A Closer Look at a Nautical Rivalry: Powerboat vs. Sailboat

"What you choose also chooses you."
-Kamand Kojouri

I've lived on both sides of this fence.  I was raised a powerboater and relished my time on the water with my family in everything from bowriders to express cruisers and flybridge motoryachts.  I always knew I'd own boats and spend a lot of my time aboard them, so when I became an adult with practically no budget, I had to improvise to get on the water.  Paying for fuel and maintenance on a powerboat wasn't in the cards or my meager budget.  Instead, I put an ad on Craigslist asking for a "free or nearly free" sailboat.  To my surprise, I had someone fairly closely contact me almost immediately.

There's nothing more expensive than a cheap boat, but I took my chances anyway and ended up with a 1972 Helms 25 swingkeel sloop that we named "Hannabel" after our first two daughters (Hannah and Isabel). She wasn't free, but the $400 asking price wasn't enough to keep me away.  I spent the first year repairing, rebuilding, and rigging that old boat in our backyard.  I sailed thousands of miles in my mind with Hannabel securely planted on her trailer and sinking into the weedy ground that was taking over our lawn.  It was the best $400 I've ever spent even before I wet the hull.  We spent the next couple of years learning to sail and cruising on Lake Michigan with our then small children and dog.  We eventually moved up to a 28-foot Irwin and then a Catalina 34 and went as far as Lake Huron's North Channel during a 1,000 mile adventure.  We've been to most of Lake Michigan's ports and count ourselves as competent sailors with over 12 years of experience earned through mistakes, calms, small craft advisories, and patience.  We've got plans tucked away in the recesses of our brains for cruising on a sailboat more extensively in the future (I put this statement here mostly as a measure of accountability for myself!).

The early days of living large and sailing slow on Hannabel.

But alas, kids become adolescents and near term priorities sometimes take precedent over long term goals.  We recently sold our Catalina 34 and have been enjoying our time between sailboats aboard a powerboat; a 37-foot sedan bridge to be more precise.  I know, I know.  I can hear the groans and voices saying  "I thought this was SailFarLiveFree.com and not MotorNearbySaveFuel.com", but in many ways it feels really good to come full circle and express my powerboat roots again.  In other ways, I still long for that special feeling that can only be had while being swept along the water under sail.  That's what this blog post is really about - the contrast between power and sail and the common bonds that they share.

Let's start with the contrast, since I think many people go there automatically anyway.  Speed is perhaps the biggest contrast between powerboats and sailboats.  Of course it's all about perspective and as a sailor at heart, I feel like chugging along at 10 knots in a powerboat actually feels fast, but I can tell you that my powerboating buddies don't really consider anything below 20 knots much more than just a leisurely pace.  This may be over simplifying and pigeon holing a bit too much, but I'll go as far as to say sailors often favor the journey while powerboaters are more interested in the destination.  I have to admit, there are times when I simply want to be in port and putting the throttle/s down to get there faster can be appealing.  However, most days I'm more than content to while away the hours just bobbing slowly towards port at 3-5 knots.

This is warp speed in a sailboat, but merely cruising speed on a powerboat.

Having said that time on the water and enjoying the journey are fundamental to sailing cruisers, I've got to mention some of things that sailors do to occupy their time during the journey.  First, there's weather.  Obviously doing a deeper dive into learning weather prediction, weather patterns, and understanding how it all effects your ability to move from point A to point B is more critical to being a good sailor.  Sure, powerboaters are cognizant of wave heights and perhaps ambient temperature, but beyond that it doesn't often matter a whole lot when you can get somewhere quickly.  For sailors, understanding how the wind will change in direction and intensity throughout the day is very helpful.  Learning currents can also make the difference between a slow passage and a fast passage.  Even dealing with tides is sometimes more important as a sailor, particularly if you're sailing a deep draft boat.  The big picture is that sailboats are more at the mercy of the weather, both because they depend on it for movement and because they're often exposed to it for lengthier periods of time.  A powerboat can outrun the weather or even move against the weather, but that's not the case with sailboats.

Another difference is the technical aspects required to sail.  I'm likely to offend someone by saying the necessities of operating a powerboat largely consist of turning the key and working the throttles.  Of course there's more to it than that, but sometimes it really is that simple.  Not so with a sailboat.  There's plenty of lines that need tending to make a sailboat move efficiently (think halyards, sheets, outhauls, topping lifts, vangs, etc.).  And then there's sail shape/trim, apparent wind, points of sail, sail selection, and a myriad of other factors.  Don't forget about the safety gear that is common on sailboats but rare on powerboats like harnesses, tethers, jacklines, MOB poles, and drogues.  While mastering all of these isn't necessary to sail, doing so is a lot of fun and is part of what makes sailors feel like they are a part of the boat.

Plenty of lines pictured here on Bearly-A-Wake's mainsail and mast.

Is range important to you?  Do you care how far you can travel without pulling into port to refuel and restock?  Sailboats can theoretically take you farther for less.  Yes, fuel consumption and costs are part of this equation and can be a factor for choosing sail over power, but beyond that, sailboats, when rigged properly and run by a competent crew, can literally cross oceans and roam the planet.  There are some powerboats that can do that too, but they are few and far between and are all very expensive to purchase and maintain.  The trade offs are often speed and budget.

Lifelong sailors reading this might be wondering what's the draw to a powerboat other than getting somewhere quickly, so I'll tell you.  One of my biggest gripes about sailboats is small cockpits.  I've got a wife, three kids, and two dogs that all want to be outside in the sun and fresh air, which a powerboat often accommodates more comfortably with seemingly acres of padded seats and open space protected by tall bulwarks.  My experiences owning both power and sailboats also tells me most powerboats handle better around docks and marinas.  The extra horsepower and twin engines on many powerboat cruisers offers better control and quicker response if you know how to use them.  Backing a sailboat with a ~20hp single inboard engine spinning a tiny two-blade prop positioned between a big rudder and an even bigger keel can be a challenge.  It's a whole different experience in a twin ~300+ hp engine powerboat with big 4-blade props and no keel to fight your efforts to turn.  

All that cockpit and exterior lounging space is sure nice on powerboats.

If you've been aboard both a powerboat and a sailboat, you know that each has a very distinct motion.  For the sake of this discussion, I'm primarily talking about sailboats as a displacement hull form and powerboats as a planing hull.  For me, the motion of a sailboat slicing through the waves while heeled over is unique and gratifying which is why it doesn't take long for my sea legs to arrive once I've stepped aboard.  Every time we have someone aboard who hasn't sailed before, one of the first things they mention is usually something about heeling and the general lack of bow slapping.  Often they say something like "Is it suppose to lean like that?" and "Are we going to tip over?"  There's still plenty of motion in a powerboat, but it's more predictable and as you might expect it to be.  There's also that speed thing again, so some of the movement in a powerboat can become jarring in certain conditions.     
I could probably continue on about the differences and contrasts between types of watercraft, but what I've actually come to realize is that as sailors and powerboaters, we all share some foundational traits.  We all love time spent on and near the water. We all have the freedom to explore watery parts of the world where many can't.  And we're all passionate about our boats to a degree that land folk sometimes can't understand. 


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