Sustainable Sailing and Human Power

I’ve been quiet on here during the COVID-19 pandemic so far. More urgent priorities and has seemed inappropriate when so many have been dying, ill or struggling in other ways. However, some countries are now starting to move beyond lockdowns and it now seems more appropriate to focus on building a better future. One that is more human in scale, more caring of people and planet, more sustainable. So here are some thoughts of another aspect of bringing Humans into Sustainable Sailing

With a goal of zero fossil fuels being central to our understanding of Sustainable Sailing there is a big gap in what we have been planning so far.

What about using human power?

I’ve come up with a number of potential uses for human power when Sustainable Sailing. Let’s see if any make sense.

  1. Moving the boat
  2. Replacing electric powered items on the boat
  3. Generating electricity
  4. Getting to/from shore
  5. Getting around on shore

Now we have a list, time to consider them in some detail.

Moving the boat

The best examples I know of for actually moving a yacht by human power come from two races. In the UK The Three Peaks Yacht Race (run to and climb the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland; sail between them; engines only allowed within specified areas of the ports) and the Race to Alaska (No motor, no support, all the way to Alaska.
The physical endurance, saltwater know-how, and bulldog tenacity to navigate the 750 cold water miles from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska). There are great videos from Race to Alaska 2019

My conclusion is that if you want to be able to make any real progress with human power to move a yacht then 3 conditions need to be met

  1. You need a large crew so that you can have people who are rested enough to cope with a storm that follows a long calm where you have been using human power.
  2. The lighter and easier the boat to move the more practical it is. A racing multi-hull is the best option, a live-aboard heavy displacement mono-hull very bad.
  3. So far the most effective solutions for speed are also fragile and take up a lot of space. Neither good for long term cruising.

Therefore, it seems to me that it is better to invest in improved sailing performance in light winds to minimise the amount of time that human power could improve your speed. For shorthanded cruising (eg a couple living aboard) an electric motor is going to be far less risky in harbour situations where you don’t have spare crew or where you need to be able to cope with tides and headwinds while manoeuvring.

Replacing electric powered items on the boat

Probably the only electric powered item that we plan to have that we could easily (and more cheaply) replace with a human powered version, is the windlass for raising and lowering the anchor.

The electric windlass we are fitting can be used manually. However, having an electric windlass seems to us to be a great safety feature.

It allows us to have a much heavier anchor and chain,

it means we won’t put off moving to a more sheltered anchorage because we don’t want to manually raise the anchor,

if you need to leave an anchorage in bad conditions we won’t start sailing while physically exhausted from raising the anchor.

It raises the anchor much faster, which with the saving in physical effort makes sailing on and off anchor much easier

So we think investing in better electrical capacity is a better option here.

More and more yachts, particularly larger ones now have electric winches and/or electric sail furling. We plan to stick to manual as long as we are physically capable, possibly getting an electric powered winch handle rather than a whole winch when we need help.

Most of our other electrical systems are cooking or water related. So far no obvious human powered options (water-making would be great but falls far short of daily needs for a lot of effort).

Generating electricity

How about using a bike or something to generate electricity while we exercise? Our conclusion is that it can’t generate enough to be worthwhile (especially when you factor in a small crew). Time and money better spent ensuring maximum power from your solar by keeping it clean, shadow free and pointing at the sun.

Getting to/from shore

This is where I believe it starts to get very interesting.

We have gone for probably the most popular dinghy style (A rigid inflatable with aluminium hulls). Having inflatable hulls makes getting on and off the boat so much easier and safer with no risk of damage. An aluminium hull is both lighter than the traditional grp and much tougher for dragging up beaches (it is also fully recyclable). Ours is a Highfield Classic 290 which we should be able to store on our fore deck when sailing (just in front of the main mast), it also fits inside our van for transport to and from home (nowhere to keep it near the launching place near our mooring).

Ribs are pretty rubbish to row (the hull is too wide with too much water and wind drag, plus the seating position is inefficient. So we have an electric motor, but that means we sacrifice speed, it won’t be possible to plane (but we don’t expect to want to zoom to fantastic diving spots for example).

Could human power provide an alternative? We have looked at various “toys” to use when at anchor. SUP’s (stand-up paddle boards) are very popular and the inflatable ones easy to store. But practical and useful they are not, unless it is warm enough to wear just a swimming costume and you don’t need to go far and it is smooth water without much wind and you don’t want to carry anything. An inflatable kayak is a little better in practicality.

So instead we are wondering about carrying something designed to row well. The best option that we have found is from Angus Rowboats, they have an amazing track record (first human powered circumnavigation, rowing across the Atlantic, coming first in the under 20 feet category of the Race to Alaska). They have this beautiful Oxford Wherry available as plans or a kit. I’ve had a chat with Colin Angus and we agree it should be possible to make a minor adjustment so that the wherry can be divided into 3 nesting parts for storage on deck (we think it would fit on our aft cabin). We think that this would be the most efficient human powered dinghy that you could carry on a yacht. With a sliding seat you will be able to carry yourself and a passenger to explore rivers and harbours at a similar speed to our outboard engine on the rib.

We don’t think this would be suitable for our only tender, the key issues is that with the sliding seat you have to have outriggers for the oars and this makes coming alongside a yacht very difficult without causing damage (so instead we will use the rib as a dock/boarding platform). The lack of an engine option makes carrying large amounts of shopping or fighting the fast tide in the Menai Strait unattractive.

Getting around on shore

It amazes us how few of the sailing YouTube channels carry bikes with them to get around on the shore, particularly to go shopping. In a recent video Beau and Brandy had a 30 minute walk to the supermarket. They then had to push the loaded trolley back before an hours round trip returning the trolley.

Matt and Amy on Sailing Florence seem to be the best sorted with two Brompton bikes but we think they too are missing a key thing to transform using bikes for shopping. What they need is a trailer. For us there are two stand-out options (they need to fold and they need to be suitable for any bike and they need to resist corrosion). If we didn’t already have a trailer then the Cyclone Range from Radical Design are brilliant. The other option (and yes we have one) is from Carry Freedom We have an old Large Y-Frame but there are other options now. Here is mine in use (Cargobike sadly not so suitable for fitting on board boats, plastic box is just bolted on, anything else could be used). It works as a hand cart too for getting right to the loading point.

Conclusion

By far the most cost effective and transformative use of human power in Sustainable Sailing is a bike with a trailer.

A good rowing dinghy (probably in addition to a RIB) comes second.

For everything else your energy is better used improving your boats sailing ability and electrical generation and storage.

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