The complicated math of putting up the sails

When we were having dinner with friends in Annapolis, we somehow mentioned that we didn’t ever tack our boat. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Tacking involves sailing against the wind, and turning your boat back and forth to make progress against it; if the wind’s against us, we’re pretty much just going to motor.

Dinghy sailing; easy sail selection
Dinghy sailing; easy sail selection

Deciding when to sail and when to turn on the engine is a complicated problem. Michu and I both come from racing backgrounds, and we love to sail; but in the sail versus motor equation, we also consider:

  • How much longer will it take us to get there?
  • How much less comfortable will the boat be? Will anyone get seasick?
  • How will this affect our angle to the waves? Will additional water make it into the boat?
  • What will this do to our angle of heel? Is anything downstairs going to fall over?
  • Will anyone have to prepare lunch at a very uncomfortable angle? How about dinner—will sailing delay our arrival time to make dinner prep more annoying?
  • How much maneuvering will we have to do? Are we going to have to tack a bunch, and shift the contents of our house? Do we need to jibe a bunch, and maybe stress out our gear? Will we need to change sails?
  • How strong is the wind expected to be? Will we put up the sails, only to have to take them down again after an hour? What about wind direction—is it supposed to shift into our face (again)?

All of these questions are compounded by the challenges our our mainsail. Most cruising boats have an easy system for stowing the main; the fanciest boats have a furler that stows the sail in the mast or boom, but other boats get by with a stack pack or lazy jacks. Our boat has a system called a Dutchman, where line is threaded through the sail, and when the sail is lowered, it falls into neat folds on the boom—but we don’t have it installed. There are some repairs needed, as with so many things, and it didn’t happen before we left Milwaukee.

We do like it when the sails are up.
We do like it when the sails are up.

Clearly, the Dutchman project needs to move up the list of priorities, because the hassle of putting up and stowing the main is hindering our performance, and the general will to go sailing on the boat. To be clear: Michu almost always votes for putting up the sails. He will short-tack up the channel; he will put up the code zero in a drifter; he will put up the main for an hour before the wind dies. I am less willing. Notice how none of the questions above reference the engine? That’s because I wrote the list. If Michu had written it, the lead question would probably have been: how many more hours on the engine until the oil needs to be changed? Closely followed by: how are the transmission oil levels, how much diesel do we have, where’s the next marina where we can conveniently buy diesel, how much water is coming through the stuffing box, and do we need to run the alternator to make power.

This scenario plays out differently on long passages. If we’re planning to travel overnight, we’re going to sail; we won’t leave until the weather’s looking favorable, and adding a few more hours of slow sailing doesn’t matter if we’re already planning to travel for 24. Meals are prepped up, and no one’s too concerned about getting schoolwork done. Likewise, the few short travel days that we run across are almost always sailing days—six hours in light winds is no big deal, even if motoring might take two or three hours. It’s the days where we’ve budgeted eight hours of travel that are questionable; turning that into ten or twelve hours makes for a long day; traveling for eight uncomfortable hours heeled up and pounding into waves makes everyone cranky.

Sailing along on Lake Michigan
Sailing along on Lake Michigan

We were very lucky, at the start of our trip, to have consistent and favorable winds. We didn’t really question sailing versus motoring; we were almost always able to sail. Since we left Lake Huron, the calculus has gotten more complex. We’re also out of our home weather, so it’s harder for us to know how the local winds will blow; geography affects wind direction and strength in ways that are predictable to locals, but mysterious to us.

But: we are sailors! We do, in fact, like to sail! Also, we enjoy feeling superior to the motor boats, which is difficult to do when we’re motoring! So: Dutchman repair needs to move up towards the top of the list. And possibly I need to remember how much better everything is when the engine is turned off.

2 Comments on “The complicated math of putting up the sails

  1. I am reading your commentaries and I start sweating. You got to be hard core sailors to pursue your dream trip with so much enthusiasm. I would have given up a long time ago. I am very impressed by your gutsy disposition, and wish you the best of luck during your travel.
    May God bless you. Say Hi to Michu. I enjoy reading your notes…they are great!

  2. Fabulous Adventure! Glad you are in Madison, WI now!! I am friend of Jai Skoglind & was curious about your travels.
    Thanks, Betsy

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