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Sailing WIthout Sails

can you use a sailboat without sails?

There are many situations you can find yourself in where you won’t be able to use your sails. Sometimes, it can be due to the lack of wind, an accident where your sails or mast have been damaged, or simply if you gave your sails to a sailmaker for service. It doesn’t prevent you from using your boat, though.

You can generally use your sailboat without sails as long as you have a working engine that is strong enough to move the vessel in the given conditions. If the weather is too rough for the engine to move the boat, you won’t be able to steer, and you will be better off at anchor or in port.

Most sailors are used to relying on their engines when they want to move their boats without wind; we even have a term for it.

Using Your Sailboat Without Sails

It is possible to sail a sailboat without using the sails when the winds get powerful enough; we call this sailing under bare poles. However, sailing without sails is usually done with the engine, which we call motoring.

Another term that can be used is piloting, which is mainly used for motorboats. If the sailboat is tiny, it can also be rowed with oars. Still, I have never seen anyone paddling anything other than sailing dinghies. I know it would take a Godzilla and some well-sized oars to paddle Ellidah at 41 feet and just shy of 9 tons fully loaded!

Modern sailboats usually have a diesel, petrol, or electric engine installed that is powerful enough to move the vessel in most conditions. The engine is an essential part of the vessel, especially if you sail in an area with rapidly shifting conditions like the Mediterranean. Anyone who has spent time on a sailboat in the Med is familiar with using their engine quite often.

Sometimes when you are out sailing and enjoying yourself, the wind just dies off for various reasons. The weather might change, which can be one cause, or maybe you sailed into an area in the lee of the wind like an island or a big mountain.

You have to either wait for the wind to come back while drifting, or you can start the engine and continue in the direction you were sailing. Having a reliable engine onboard your sailboat is helpful and convenient, with advantages and disadvantages.

Sailing WIthout Sails
We lost the wind and had to motor the last bit into Milazzo in Sicily after sailing through the Messina Strait.

Disadvantages of motoring instead of sailing

  • Engine noise
  • Fuel consumption
  • Pollution and smell
  • Reduced range
  • Less motion stability

Moving your sailboat by engine typically uses diesel and is, in most situations, noisy and smelly as opposed to sailing. Since you now rely on fuel to move, your range will also be limited to the amount you carry.

Every hour you run the engine is also another hour closer to the point when you have to give it a service, which is another thing you might want to keep in mind.

If there are waves or swell, a sailboat moves around quite a lot without the stability gained from having the wind in the sails. When you sail, the boat will feel much more stable than when you are motoring. There is a good reason sailors usually prefer to sail their boats whenever they can instead of using the engine.

Advantages of motoring instead of sailing

  • Ability to move without wind
  • Increased maneuverability
  • Entering and exiting a marina or a dock is way more manageable
  • Motor sailing can get you to your destination quicker if the wind is light
  • Charging batteries and heating water

There are many occasions when motoring your sailboat is necessary. The engine makes it possible and convenient if you want to or need to move without sailing.

I spent a weekend motoring around Denia in Spain a couple of years ago while my sails were getting serviced by a sailmaker. The weather was too nice not to take the boat out! Another time, we were on our way from Spain to Morocco. The forecasted wind never came, and we ended up motoring all the way across, as you can see in the featured image for this article.

Sailing WIthout Sails
We were navigating the Lefkas channel by the engine on our way to Preveza in Greece.

Situations When You Need Your Engine

You often have to navigate a tight marina, a narrow strait with unfavorable wind direction, or motor yourself through a labyrinth of boats to find the perfect spot to drop the anchor. When the anchor is dropped, using the engine to dig it in is always good practice.

Sometimes, you might have just enough wind to be able to sail, but you want to get to where you are going quicker. Combining sailing and motoring can be an excellent solution to increase your speed.

When we left Gibraltar on our way to Las Palmas before the Atlantic Crossing, we spent the first full day motoring and motor sailing. We were beating against the wind and swell to get out of the Gibraltar strait and far enough west to clear the North African tip before we continued for the next seven days under sail.

Occasionally, running the engine to charge your batteries through your alternator may often be necessary unless you have another power source like solar or a wind generator. If you have a hot water tank piped to the engine, you might even get hot water for your shower from running the engine!

Final Words

As you can see, there are many situations where you can use your sailboat without sails. There are exceptions, though; sailboats without an engine onboard must find alternative ways to handle certain things, especially navigating in and out of marinas and tight areas.

However, it is rare not to have a motor, and most sailboats out there have one big enough to move the boat in most normal situations. But since sailing is much more fun and comfortable, most sailors use their sails when they can and the engine only when needed.

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