The Best Days Of Our Lives?

Will we get there on time?

Those of us with a few years under our belt have seen extraordinary changes in the world of sailing during our lifetimes, not just in terms of the sailing performance of the boats we sail, but also in their comfort and safety, which in turn generates the confidence for adventure. More people have set off in small craft to sail across oceans to the ice or the tropics in the last ten years, I’d guess, than in the previous thirty. What was once notable for its uniqueness now doesn’t make the papers, even amongst the sailing fraternity. And I’d argue that there may be one single item above all others that has contributed more to that rush to the sea during that time than any other.

The Diesel Engine

When I started sailing, there were still plenty of marine petrol engines around. Nightmarish devices like the Stuart Turner two strokes, ill-tempered little brutes that started only when they condescended to, and after much ritual and the incantation of soothing words. Or the engine aboard a yawl I sailed on, a home converted side valve from a Ford Popular car, buried in the bilges like some rusty battered ornament salvaged from the seabed. That monster had to be started by a rope wrapped around a pulley on the front of the engine – and only one person aboard had the muscle to start it. It bellowed so loudly when running that the night that the exhaust cracked, spewing carbon monoxide into the cabin, nobody noticed for a while, not least the off watch who nearly went into a sleep far too deep… No, they’re not missed.

Nowadays we can almost always rely on being able to turn the key and off we go. Diesels love to work, so we can happily abuse them, and simple ones require little more than regular servicing to keep them in fine working order. And when they reach the point that wear takes its toll, they can easily be re-built – the Perkins 4.108 (1992 vintage) in our old boat is now on its fourth rebuild and running just as strongly as ever after tens of thousands of hours. And even diesels that have been horribly neglected still amaze when they start – and run, and run.

In turn, dependable diesels have offered us the confidence to sail bigger and more complex boats, with even freezers and watermakers running straight off them, or via powerful alternators. If we’re late for the next headland and the tide is about to turn against us, we can start the engine and punch the tide to get round in time. As a result we can be more adventurous in the places we cruise and extend our range. Cruising appeals far more to a wider range of people as a result, and encourages them to adapt to the cruising way of life.

The Best ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Card of Them All?

Having taught many people to do man overboard drills under sail, I can honestly say that in most cases where a crew is short handed, less able or simply inexperienced, I’d much rather see the foresail furled up and the engine started immediately than watch the struggles of a willing but frightened crew trying to sail back and being too late. In fact, I’ll bet that most of us have, at one time or another, got ourselves out of a truly tight spot with the help (and blessing) of our engine, where otherwise the boat, or worse yet, a life could have been lost. I know that I have, and I could recount a dozen stories from friends to bear that out – and all at the turn of a key.

Obviously there are risks, though, in simply relying on our engine to save us in all events – if we choose to roar into some narrow, rock strewn entrance, depending solely on an engine, no matter how reliable, we really should know better. Nor should we just forget all of the sailing expertise we have learned over the years, or just give up sail and buy a motorboat – far from it. Most of the time sail is by far the best and safest option, but nonetheless when the chips are down I’m only too glad to know in the back of my mind that I have a powerful, reliable diesel as a dependable last resort.

Was There a Zenith and Have We Passed It?

Which is why some of the most recent developments in diesel technology and fuel availability really worry me. One of the great beauties of the diesel is that it can be a simple mechanical device. Provide air and clean fuel in appropriate quantities, turn it over and it should go. If it won’t then the diagnostic skills required are appropriately basic – you don’t need to be an engineer, just a moderately skilled mechanic. With the earlier generation of diesels like our old 4.108 that was certainly possible. But now with the universal adoption of ECUs (Electronic Control Units) as engine management systems, you’ll likely need a technician with a laptop and the training to run the diagnostic processes required – try finding that on some remote coral atoll or up a frozen fjord.

Marine diesels traditionally were versions of industrial units, slow revving, tough units with most of the torque at the lower end of the rev range – ideal for yachts, as John has identified. But increasingly, smaller diesels are drawn more from the automotive world, and are nothing like as simple or tough as an engine designed just to plod along at a steady rpm. They won’t last anything like as long as a well-maintained ‘traditional’ unit, and are generally more complex, in any case.

Out at sea, simplicity and reliability are your friends, complexity and gadgetry your foes, so why are we letting this happen? Surely it’s not impossible to develop a simple mechanical diesel that could meet current emission laws and so do away with the need for ECUs?

And You Can’t Even Trust the Fuel Anymore

As I posted recently, we face the additional danger of FAME biodiesel, with its fatal attraction to the ‘bug’, finding its way into marine diesel fuel. As the ‘bug’ can stop your engine dead in an instant, surely this is one of the most negative and potentially dangerous developments of recent times. We have got used to taking the reliability of our engines for granted – is that trust now under threat?

What does the future hold? Will hybrids offer real advantages, especially in terms of reliability, or simply prove to be a blind alley? Or might we be looking at different fuels as the basis of electrical propulsion? Whatever happens, the next generation has a hard act to follow, to replace the biggest game-changer of our sailing lifetimes – the good old diesel engine.

Have you a positive or negative story to tell regarding diesel engines? What do you think the future will be? Let us know with a comment.



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Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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