Would You Continue an Ocean Voyage Without an Engine?

It’s funny, seeing it now—in black and white in hindsight—I’ll admit the answer seems so clear and easy, but it sure wasn’t then.  I guess when it’s you out there, only two days into what was supposed to be an incredibly exciting adventure, an awesome offshore accomplishment, and you have sails and promising winds, it’s quite tempting to want to continue.  Conquistadors and explorers have been crossing the ocean for centuries without engines, right?  They also did it without satellite navigation, AIS, sat phones and texting devices, a whole host of equipment Phillip and I use extensively when we sail offshore.  Bottom line is, after we lost the ability to use our engine when the fresh water pump blew, it was a tough call for Phillip and I deciding whether to continue our trek east, then south down to the BVIs, or tuck our tails, turn around, and sail back to Spanish Wells, Bahamas.  Many factors played into our decision, and it was a great exercise in balancing risk versus reward.  Read on to see what you would have considered had you been in our shoes and let us know: WWYD?

November, 2019:

“So, that’s it?  No engine?” I asked Phillip, although I already knew the answer.

“That’s it,” he said matter-of-factly.

Then we bobbed for a few quiet minutes.  The wind was blowing maybe 4, the sails were flogging gently, somewhere a halyard banged.  The quiet was deafening.  I didn’t realize before how much sound-space the engine had filled now that he was dead. R.I.P. Westie.  Phillip and I were only two days out on an expected 7-9 day passage from the Bahamas down to the BVIs when Westie (our 27A Westerbeke’s) fresh water pump bit the dust.

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While we were still floating safely, not taking on water, with sails and rigging still in perfect condition to carry us, Phillip and I had a tough decision to make:

CARRY ON UNDER STRICTLY SAIL 6-7 MORE DAYS TO THE BVIS

or

TURN AND SAIL 1-2 DAYS BACK TO THE BAHAMAS?

While we do prefer (always) to sail in the right conditions, rather than motor, Phillip and I are not 100% purists.  We don’t sail into and out of the marina or our slip just for the heck of it (like we often saw many heartier sailors (kids even!) do in France and the Azores).  We don’t sail narrow cuts or channels if we’re afraid the wind may shut down or push us onto a shoal.  Simply put, we prefer to sail when sailing is safe.  And, I’m not in any way ashamed to say we rely on our engine for many things: propulsion when sailing isn’t productive or safe, a charge to our batteries, maneuvering in marinas and in and out of slips, even as an extra bilge pump if we were taking on immense amounts of water (a trick I have, thankfully, only read about, never experienced myself, but that I will always keep in my back pocket).  At the end of the day, the truth is we put a lot of work, time, and money into our engine because we value it.

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Phillip and I are also very risk-averse.  When your first offshore passage (ever!) is one where you have to lean over the stern rail in rough seas and 30-knots of wind to cut your own flailing dinghy off with a hacksaw, you tend to give the open ocean its well-deserved respect and due.

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But, that said, Phillip and I really wanted to make it to the BVIs.  We have yet to sail their on our boat.  It is the first step of another BIG goal we have: to do a Caribbean Circle.  We had a work and weather window in November that had lined up beautifully (when does that ever happen)?  And, we were expecting good, solid east winds over the next 4-5 days that could have possibly enabled us to finish the voyage under sail alone quite safely.  And, there’s no reason to shy away from it.  We simply didn’t want to give up.  We didn’t want to quit.  We probably debated this decision a laughable hour longer than was necessary just because we were so frustrated by it.  But, after extensive discussion about the pros and cons of either choice, Phillip and I eventually decided to turn back and sail back to Spanish Wells in the Bahamas.  Here are the top reasons for our decision:

1.  Loss of Power

Battery power—or, more accurately, the inevitable loss of it—was easily our number one concern.  While we have 200 watts of solar on our boat, they are not able, by themselves, to keep our bank completely charged 5-7 days underway, particularly with the auto-pilot working twenty-four hours a day, as well as the navigation instruments, AIS, and nav lights at night.

While we can (and have) foregone refrigeration while underway to save on power, cold drinks and food were the least of our power worries.  Phillip and I knew we would want auto steering the boat as much as possible.  We would want AIS, particularly at night, to avoid ships.  We wanted our nav lights shining like bright beacons at night to ward off other boats.  We wanted our bilge pumps to be strong and vigorous if in the very unfortunate occurrence we started taking on water.  All of those things require power.  The thought of gradually losing power over the course of 6-7 days, losing the ability to see other ships, and be seen by them at night, as well as a potential inability to access our digital charts for navigating, all while the wind (particularly light ones) pushed us whatever direction it felt like was just, hands down, a scary thought.  An unacceptable thought.

2.  The Navidad and Mouchoir Banks

My good friend, Pam Wall, had warned us about these reefs on the north side of the Dominican Republic when we first told her of our plans to take the I65 Route from the Bahamas to the BVIs, and she urged (quite strongly, in pure, energetic-Pam fashion) that we sail a hard-and-fast route dead east (“Not south!” she shrieked) for the first 3-5 days of our voyage before turning south to avoid these reefs.  “They eat yachts,” Pam said, quite bluntly, which put the fear of Mouchoir in us.

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Being out there with no means of propulsion other than sail, and potential winds that could push us up onto those yacht-eating rocks was easily our second reason for turning back, but there were others as well.

3.  Navigating a New Inlet and Port Under Sail Alone

While Phillip and I knew we were going to be coming in—whether we decided to sail to the BVIs or back to the Bahamas—under sail alone, having navigated the entrance to and from Spanish Wells several times now (during this trip in 2019 and previously when we sailed the Abacos, Eleuthera, and a sliver of the Exumas in 2018) we felt we had become somewhat familiar with its channels, depths, and shoaling.  Navigating a brand-new inlet always stands the hairs on our necks and gets our hearts pumping.  The thought of doing that under sail alone with no contacts there in the BVIs was a mark against continuing the voyage without an engine.

4.  We Thought the Sail Back Would Be Short and Easy

Aside from not carrying a spare fresh water pump, this was our one whopping mistake in this whole ordeal.  Having just poked out into the Atlantic a day and a half, we thought the sail back would be a quick 1-2 days zip back.  Super easy.  No problem.  We figured it would be a bit of a bummer, with beat-down morales, retreating back from whence we came.  But, all we thought we would be was a little bummed.  We had no idea we would be psychologically battered.  As wild as it sounds—even with the two ocean crossings Phillip and I have done and some of our more horrendous bashes in the Gulf—that three and a half day sail back to Spanish Wells in little to zip wind was BY FAR the absolute worst passage Phillip and I have ever been on.  The.  Worst.  Have any of you ever been mind-numblingly, infuriatingly becalmed?  Just wait … We have stories to share my friends.  And a casualty.  There was mutiny out there.  Stay tuned!

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9 Responses to Would You Continue an Ocean Voyage Without an Engine?

  1. Gary D. says:

    Well, once again you have baited me!!

  2. Annie and Philip:
    Good story, right decision it seems. Known vs unknown. I have had a couple of similar experiences and chose to go on without the engine. Both ended well because I chose to enter ports I knew well enough to sail into without an engine. It is a very tense decision though because suddenly, there is no fall-back position.

    One trip was San Juan to NY with a diversion into Cape May for repairs. I was 20 and my first skipper job. The other was New Bedford to San Juan with a diversion to Fajardo. More services in Fajardo. Twenty some years later. I think that in all my years of delivering sailboats the sails have only been a problem twice. Engines? Most times.

    As for calms. I get the “Captain, have you been in any storms?” question all the time. I usually reply, “Yes, but the calms are worse.” Not the answer they expect. but so true. No movement and consumption of stores. Equip your vessel with light air sails.

    Next time: St Thomas is an easy port to enter under sail. I’d probably anchor off the yacht club as they are very friendly and helpful. You will want to move after a few days, though. No clearing in required. The other is to anchor off the marinas near main town. You can sail into either San Juan or Fajardo easily and anchor or pick up a mooring. Road Town Tortola is easy to enter and a pain to clear. Excellent marine services in Road Town. St Martin is always a good choice and a simple anchorage, dinghy ashore to clear in. Every marine service known to man and yacht.

    Keep well
    Norm
    Cape Cod

    • anniedike says:

      Norm! Always good to hear from you, and always you provide sage advice. We will NOW answer the way you have regarding calms. This was mine and Phillip’s first time being becalmed and it was mind-rattling. While I don’t like being tossed around in storms, I will say it is at least all reactive (you’re just reacting to what’s being thrown at you). In the absence of action you need to take, your brain fills the space and gnaws at you. It was a different, far worse condition. Thanks for the tips on the Caribbean entries. Hopefully we’ll make it there another day.

      • As I model my Atlantic Circle trip, your notes are very helpful, thanks. They help me focus on things I may otherwise overlook.

        I one calm, the mainsail slatting broke the mainsail slides requiring us to sail with 2 reefs or risk losing the whole mainsail! Ugh. UV damage to plastic sail slides. Beware!

        Best,

  3. warren149 says:

    It one thing to do a passage u dear sail when you planned for it, but to have it thrust upon you is a different story. No doubt you could have made the passage , but at what stress level and added risk. If it was something that allowed occasional use of the engine then possibly but that was not the case . Good if frustrating choice.
    Cheer warren

    • anniedike says:

      Well said, Warren. It is definitely a different passage when its thrown on you unexpectedly once you are already out there. We definitely sat hard on the fence for a bit because we really wanted to accomplish the passage and the boat is capable of sailing. But, in the end, we just felt the risk wasn’t worth it. Appreciate you following along and commenting.

  4. Frank says:

    I assume you had a functioning sea water pump? In an emergency could you use the sea water pump and sea water to cool the engine?

    • anniedike says:

      Hi Frank. Sorry I missed this. Yes, we did have a functioning raw water pump, but that only runs through the heat exchanger, and our fresh water pump would be needed to circulate the antifreeze that cools the water in the heat exchanger. I’m no engine expert, but that’s my crude understanding. Without a fresh water pump, we couldn’t circulate antifreeze as needed to keep the engine cool. Thanks for your question!

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