Sailing vs. Power Boating

While sailing over Labor Day weekend with friends, a popular topic came up — power boating vs. sailing. My friend said it is “an inquiry into values,” a la one of my favorite books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 

Sailing is the motorcycle ride; power boating is the car ride. The sailboat and powerboat are experiencing the same road — battling the same elements. Why is the feeling at the end of the day so different? 

My boating life consists of years and years of sailing — this includes ocean voyages, boat deliveries, and, in recent years, many hours sailing small crafts. 

In 2016, I got a call letting me know a good friend had lost his battle with cancer. My friend, Jim, was a Vietnam vet who came home to have a successful career in the construction business managing the sites of large commercial projects in the Boston area. He also had a passion for wooden boats and became an accomplished boat builder. He spent all his free time in his shop building beautiful small crafts. In fact, after his estate was settled, the Colombia Dinghy he built ended up at Mystic Seaport. It was as close to perfection as any Colombia Dinghy they had in their collection. 

I was asked to move his tools and sell his beloved 32′ Ron Holland powerboat he had been restoring with love and care. The family had done a recent survey, which was a big help for listing purposes. 

The boat’s name was Again; she sat on blocks and stands in his yard between the water and his shop. She was neatly covered with a well-thought-out frame and covered in shrink-wrap.

I had made a couple of trips to the house to work on moving the shop tools, and then the time finally came to uncover the boat and ship her to the boat yard for storage and brokerage. I uncovered her and removed the framing — it was a job I had done many times: cleaning a boat to help her find a new home.

The haulers moved her to our boatbuilding shop and we blocked her up and cleaned her some more. Jim had done a beautiful job designing and building a new doghouse and a V-berth cabin below, showing off his talented craftsmanship.

Weeks went by, the boat stayed listed. I often worked in the boatbuilding shop, where she sat near the door. When I would step out to take a break, head home or run an errand, she always caught my eye — without fail, I’d admire her bow and distinctive sheer.

I had been looking for a powerboat, but I was holding out for an Arno Day design. My career in boatbuilding started with Arno, as his apprentice. In my office sits a handmade half model Arno gave me of his 32′ design. I have had it by my side for 36 years. 

I had never owned or spent much time on powerboats, but I wanted to have a boat my wife, Robin, and I could take on overnight trips to the beaches and islands surrounding the Cape — while getting back home in a reasonable amount of time for work.

With every passing day, Again caught my eye. When I drove out of the yard, I would purposely pass her so I could look at her transom and stare at her sheer line. Certain design elements began to really stand out to me — like the profile and angle of the windshield in relation to the coach roof. The thought that went into the windows, how well it was drawn to be proportional, how perfectly his choices complemented the fact that Again was, indeed, a lobster boat (just no longer lobstering). Jim’s design was dead on and he executed the construction perfectly. 

I was falling in love. It hit me when the offers started coming in — I couldn’t stand the thought of someone else owning her. Not unlike your first crush in high school — you are not quite confident enough to ask her out, but you can’t take your eyes off of her. Then one of your friends says, “I am going to ask her out if you don’t.”

The offers that came in were not close to what Jim’s family had hoped for. This was mostly because those interested were budgeting to repower her gas motor with diesel despite the work Jim had done repainting the MerCruiser. Some also had plans to turn her into a lobster yacht and remove Jim’s work altogether. 

I had recently missed out on an Arno Day boat in Rockport, Maine by a week, and it was getting tough to ignore the fact that I wanted the one in my shop. So I presented my offer to the family. Over time, when no better offers were made and commissions and storage charges were deducted, they sold her to us.

We renamed her Sea Robin, and the relationship began. At first, it was hard. We had some transmission issues on our first trip to the Vineyard. The next couple of summers got busy; it was hard to find time for a trip. Finally, this year, we have developed a nice routine with her — including several overnights and trips in Vineyard Sound.

Still, when we are out motoring in 10 to 15 knots of breeze and see the sailboats slipping through the water, full sails, soaking up all the natural beauty, the heel is on, no sound of a motor or carbon emissions — I can’t help but have the thought: Sailing is better than power boating.

Some perks of being under motor are undeniable. We arrive in Sea Robin on average three hours ahead of the sailboats; we are first in line for a mooring if we need one or have the prime anchorage spot. We have more time to relax or take a run ashore the next morning before heading out for the next harbor. 

Recently, after a beautiful trip to Nantucket, we motored back to Stage Harbor, Chatham — we took the inside route between the mainland and Monomoy. It took four hours averaging 10 knots. We had winds gusting to 28 knots from the southeast. It was a beam sea with four to six-foot seas.

We took a wide route around Pollock Rip to avoid bigger waves, but they were still breaking over the boat like they would be if we were tight on the wind in a sloop or catboat. The windows on the Sea Robin are watertight, except for the window at the helm.

The helm window can be opened for a clear view, but the waves were soaking the helm and me, so I had to shut the window. Immediately it was dry. We were now protected from the elements. We continued to slam into the waves and slide down them off our stern quarter. A rolling motion similar to what happens under sail. The strategy is similar, too — work the helm so the bow doesn’t dip but instead lifts as the wave passes under. Eventually, the motion becomes somewhat predictable, and you just watch your course and head to your destination.

We arrive to a lee shore, and the experience is over pretty quickly. The roar of the motor remains, and one window is opened to let fresh air through. We feel some relief to have made it, and venture to a beach for a swim and walk.

If we had been sailing in a large Arey’s Pond catboat, it would have been a completely different experience. In the catboat, we would have had two reefs, a helmsman with two hands on the tiller, and been dressed head-to-foot in foul weather gear on a sunny day. The peak halyard would be scandalized a bit to ease the helm, and the topping lift would be up a bit to prevent the boom from dipping in the water.

Once we made the turn to windward to head for Stage Harbor, the centerboard would go down a bit, the peak halyard would be tightened, the helm would ease and each wave would pour water over us and out the self-bailing cockpit. We would feel every gust and every wave as we worked our way to our destination.

Our senses would be keyed into the rig, preparing for any issues. We would watch the horizon and the course, maybe drinking and eating as a break becomes available. The wind would never let up, and at times it would feel like it was building. We would hardly notice the time and just ride each wave — literally soaking in our environment. 

After six hours, we would approach the lee of Stage Harbor. The seas and wind would subside, along with the experience — but not the memory. The sight of land and the safe harbor ahead would enlighten us to the beauty of nature and the power of the wind and sea — knowledge that never leaves you after a gripping voyage.

Sailing is the motorcycle, power boating is the car ride, and the windshield is the difference.