careful planning, extra caution and above all, patience; ‘When the wind don’t blow, the boat don’t go.’

In the decades since then I’ve skippered and owned a variety of blue water sailboats, all of them with auxiliary engines. Like most modern sailors, I grew to rely on “the iron jenny,” using it not only when necessary, but often when merely convenient. However, all that changed one recent afternoon while I was single-handing my 42’ ketch, Silverheels, up through the Exumas.

I’d been motor-sailing all day in light airs. Late in the afternoon, as I approached a cut leading to the lee side of the island chain, I rolled up the genoa and dropped & furled the mainsail; they weren’t helping much anyway. Like most skippers I have my own ways of squaring away the rig: mainsail tightly furled and lashed with 3 sail ties, sheets and furling line coiled & hung, halyards secured away from the masts and so on. By the time I powered through the cut against the strong ebb tide, all that remained was to put on the sail cover once I was anchored. Very shipshape and orderly, but as I was about to be reminded, all wrong.

Through the cut, around a point and into a long, narrow channel leading to the remote anchorage that would be home for the night, now motoring into the light breeze as well as the tide. Suddenly I felt the boat slowing down. Hmmm, odd. I gave her a little more throttle, but she slowed even more. It took a moment to realize I was no longer getting propulsion from the engine; the transmission wasn’t engaging the gears. I had no forward or reverse, just neutral.

The water was shallow enough to anchor right there, but it was an awkward, exposed place, too narrow for swinging, bordered by a coral rock shoreline to port and what the chart labeled “Hard Grassy Shoals” to starboard. No, I needed to get to the anchorage, then I’d figure out what was wrong with the transmission. Meanwhile, the current was already starting to push us backwards while the breeze, close off the starboard bow, nudged the boat steadily closer to the shore. I needed steerage, and for that I had to get the boat sailing RIGHT NOW.

I rolled out the genoa - that was the quickest sail to set - although I had to first free up the coiled, wrapped & hung furling line and sheets. Silverheels fell off and got moving, just enough to steer and almost stem the current. Now we had to come about and get away from the shore, but with hardly any headway or wind and no sail aft, I wasn’t sure she would make the tack. She didn’t. I put the helm over and almost got the jenny to backwind, but the boat stalled and then fell off again, straight towards the shoreline. There wasn’t time to try again, nor room to fall off and jibe. Another 30 seconds and we’d ground on the coral.


Just then I recalled an old trick from my engineless Autant days. Sprinting forward, I let go an anchor in record time, speed-fed some chain after it, made it fast and positively willed the hook to grab as Silverheels dragged it sideways toward the rocks. And grab it did, just in time and just enough to coax the bow around onto the port tack, away from the shore. But we’d come awfully close.

Retrieve the anchor, dash to the cockpit, tack the backed jenny and sheet it in... By the time Silverheels was making way again she was coming up on the hard shoal on the other side of the channel. I needed her to point higher, move faster and tack more assertively. I needed the mainsail. Thank goodness I hadn’t covered it! Still, it took precious time to strip off the sail ties, free the halyard, raise the sail, get back to the cockpit and sheet it in. Silverheels instantly pointed higher and gained a knot or more. There were only inches under the keel when I tacked her back towards the coral again. My heart was pumping faster than a pole dancer on ecstasy.

It quickly became evident that even with full sail we weren’t going to conquer that current in such tight quarters and so little wind. In the end I had to fall off, backtrack through the channel and then sail far out onto the banks, dodging coral heads and shoals in the waning light. At last, a long hour later, we came into the anchorage from the other side. Home is the sailor.

The problem turned out to be the transmission oil cooler. Though only a few years old, it had failed, flushing out the transmission fluid with seawater. I needed a new one and the nearest was 500 miles away in Florida. I’d have to get somewhere civilized to order the part and receive it. Until then I was sailing an engineless boat – just like the old days.

The next morning I sailed off anchor for the first time in a long time. The ebb whisked us through the narrow channel and back out the cut into Exuma Sound. The wind cooperated, too, with a steady 15 knots from the ESE. We reached up the Exumas on the outside and then caught a rising tide through another cut onto the banks, making for a town farther up the line. Black Point settlement would provide not only an internet connection so I could order the part and regular air service to fly it in, but also protection from a strong cold front forecast to arrive the next day.

Cruising engineless again after so many years triggered a series of flashbacks, recalling techniques and a mind set I hadn’t used in years. Yesterday I could just fire up the engine and power through pretty much anything. Today wind strength and direction, currents, tacking room and a host of other details became all important. I had to pay closer attention, plan tactics and passages more carefully in advance, be certain my boat fell off towards open water when weighing anchor rather than towards the shore or another boat, catch an ebb tide to exit a cut and a flood tide to enter one, avoid narrow channels to windward and harbors without sufficient maneuvering room, always have an escape plan and above all sail my boat like it mattered – because it did. It was challenging, exciting and gratifying all at once.

We made Black Point without mishap, sailing smartly into the broad harbor under jib & jigger and anchoring at its head in anticipation of the coming front. Then, because it was forecast to blow 35 knots, I set a second anchor using a headsail (in lieu of the engine) to position the boat, another technique recalled from my Autant days. It was pretty cool. The skipper from a nearby boat even came by to say how impressive it was to see someone actually sail into an anchorage for a change. I didn’t mention I’d had no choice.

The front came and went; the new transmission oil cooler was ordered, shipped, received and installed. A week after arriving engineless, Silverheels departed with power restored, but I didn’t motor out of the harbor. I sailed out.

Loosing my engine for a while had reminded me of how important it is to remain proficient at pure sailing, to know your boat’s capabilities and limitations and your own. It also reminded me of how much fun it is! Now I tend to plan passages as if I had to sail them, and more often than not I do. Most days I sail on and off the anchor, just for fun and to keep in practice. If I do drop the sails to enter a difficult port, I don’t square away the rig until later, after the anchor is set. Until then I leave lines coiled but ready to run, not wrapped & hung. The mainsail is furled but lying loose in the lazy jacks, not bound with sail ties, ready to hoist instantly if needed, its halyard likewise on standby. The mizzen usually stays up for anchoring whether under sail or power. It holds the bow to the wind when the boat backs down on the rode, but can also serve as the after half of a balanced sail plan should I suddenly have to roll out the genoa and resume sailing.

A reliable engine is a wonderful tool, but using mine less has added a refreshing dimension to my cruising, or maybe just reawakened it. Certainly it has made me a safer, better sailor - almost as good as I was back when I cruised engineless full time aboard the ketch Autant.

~ End ~


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