Throwing Fuel Dollars to the Winds

By Tom Neale, 8/7/2008


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Cheap Fun
A lot of people are missing a point about the problem we’re all having with high fuel prices and boating. People are not putting their boats in the water, they’re leaving them sitting at the dock neglected and they’re doing many other things including getting out of boating all together. But one of the many special things about boating is that it’s very diverse. There are myriads of alternatives. And there’s one form of boating that takes very little fuel.  I’m talking about sailing. You can spend an entire weekend on the water and spend only a few bucks on fuel, if that. Before you say, “Oh hell no,” read on a bit.

Many shudder at the thought of having a sailboat. We like the ease and instant gratification of power boating. You essentially jump in, turn the key and off you drive. Sometimes you don’t even have to untie a line because the boat’s been set in the water by a fork lift. Sure, that’s a slight exaggeration, but compare it with sailing. With a lot of sailboats it’s constant “hassle.” You have to unfurl sails, pull them up without making a tangled mess, constantly pull lines to adjust them, keep the lines neatly stowed so they can run out when you need them to, steer the boat carefully so that you get the most from the wind and so that you don’t heel so far you scare everybody aboard and dump the cooler into the bilge. And you worry about getting in on time when the wind changes or drops.  Let’s face it. Sailing can be a lot of work. But so can doing what it takes to pay for a lot of fuel. And what’s wrong with some work when it’s not the kind that you do every day and it involves skills you can be proud of and it’s on the water and it results in moving your boat gracefully and quietly and fuel-lessly through the water?

Many of us push the thought of sailing aside because we like to go fast. We like to get where we’re going in some reasonable time (like in time for dinner or before the evening thunderstorms roar through). And besides, it’s just plain fun to go fast. I sure love it.  I relish the moments that I’m up on a plane in my 1985 20-foot Mako with its 200HP Yamaha.  Never mind that I have to break the bank to do it, I simply love going fast on the water. But there are sailboats available that will actually get up on a plane if you want—as when the wind dies and you decide you want to spend the fuel and go fast. There are others that could never do that, but which can motor along at a comfortable 7 or 8 knots with enough power to handle waves and currents, while using just a gallon or so an hour.

A lot of us associate discomfort with sailing. We remember hanging on for dear life in a friend’s boat because he didn’t let out the sheet and the boat heeled way too far over. We remember sitting in the middle of a bay or sound in flat calm wind, rolling helplessly, sails slatting and flies swarming. We think of lying in sweat soaked bunks at night, humidity beading on the porthole screens, listening to mosquitoes ready to drill holes through any part of our skin they can reach. We may remember visiting a friend’s sailboat and having to duck and bend and squeeze and sit with arms folded out front (because there’s no space to put them to the side) while getting a crook in the neck because we have to keep it bent to keep from jamming the head on the underside of the deck and being just plain miserable.

But a lot of newer sailboats are anything but uncomfortable. They are carefully designed for maximum creature comfort, although without the wide open wasted spaces we see on many powerboats. There are plenty of sailboats with good efficient air conditioning and, because the interior spaces of the sailboats are smaller than that of many motorboats of the same length, it doesn’t take much of a generator or much shore power to keep those interior spaces cool.

Checking Out Sailing

1. Don’t try to start out with a high performance boat unless you know that’s what you want. They’re usually more likely to scare the uninitiated (such as being more “tippy” and requiring more attention at the tiller or helm). Look for something stable.

2. Start with something designed to be easy, with minimum of time and fuss in getting ready to go and actually sailing it. If you’re accustomed to power boating and try out a little sailboat that requires a half hour or more of fussing with getting sails ready, you probably won’t like it.

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I’m on a 53-foot motorsailer. She’ll sail (not high performance, but who cares) and she’ll power. When she does the later she uses around 4 gallons of diesel an hour when I’m really pushing her along at around 9+ knots. This is a lot of money for me, but it’s a lot better than large power boats and fast express cruisers, and this motorsailer has all the comforts of home and then some.  I also have my Mako which sucks up over 9 gallons an hour while up and running at around 30 knots. I also have a small sailing dinghy. I also have a sailboard. I love boats of all kinds.

I went to the Bahamas two winters ago in a friend’s large powerboat with two huge diesels. We could easily make 18 knots. I loved that. I’ve been from Annapolis to St. Michaels on a 60+ foot yacht running at around 30 knots. I loved that. I ran from Bimini to Ft. Lauderdale once on a 110 foot Burger. I loved that. I ran from Miami to Islamorada on a high performance offshore powerboat built by Outerlimits. I loved that. The point is that it’s all good, you just have to bend with the times if you love being on the water.

And the news is that, in recent years, there have been a lot of sailboat builders who have gotten on to the fact that many of us don’t like to play Captain Ahab when we go out on a boat. We want an easy fun time of it, without a lot of blood sweat and tears. And they’ve made a lot of what I think of as “instant gratification sailboats.” They may not be as “instant” as my 20-foot Mako, but they’re a whole lot better than what you may be thinking of when you think of sailing. And they use little or no fuel, depending on what you get.

Trinka with Melanie, Carolyn & Friends

But maybe you’ve already got your power boat, and you can’t sell it without taking a huge loss and you sure can’t pay big bucks for a new sailboat, even if you wanted to. But that’s no reason to give up. Sure, you can get sailboats that are large and expensive and have all the creature comforts of home, and that still use very little fuel. But you can also get small sailboats that are just great for throwing in the water and taking off on a nice afternoon sail. And you can get all sorts in between, both new and used. Some sailing dinghies can be stored aboard on, say, an express cruiser and sailed around once you’ve made a very short fuel conservative run to your favorite anchorage or another marina.  We used to have a beautiful 10-foot Trinka which we kept on deck of our motorsailer. We splashed whenever we got to a good anchorage. We sailed it and rowed it and loved every minute of it and still miss it today. (800-869-0773, 772-567-4612)

I was really impressed by all this a few years back when on one Sunday afternoon Mel and I were riding around in our Mako trying not to think about what it was costing (even then) and we came upon the owners of the very successful and popular Norton’s Yacht Sales, Inc. 804 776 9211 in Deltaville Virginia. They were having a great time just messing about in Hunter Marine’s newly introduced small sailboat of this genre. The current product is the Hunter 140. There’s an optional electric outboard if the wind dies and you don’t want to paddle. Another example is the Catalina Expo 12. (  I’m not recommending any specific boats here, but just giving you examples so you can take a look.

If you’re tired of not being out on the water and if you haven’t tried some form of sailing, check it out. Take lessons. Rent one. Borrow one. Or go out with a friend. Sailing is incredibly nice. And knowing how to do it right is also nice. And you don’t have to give up power boating. There’s nothing that says that these two forms of boating are mutually exclusive.


Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale