This is confession time for a family of sailors: not only do we have friends who own a huge powerboat but, yes, we have even been out with them at weekends. We have dined in comfort on the spacious balcony at the stern.
My embarrassment at this admission tells you something about the ingrained prejudice among sailors against motorised pleasure craft. That’s why we call them “stinkpots”.
Ironically, our first outing on the high-speed powerboat coincided with our bedtime readings of the most entertaining work of anti-stinkpot propaganda ever written: Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club.
For those who don’t know the story, a group of cheery and seaman-like child sailors are brought into conflict with the ultimate evil – a noisy motorboat full of “Hullabaloos” – on the Norfolk Broads. The tale begins with the urbanite Hullabaloos callously mooring their boat in a manner that separates a distressed coot from her clutch of eggs. It ends in a humiliating shipwreck of the landlubbers that leaves the waterways once more at peace.
The triumph of sail over power in the story, first published in 1934, is what makes it so compelling for sailors. Most of us are in awe of the few remaining purists who sail the seas and oceans without recourse to a motor. Lin and Larry Pardey have twice circumnavigated the globe in engineless boats.
The rest of us do what we can. Whenever possible, I like to drop anchor, weigh anchor and leave or pick up a mooring under sail. This is good practice for the day when the engine fails. Few weekend activities are more relaxing than sailing gently into a friendly harbour in the last rays of the setting sun.
Engines can be annoying even when they are yours. A couple of weeks after we bought our previous yacht in Cornwall, the businessman who had sold it to us and bought a large motorboat instead told me that one of his two diesel engines had broken and needed to be fixed at a cost of £20,000. I nearly fell off the marina pontoon. For that sum, you could buy a capable sailing yacht complete with its own engine.
Not that the so-called “auxiliary” engines of sailing yachts are problem-free, as many oily-handed sailors can attest after grappling with contaminated fuel or a broken pump impeller in a seaway.
“When I think about how many hours and how much money I have spent on my engine compared to the amount of time and money spent on sails, it makes me wonder if I really am a sailor,” declared Jim Howard in his Handbook of Offshore Cruising. “When I consider how many miles I have travelled under sail, and how few motoring, I wonder why I even have an engine.”
Only the purist Pardeys of this world can deny the charge of hypocrisy. We trumpet the joys and environmental benefits of sail and mock the “stinkpots”, but have no hesitation in running our diesel engines, sometimes for hours, to escape a calm, enter a harbour or charge the batteries on our purportedly wind-powered vessels.
In defence of engine use, most marinas and several modern harbour entrances are either impossible or dangerous without an engine, and in some places sailors are obliged to use an engine if they have one.
So what should we hypocrites do? Rather than merely scorning the noisy, fuel-guzzling stinkpots and wallowing in nostalgia for the golden age of sail, yacht owners should embrace new technologies allowing us better to exploit the wind and solar energy that nature provides for free.
Come to think of it, that applies to all owners of boats, sail or power. Solar panels and wind generators to charge the batteries, combined with low-energy LED lights and the knowledge that oil costs as much as $110 a barrel make this goal easier to achieve with every year that passes. In the future we may also benefit from propulsion systems using wave power, fuel cells or hybrid diesel-electric motors.
For most cruising sailors, it’s true, the auxiliary diesel engine is here to stay. But as Howard says, “auxiliary” is exactly what it should be. We should sail our sailing boats whenever we can. Otherwise, we might just as well buy motorboats and admit we were closet Hullabaloos all along.
More columns at www.ft.com/mallet
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