This past week we have been asked three times (by e-mail and in the marina) about the switch from sail to power, and what we thought about it now. Before answering the question some context is in order.
Prior to Wind Horse we had only twice set foot on a stinkpot, both experiences being very short. We loathed power boats, a feeling built up from years of negative interaction. Our sailing yachts, both racing cats in the olden days, and cruising designs more recently, were fast, nimble, and a joy to sail. Beowulf, the 78 foot ketch above and in subsequent photos, was the ultimate high performance cruiser, and crossing oceans aboard her was mostly a pleasure. We enjoyed sailing her agressively as a couple and the challenge of making quick, seamanlike passages, without undo risk, with just two of us aboard, was a big attraction.
And Beowulf was fast! In the photo above, taken at the start of a Caribbean 1500, she is doing 16 knots with just her two code zero jibs set. She is on her way to one of the two record setting clean sweep victories in this event (her 2001 elapsed time record still stands).
With one exception she averaged 265 miles a day, or better, on every ocean passage she made. In the trades she would easily average 300 miles a day (12.5 knots). We made the trip from Los Angeles to the Marquesas in 10.5 days (2900 miles) returning two years later from Nuka Hiva to San Diego in twelve days.
If the weather systems were stable the two of us would carry both spinnakers representing a total sail area of 6000 square feet (580 square meters). Between her stability – she carried water ballast to windward – and rig, we had to acknowledge that the boat was in charge and we were along for the ride. Sail handling had to be done carefully, in a coordinated manner, and we had to stay ahead of the weather curve. This challenge was a big part of her allure for us.
What we enjoyed most was close quarters maneuvering sans engine. Our habit was to depart from an anchorage under sail, and arrive in similar fashion. The more difficult the harbor the better. Handling 78 feet of boat with just the two of us in Falmouth Harbor, Antigua, during race week, was the ultimate buzz.
At the same time owning a yacht like Beowulf required a lot of work. When making passages, between the actual sail handling, weather analysis, routing, and navigation, there was little time or mental band width for reading or other liesure activities. And when it was time to put her into storage mode (or wake her up) it meant three days of hard work for the two of us.
Our cruising was more focused on the sailing than sitting and enjoying new surroundings. It was not unusual for us to go for a short sail within a day or two of completing a long passage, because we loved sailing. But at best 60% of our time enroute was under sail with the engine pushing us for the rest. And under sail five percent or less of the time would bring the type of weather that made for the unadulterated adrenilin rush heretofore mentioned. The balance of the time we were just grinding down the miles.
When we started thinking about what to do next after selling Beowulf the concept of switching to power was not on the radar. But when we began to take stock of our maturity, and the fact that we’d be three years closer to dotage by the time a new boat was designed and built, we realized the era of sailing high powered cruising yachts across oceans was probably over. For the two of us to continue crossing oceans alone a new design would either have to be detuned and significantly slower, or we were going to need crew. Neither option was palatable.
The thought of switching to power was not easily accepted. Even after the design was completed, and we were close to launching, both of us, and in particular Steve, had second thoughts. The idea of a powerboat was still an anathema to us even as Wind Horse was being launched. While Linda was fine with the concept of passaging sans adrenilin, Steve was not so sure. However, he had his glider and the pursuit of soaring records to fall back on for the adrenaline fix.
It did not take long during our sea trials during the New Zealand winter to appreciate some of Wind Horse’s benefits. Wet, cold day? No problem. We ran the boat from the warm, dry, great room, with 360 degree views. Anchoring could be done from inside, so it was only coming and going from the dock that we were exposed to the elements. We often had cruising friends aboard for our “day sails” and chatting while running the boat – whether inside or on the flying bridge – was as enjoyable as if we were sailing.
Still, it wasn’t until the first long passage to Fiji that we really started to accept our transition from sailing. That passage indelibly stamped Wind Horse’s advantages on our physches.
It is now five years and many thousands of miles later and there have been a few surprises comparing the FPB 83 Wind Horse and 78 foot ketch Beowulf.
- Wind Horse is far more comfortable than Beowulf on all points of sail and in all sea states.
- She is so much easier to handle, there is little to do underway besides navigate and check the engine room. Passages remain pleasurable and definitely not boring.
- Cost has averaged a third less per mile to cruise under power than was the case under sail.
- We are cruising in wonderful regions we’d never consider under sail.
- From polar bears to leaping whales, we are seeing far more than before.
- After 45,000+ miles in five years we are convinced if we have to be caught in severe weather we’d much rather be aboard Wind Horse than Beowulf.
- Day to day maintenance with Wind Horse is a fraction of what was needed with Beowulf.
- Because there is so little (if any) difference in comfort between being at sea and at anchor distance to a destination is rarely a consideration in planning where to go.
- We are spending substantially more time afloat than was the case before, and covering a lot more territory.
Are we surprised by the outcome? Yes, and we are not complaining. We are still uneasy with the self-image of being on a powerboat, and when we share an anchorage with a bunch of sailors, there is no denying a tinge of embarassment with the concept. But knowing what we do today, if it were ten or even 20 years ago, and we had the choice of either Beowulf or Wind Horse for cruising, we’d choose Wind Horse.
As a vehicle with which to explore and lead a cruising lifestyle, she is simply a better tool, both for getting us across the ocean and exploring once we have arrived at a new destination.
Consider our travels the past five years of part time use:
- 2005: Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, California.
- 2006: California, Alaska, and return.
- 2007: California, Mexico, Prince William Sound (Alaska), and return.
- 2008: California, Panama, Bahamas, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, Greenland, Ireland, UK.
- 2009: UK, Norway, Svalbard to 80 degrees north, Shetland Islands, Scotland, UK.
- 2010: UK, Spain, Portugal, eventually returning to the East Coast of the US.
As much as we love sailing and in particular Beowulf, we would not have gone to the more difficult destinations nor traveled the miles to get to them under sail. The combination of discomfort (or effort if you prefer) and enhanced risk factors when sailing kept us mainly to the benign cruising regions. Wind Horse has opened a new world of voyaging experiences to us without our having to pay the usual penalties associated therewith.
Which leads us back to the adrenalin rush or lack thereof when passaging with our FPB. To begin with, neither of us miss the “excitement” of passaging under sail. We are actually enjoying ocean crossing more now than when we sailed. True, there is not the same feeling of accomplishment that comes from the two of us making a fast passage by ourselves. But there is still pleasure in the rhythm of a yacht at sea and we find this enhaced when we subtract the awareness and total concentration required under sail.
For Steve there has been an unexpected change in his flying habits. Whereas with sailboats in our lives he was flying 200 or more hours a year in the pursuit of records (a lot of cockpit time in a glider), the switch to power brought a precipitous drop in the hours aloft. As soaring was an important part of the calculus in switching from sail to power this is one of the biggest surprises.
Not that either of us have given up on the need for external sensory stimulation. Now it comes from the exquisite beauty of locations like Prince William Sound in Alaska,
Greenland’s Disco Bay,
or the Svalbard Islands in the high Arctic.
Do we miss sailing? Parts, certainly. But Wind Horse gives us so many more pleasurable options that she is covering far more miles than was ever the case with our sailboats, and allowing us to do so at a time in life when most folks our age are sitting on land thinking about the good old days.
There are a variety of videos of passaging on Beowulf and Wind Horse available on line. An interesting comparison may be the 12 day passage aboard Beowulf from the Marquesas Islands back to San Diego here, and then a similar length trip on Wind Horse from LA to Panama here.