Horsepower or Human Power?

I checked a large item off my “to do” list today by finishing my boat’s transom and motor mount. Over the past several weeks I incrementally built up the transom with multiple layers of pine boards and plywood—four layers in all—capable of supporting an outboard motor in a U-shaped cutout. A removable insert was also constructed, which fits like a glove and is very satisfying to slide in and take out.

The completed transom, showing the cutout with the insert removed.

The transom, as seen from the inside. The insert is now in place. If I don't use an outboard, the boat will look like this most of the time.

A sideview of the insert, showing all of the various layers used to build up the transom.

I completed this step feeling conflicted. The truth is, I don’t like outboards. In my very limited experience, outboards are large machines that fill space and, as a general rule, refuse to start. On the rare occasion when they do cooperate, the result is a great deal of noise and nasty smells.

But you have to have an outboard! people say. How will you get out of harbors? What happens when the wind dies? And they might be right. I don’t have enough experience to argue otherwise. My sailing experience is limited to Sunfish. But then again…Lots of sailboats, large and small, managed to get out of harbors and reach their destinations for millennia without power, so why do we think they are absolutely essential? Are they necessary, or simply convenient?

Again, I don’t yet know the answer, but I have noticed a tendency in modern culture to forget what we can do without gasoline. To often, we accept the belief that technology that is available is technology that must be used.

Twenty-five years ago a large branch broke off a tree in our front yard. We were newlyweds in a small California bungalow and my toolbox was small. As city dwellers, we had no need for a chainsaw. So I started cutting up the limb with my handsaw. A man walking down the street stopped to watch me work, then said, not in a friendly way, “Man, you are using entirely the wrong tool for the job!” and walked on.

But why was it the wrong tool? I mused. It’s not morally wrong to use a handsaw. I wasn’t breaking any municipal laws. It was just a slower way of cutting wood. And why is that wrong? A more compelling case could be made that a noisy and potentially lethal chainsaw is the less responsible tool. I, on the other hand, was enjoying a sunny day and getting real exercise.

A year or two later, I was cutting the grass. Our yard was small so it made sense, to me, to use an old-fashioned reel mower. It was the neighborhood novelty; everyone else had the most muscular self-propelled mowers their postage stamp-sized lots could justify. One day a small boy stopped, pointed at the mower, and asked, “Where’s the motor?” “I’m the motor!” I replied with a grin, hoping the youngster would say something like, “Gee, that’s really cool, mister! Can I try it out? ” But he stared at me blankly and eventually wandered off

One more story: For six years I completed most of my errands by driving ten miles round trip to our nearest town. For all those years, I wondered about running my errands on my bicycle instead. And for all those years, people gave me strange looks when I presented my idea. Why would you bicycle? was the immediate reaction. Aside from competitive cyclists in spandex and a handful of guys who look like they had one too many DWI convictions, no one rides a bike in my part of the country. We have roads; you have a car. Why are you talking about bikes?

But one day I put on my helmet, pumped up the tires on my bike and headed out. It felt liberating to zip down the country lanes under my own power, without ever having to fill up at a gas station. So now I make the trip several times a week, weather permitting, whenever I need to pick up some books at the library, go to the bank, or swim laps at the YMCA. It takes three times longer to reach my destinations but in an odd way  my sense of distance shrank. Five miles doesn’t seem so far on a bike. My town now feels closer.

So in this contrarian frame of mind, I started looking at alternatives to outboard motors. If my goal is to have auxiliary power in tight spots or when I want to rush back to port, maybe a small battery-powered trawling motor would do the trick, I thought. And while I’m at it, why not add some solar panels so I can recharge my battery and travel carbon-free? It was an intriguing idea, but I know very little about solar power and I quickly got lost in the unfamiliar language of deep cycle batteries and inverters. For the moment, I am defeated by this particular kind of technology.

So I next took a few steps farther down the technology ladder and wondered about simply rowing my boat. Again, lots of small sailboats are capable of being rowed and one of my favorite boat designers—Phil Bolger—purposefully incorporated rowing capability into some of his most innovative sailboats, including the Birdwatcher. He admitted that few builders were willing to embrace this form of propulsion, but it could be done.

Digging deeper, I decided that sculling might be the most appropriate method of human locomotion for my boat. The sailor stands at the stern, swinging a single long oar with a sweeping motion, somewhat like a Venetian gondolier. I was thrilled to discover a simple device that attaches the oar to the transom and allows even inexperienced scullers to wag the oar back and forth in the most efficient manner. (See the Duckworks catalog for short video of the “Scullmatix” in action)

As all this was going on in my mind, I continued to work on the motor mount, which seemed prudent because, in the end, I might want an outboard. Even contrarians need to make compromises and concede defeat from time to time. For now, I am filled with theories and philosophical convictions. But the wind and waves may have other opinions and, in the end, I’ll defer to their judgment.


7 Responses to Horsepower or Human Power?

  1. Tom Raidna says:

    I had small outboards 2 hp and 5 hp and yes, gas, smelling, noisy and only somewhat reliable.
    I used a 50 lbs thrust electric trolling motor on a compac-16 and a MFG 19 (old heavy fiberglass sailboat) in lake enviornment – loved it. Batteries are heavy but you turn it on and it goes – forward and backward. Boat is looking great – each step is one step closer to launch.

  2. Paul Boyer says:

    Great to hear from you, Tom! I really appreciate the endorsement of the trawling motor. If you think I’m ignorant about boat building, you won’t believe all the things I don’t know about motors. I am *so* ready to get in the water. Just today I started the process of filling and sanding the hull in preparation for fiberglassing.

  3. Ed says:

    IMHO, if you put any motor at all on this lovely little boat you will rob yourself 80% of the pleasure of being a “Sailor”. Sure there are plenty of good reasons to have a motor but it will not change the fact it will make you less of a sailor. The motor mount pieces for my Passagemaker are lost in my mother-in-laws garage and I’ve been very happy with that choice.
    Good Luck

  4. Uncle Bill says:

    Hi Paul,

    Your comments brought Lin and Larry Pardey to mind immeadiately. I’m rusty on my facts but I think it was after their first circumnavigation in the 70s that their boat was moored at Newport Beach, CA for a while. I was doing a lot of sailing in the bay in those days and I would always sail aver to their boat to admire it. Larry had built it and it was 27 feet long as I recall. And it had no motor. They would skull when necessary. They gave a lecture at a near-by college which Jeff and i atended. We went up and shook hands with them after the program. Listening to their story and meeting them was a real inspiration.

    They have remained active in cruising and have circumnavigated both east and west around. They have written a number of very interesting and useful books. Their advice to would-be sailors is Go Simple, Go Small, Go Now.

    I think they are now living in New Zealand.

    Much love.

  5. Gilzmo says:

    The no-motor rule is a great personal challenge that will greatly enhance your boating skills, and will also ensure you will always sail alone. While your inner struggle in matching wits with mother nature–lolling out in a hot, flat bay waiting to catch a tide back in or adjusting the sail a quarter of an inch to better collect the four-knot breeze or relentlessly tacking into strong headwinds to gain a hundred yards an hour–is exciting to you, I can guarantee you that most of your shipmates will not share your enthusiasm. To borrow from Ed, no motor robs your passengers of 80 percent of the pleasure of being your “Crew.” They want to sail when it’s fun, and hit the beach when it ain’t. Hence, your solution of the insert is perfect and creates a new rule that serves both Grizzled Captain and Neophyte Crew: “No motor for me, but sweet merciful horsepower for thee.”

  6. Wonderful site. Loads of productive information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

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