The Speed of Sail - Does it Matter How Fast You Go?

"Sail the main course, sail it in a simple sturdy craft. Keep her well stocked with short stories and long laughs. Go fast enough to get there, but slow enough to see.
Moderation seems to be the key."
Lyrics from Barometer Soup by Jimmy Buffett

Does speed matter when you're sailing? I suppose that question depends on why you're sailing in the first place. Racing? Yes, speed matters. Day sailing to enjoy time on the water? Speed probably doesn't matter. Cruising? Sometimes speed matters. 

When acting as weekend warriors or taking a 2 week summer cruiser, we've taken passages of between 6 to 90 nautical miles at time. Speed doesn't really matter to us on the short port hops of say less than 20 nautical miles, but when we're approaching hour 12 of a 90 nm passage, I admit that I start tweaking the sails to coax another 1/4 knot of boat speed from the wind gods. Doing a bit of math, if I would have found that 1/4 knot when I first raised the sails during hour one, I might have saved 45 minutes total on the passage. In that case, I suppose speed only matters if the flies are biting or the beer is gone. 

Let's look at the extremes of fast sailing. IF (that's a big and totally unrealistic "if") we were cruising on the world's fastest sailboat (Vestas Sailrocket), that same 90 nm passage could have taken a mere ~1 hour and 40 minutes at her top speed of about 65 knots (75 mph!). Or an America's Cup AC72 (top speed of ~40 knots) would be a quick passage maker too. Of course at those speeds we'd miss the deep conversations while sitting on deck with the autopilot on. And we'd miss the slow flyby photo opps of Sleeping Bear Dunes and napping while being gently rocked by the quartering seas. Clearly, those powerboat-like speeds aren't slow enough to "see".

This is our pace..

While the extra 1/4 knot I sometimes search for on our longer passages has debatable value for my own type of sailing, finding that extra 1/4 knot on the Pacific Puddle Jump (Mexico to the South Pacific) surely makes a difference. Again, let's do the math. The ~3000 nautical mile passage at an average of 5 knots would take 25 days. That's a long time at sea. Now consider that the same passage at 5.25 knots would take 23.8 days. Finding the 1/4 knot saves you more than an entire day. And suffice it to say, you've got time during a 3000 nm passage to search for knot fragments.

There are other advantages to speed too, other than just saving some time. A little extra speed can be the difference between outrunning an oncoming storm system or getting overtaken by it. As long as you're prepared, either can work out just fine. Again, the length of the passage adds to the practicality of outrunning weather. For example, it's less likely to outrun a thunderstorm on a 25nm afternoon sail than it is to see a storm that's days away while on an offshore passage through forecasting and subsequently be able to alter course or otherwise just keep sailing along and beat the storm into port.

Enjoyment also plays a role. I know sailors who want the rail buried and the sails trimmed tight to keep the ride wet and thrilling. Me? I'd much prefer to just run off on a leisurely broad reach with the occasional flap from the genoa as the boat wanders a bit too far downwind because I'm distracted by a daydream.

Or maybe moderation really is the key.


  1. Anonymous15 May

    If only we could get drivers on the road to think this way. Sure, a few mph will make a difference on a cross country trip but it only makes for more congestion and danger in city driving. Are you really that unhappy with where you are that you just have to get it over as soon as possible? Set the cruise control, chill. Thanks, Hugh


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