Faced with an engine that won’t work, do we necessarily have to reach for the radio to summon help? Depending on circumstances, we may be able to help ourselves

Sailing without an engine: tips to get home when it fails

Some marine diesel engine problems can be overcome relatively easily while at sea,  but what if the breakdown can’t be fixed?

Such a situation can be one of the most stressful a skipper can face, so it’s no surprise the first question that races through the mind is: ‘Should I call for help?’

A man looking at instructions for a boat engine

If you are struggling to fix your diesel engine, you should consider sailing home or to a nearby harbour or port, where possible, before calling the RNLI

If you were using the engine as a last resort to keep clear of a lee shore in a rising gale the boat would clearly be in danger, and a shout for help would be the only viable course of action.

Similarly, you wouldn’t want to hang around becalmed in the entrance of a busy commercial port.

In other circumstances, however, engine failure may potentially be little more than a time-consuming inconvenience.

An appropriate course of action will also depend on your experience and that of your crew.

A boat sailing under full sail

Too little wind can be a serious issue when faced with engine failure on passage, but a spinnaker or cruising chute will enable you to make progress in the most gentle of breezes

A crew that includes people accustomed to racing, or dinghy sailing, could be more ambitious than one that has never attempted manoeuvring at close quarters under sail.

There are some circumstances in which boat handling under sail can be straightforward, such as with wind against tide or when anchoring in a quiet bay.

Equally, if you’ve managed to sail up to the harbour entrance it may be possible to arrange for a launch to tow you the last quarter-mile into a safe berth or mooring, rather than having to get a lifeboat crew to leave their regular jobs – or their beds.

1. Sailing without an engine: No wind…

The absence of wind doesn’t necessarily put the vessel in immediate danger.

Offshore racing crews – who must complete the course without using the engine – are accustomed to kedging in light winds when there’s an adverse tide, even in depths of 40m or more, when mooring warps and even sheets are used to extend the anchor rode.

Of course, with a favourable tide, you’ll be making ground towards your destination, even if it feels frustratingly slow.

A calm never lasts forever, so it’s worth analysing the weather information to figure out when the breeze might fill in, and for how long.

A boat using giant oars to row

Long, well-balanced oars make it possible to row a boat weighing several tonnes. The primary winches on a yacht are often well positioned to use as rowlocks, using a loop of rope to retain the oar. This crew are using oars to keep moving in the Three Peaks Yacht Race. Credit: Rob Howard/SleepMonsters.co.uk

Perhaps the most common example of this is the sea breeze around our shores in the summer – this builds from late morning onwards and may provide eight hours of perfect sailing conditions.

In some cases, a calm may be localised in a geographic sense – I’ve used oars lashed to the boathook and spinnaker pole to get past areas of wind shadow in harbours, or to reach a tantalisingly close patch of wind at sea.

A boat of up to around 4 tonnes can be rowed surprisingly effectively in this manner for short distances, but don’t sit down to row dinghy fashion: when standing up your full body weight can be leant on the oars, taking much of the effort out of the process.

A tender secured to a boat while sailing without an engine

With the tender secured alongside the quarter of the yacht with breast lines and springs you can expect to make 2-3 knots. Credit: Sarah Norbury

Expect to make up to 3 knots on a smaller boat, and maybe 1-11⁄2 knots on a larger one.

You won’t get all the way home, but it may prove to be enough to reach a patch of new wind that’s already in view.

An alternative for the less energetic, or those with boats large enough to carry their own tender, is to make use of the dinghy and its outboard.

Using breast lines and springs to secure the tender alongside the quarter of the yacht you can again expect to make 2-3 knots.

Many people are surprised how easy it is to make even a relatively heavy boat move at a modest speed.

In warm waters, I’ve even seen people swimming in flippers, which proved effective at moving a 45-footer at 11⁄2 knots.

2. Sailing without an engine: Too much wind

Many engine failures happen in strong winds, often when motor-sailing to improve speed to windward and pointing angle.

For an already struggling crew, this can be a frightening experience.

Fortunately, it’s often easy to identify serious situations – such as when close to a lee shore from which the boat is unable to escape under sail – and those of a less threatening nature, such as not being able to reach your intended destination before a tidal gate closes.

In the latter case, it’s often possible to sail downwind to an alternative port – beating yourself up while failing to make your home berth at the end of a weekend is not, on its own, sufficient reason to call a lifeboat.

3. Sailing without an engine: Getting into port

Reaching the entrance to a port under sail is one thing, but getting from the entrance to a safe berth, mooring or anchorage can be another matter.

There are many places in which moorings or an anchorage are available in relatively open water that are easy to approach under sail and will allow several attempts without problem.

However, there are also places that would vary from difficult to impossible for even the most adept of crews to enter without an engine.

A boat entering an anchorage while sailing without an engine

Some ports have visitors’ moorings in relatively open locations – if so, it may be possible to sail onto one fairly easily

The key thing here is to ensure you don’t jeopardise the boat by attempting anything that stretches your skills too far.

It’s often possible to get a tow into the harbour – the harbour staff at Cowes, for instance, are well set up to do this and see it as part of their job.

Likewise, Dover’s harbour staff will meet a vessel at one side of the harbour entrance, as I discovered many years ago when delivering a boat with a rather smaller fuel tank than advertised and being towed to the fuel berth for a modest charge.

Many marinas have a launch that will pluck you into a berth: typical costs are less than £40 for 30 minutes of launch time, a bargain compared to the hundreds of pounds per hour it costs to run an offshore RNLI lifeboat.

4. Sailing without an engine: Manoeuvring without the sails

Don’t succumb to the misconception that ‘manoeuvring without an engine’ is synonymous with ‘manoeuvring under sail’: there may be times when the sails simply get in the way.

With an ebb tide and onshore wind, many estuaries are easy to enter under sail – take the main down and run in under just the headsail, reducing the area of the sail – or furling/lowering it completely to reduce speed.

If, having done this, you’re still moving too fast to approach a mooring, focus on reducing windage – lowering a sprayhood helps enormously.

The rudder can also be used as a means of reducing way (see tips below).

The tide may not be ebbing exactly when it suits you, but it’s often worth waiting offshore for a few hours for it to turn.

5. Sailing without an engine: Engine failure in close quarters

This can be one of the most adrenaline-pumping situations you’re likely to come across, and the best course of action is inevitably dictated by the circumstances of each situation.

Often, my first move is to do nothing (at least, it appears I’m doing nothing).

Taking a little time to clearly think through the best options, and brief the crew carefully, is better than panicking into the wrong type of action.

It helps to have as many options open as possible – if the sail cover is strapped tightly around the boom, the headsail is in the cockpit locker and the anchor is in the bilge, you really are at the mercy of the elements.

A boat with a sail up in a marina

If you have the mainsail set in confined waters you really need to know what you’re doing – and be able to drop it in a hurry

Statistically, around one-third of the time the wind will be aft of the beam, tending to blow the boat along under bare poles.

Almost irrespective of your vessel, you should find steerage way will be maintained with wind angles of up to about 140° from the bow.

Another third of the time, the wind will be roughly on the beam, so partially unfurling the headsail – enough to give 3-5 knots of boat speed, depending on the size of your vessel – will immediately put you back in some kind of control.

With the wind well forward of the beam, you’ll need the mainsail to make progress and keep control, but think carefully if you’d need to short-tack up a very narrow channel: many modern cruising boats are too large and cumbersome to do this, especially as the winds tend to be flunky.

So what do you do in a narrow channel with the wind on the nose? Simple: in the first instance, turn round so that the breeze is behind you.

Boats moored in an anchorage

Always have a plan for what you would do if the engine stops when in confined waters, and identify moments at which instant action would be required in advance

None of these initial actions will necessarily solve your problem, especially if you’re heading upstream and will eventually run out of water, or get to a river bend where both directions take you upwind.

Nevertheless, you will have still gained enough time to avoid panic and make a viable plan.

During this time you may be offered a tow from a passing boat, be able to raise the harbour master on the VHF radio and ask for a hand, or anchor in a relaxed fashion at the edge of the channel, clear of moorings and other traffic.

The one time it can be worth acting quickly is when there’s a convenient empty length of pontoon, or spare mooring, that you may have enough way on to reach.

Don’t worry if your approach isn’t quite textbook – as long as you get there there’s nothing to worry about (but see below, ‘Taking way off the boat’).

a boat sailing without an engine coming alongside a pontoon

In some cases, it may be possible to sail alongside a long length of empty pontoon, but beware of losing the wind – and therefore control of the boat – in very sheltered harbours

It’s also important to recognise situations in which the boat would be immediately put in danger if the engine were to fail.

These include entering a harbour next to a lee shore and manoeuvring uptide of obstructions such as piles, marina pontoons or other boats.

In cases such as this, you need to have a plan that can be implemented instantly.

It’s good practice to constantly ask yourself the rhetorical question: ‘What would I do if the engine died right now?’

Often the answer is straightforward, but the discipline will help you to identify the occasions on which the boat would be in danger, and identify possible solutions in advance.

6. Sailing without an engine: Tidal streams

In close quarters it’s important to be aware of the effects of the stream, which can be much more significant than the wind.

And if there’s no wind, once you lose steerage way you are out of control yet potentially still moving at a speed that will do serious damage.

Deploying the anchor here is an attractive option, but an old technique called drudging can also be employed to great effect.

The basic principle is to put enough ground tackle out to slow your drift on the tide, but not stop you completely.

An illustrations showing the technique of drudging used on boats which are sailing without an engine

The technique of drudging: veering the anchor on a very short scope when drifting on the tide can slow you down enough to gain steerage way

You’re then able to steer the boat, maybe towards the edge of the channel where you can anchor safely clear of any commercial traffic, or even into a spare berth or mooring.

Traditionally, a heavy weight was used for this: less likely than an anchor to snag as it’s being dragged across the seabed.

Few modern yachts carry such things on board, but a similar effect can be achieved with a buoyed anchor – tying a mooring line and fender to the crown of the anchor takes only a few seconds – or with a bight of chain.

Your speed can be controlled by adjusting the amount of rode paid out, which is likely to be only a fraction of that which would be used for anchoring in similar conditions.

Be prepared

The majority of engine failures stem from a handful of problems that can be sorted in a few minutes, given a little knowledge, plus a modest set of tools and spares.

However, there are occasions in which the problem is more fundamental and impossible to fix at sea.

Even if it’s not possible to return the boat to a safe berth unaided, a little patience and lateral thinking will minimise the help needed, besides engendering the satisfaction of achieving a higher degree of self-reliance.

If you regularly practise manoeuvring without an engine there are occasions in which it’s possible to take engine failure in your stride.

The last time I encountered an engine that failed to start – caused by a fractured battery terminal – was in the Cyclades in the Aegean, at the end of an upwind passage in winds gusting 35 knots.

At the end of a long day, we’d hoped not to have to short-tack up the bay and anchor under sail, but doing so was less of a hardship than heaving to in confined waters and lots of wind while we tried to sort the electrics.

Tips for light weather

  • A spinnaker or cruising chute is a real boost to boat speed in very light winds when sailing downwind or reaching.
  • When looking for the best patches of wind in ultra-light conditions, increasing your height of eye above the waterline helps. Standing on the coachroof will enable to you see double the area of the surface of the sea compared to sitting in the cockpit.

Top tips in confined waters

  • Ensure anchor, sails and fenders are always available for immediate use if the engine fails.
  •  Identify the key situations in which the boat may be in real danger if the engine stops – and have an effective plan ready.
  •  Don’t panic!
  • As far as the Colregs allow, stay towards the windward side of narrow channels: this will give more time to react if the engine stops.
  •  On confined waters the wind is likely to be very fluky, both in terms of strength and direction.

Taking way off the boat

Racing sailors know that every movement of the rudder slows the boat, so if approaching a berth or mooring too fast, exaggerated steering will take some way off.

If there’s a lot of way to lose, towing a bucket is surprisingly effective, as is spinning the helm rapidly from lock to lock.

A person deplying a drogue from a boat

Deploying a drogue – or even a bucket on a rope – is an effective way to slow down

While it’s possible to propel a dinghy in this manner, the same is not true for larger boats – and this will sap a couple of knots of speed in a couple of boat lengths.

Conversely, if you’re marginally slow on the approach, try to minimise movement of the helm.

If coming alongside, a lot of way can be lost by surging line around a cleat on the pontoon – take a single turn around the cleat, then as it comes tight pay it out, increasing tension on the line as you do so.

This way, the boat will be brought to rest over a distance of perhaps a couple of metres, rather than suddenly being jarred to a halt.

It works best with a line from a midships cleat, or failing that led aft from a primary winch, as this won’t tend to swing either the bow or stern violently into the dock.

Continues below…

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