The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Motorboating and Sailing Compared—Part 1


Phyllis and I made a 300-mile (day and a half) passage on a motorboat with our friends Bob and Brenda who were kind enough to give us a ride back to Maine from our Base Camp in Nova Scotia, to retrieve our car that we left there after commissioning Morgan’s Cloud and cruising her back to Base Camp. Since both passages were made in very light winds, comparing them was both fun and interesting.

We could not have had better instructors to introduce us to this form of boating. Bob is a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, a commercial mariner, and a commercial fisherman who built and ran his own fleet of three draggers, winter and summer, in the Gulf of Maine, while Brenda handled shore logistics.

Some 25 years ago they bought the aptly named Sea Return, a Pearson 53, and cruised and raced her all over the western North Atlantic, including several races to Bermuda and numerous voyages to the Islands, often offshore and in the late fall. Last year they sold their beloved Sea Return and bought a Nordhavn 55 that their grandchildren named BJoyce, after Brenda.

Here are our musings about what it’s like for two sailors on a displacement motorboat on an offshore passage.

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Cool post. Open comparisons like this are great info, seems like most folks are on team sail or team power. I am on team fun, team comfortable, team safe. Anyway, dig it.


hi john- interesting post.

I’ve run several 40-65′ fishing and commercial boats over the years, but my heart and experience has been 75% offshore sail, sail training and (sailing)yacht delivery. I too have been considering this in detail, after 5 years of looking after a lovely old N46 here in Halifax – also my first serious, long term exposure to higher-end trawler yachts.

I can say that the pitching isn’t much better on the old 46’s either. they are definitely a better hull form in terms of length/beam and overall shape, but you still go airborne in the forward head in a 1.5-2m sea at 6 knots… which is not really conducive to doing what you need to do in a head most of the time. I can also say that those damn Trac stabilizers are incredible. they stop the rolling cold – as long as you have enough forward speed. on our N46, we also had the manual fish stabilizers and outriggers, which interestingly streamed aft far enough to also dampen some of the pitch, which the Trac units didn’t touch. and they didn’t burn any power (except the .5knt parasitic drag) to run. Launch and recovery can be exciting though, if not practiced and/or left too late.

One of the things that struck me frequently (as you’ve mentioned) was the disconnect between the outdoors and the indoor pilothouse. I, like your friends above, was always leaving the pilothouse doors open so I could hear and sense what was going on outside… but this tended to blow the papers all over the pilothouse and elicit criticism from the crew at times. It was too easy to close up, go into ‘full spaceship mode’ and rely solely on instruments to tell the tale of the world outside. And the crap visibility astern always bugged the hell outta me.

That said, in the 5 years of looking after and running this N46, we had many mid-winter excursions that were stunning: Breaking the 1/2″ skim of ice around the dock (thank you bow thruster), pushing out through the sea-smoke into a minus 17 C morning under brilliant sun, with absolutely mirror calm water and steaming slowly thru mini-tornadoes of sea-smoke as the thermals burned off the water under the sun, seals playing around us and absolutely no one else on the water nearby… magical moments that frankly I simply would never have attempted in our center cockpit cutter – even with our good heating system. The heated pilothouse and plethora of safety and backup systems (wing engine comes to mind specifically) facilitated easy, safe operation; and made it doable and very enjoyable – and we had 10 people aboard for that day trip, all comfortable and warm. Try that in an exposed cockpit sailboat!

Agreed on the Dashew model, love those boats…Windhorse was here a couple years ago and we got a tour – but who can afford that?? certainly no one I know… it isn’t exactly ‘attainable’. not to me anyway. I think there are others who have designed similar long and lean vessels with similar performance abilities, but perhaps without the polish and finesse of the dashew line.

looking forward to post 2 on this topic!



Hi John,
Great article. I agree that pitching is more of an issue with trawler yachts than sailboats especially when the pilothouse is forward. I did a short May overnight passage with a Selene 59 against 25 knots of wind and short wavelength, steep waves in the Eastern Med and l can say it was much more tiresome than the equivalent passage in an aft cockpit sailboat; the motion was abrupt, sluggish, exaggerated and it seemed that the bow was really hitting on the wave trains without any sense of cutting through. On top of that the owner had the bright idea of offering us dinner that was heavy and oily and that was the first and until now the only time I was so much seasick that I found myself unable to tackle the night shift behind the big screens in the pilothouse; I was reduced to watching the screens as if they were broadcasting tv shows and visibility from the pilothouse windows was terrible so for safety reasons I requested to be replaced (that area is known for military and commercial traffic). However the morning when we were approaching our destination the seas calmed and the general feeling on-board was similar to that being in a cruise ship. I stayed on board for a week in a marina where a boat show was taking place and the yacht’s comfort, spaciousness, luxury, convenience (as of hydraulic passarelle… sat tv, a/c, deck and interior siting areas…) could not be compared with any sailboat I have experienced in the past. In contrast to this a crew member occupying the forward guest cabin during the passage reported banging his head multiple times on the ceiling ( but this can be the same with sailboats). I was fortunate enough to sleep fairly well in a midships cabin with double bunks. Moreover the noise from the twin JD’s 6068 can be a bit tiresome and disconnecting from the elements and the stabilizers although state of the art Wesmar were totally useless in that situation because they correct for roll and not pitch.
Regarding active fin stabilization in following seas I heard from trawler yachts captains’ and or owners’ accounts that can be challenging and not that much effective even for the latest fins controlled by digital systems. I have even heard that with certain speed/reaction settings they can even induce unwanted steering forces on the boat.
I’ve done some winter delivery passages in the Adriatic, Aegean and Levantine Basin (frp mainstream production sailboats, Bavaria, Elan, Hanse, Beneteau) encountering a couple of times gale conditions and one knockdown and I was never so uncomfortable as that night and only occasionally mildly seasick ( although I think I was more tired than seasick). The motion always seemed smoother, with longer period oscillations ( as in roll, pitch etc).
Regarding complexity of systems and their maintenance on trawler yachts there is nothing I can add to your article except maybe the word nightmare. This arises from direct input from my local marina.

Looking forward for next post.


You could probably get a lot of advantages of the trawler with a large sailing catamaran:
– no roling
– no healing
– protected steering position (on some cats e.g. Antares)

I am relatively new to your blog so I am not sure if you ever wrote/consider a cat but it would be interesting what are your thoughts about cruising cats in general. I have to admit that after chartering cats several times I have been sold 🙂


Hi John,
The catamaran head boat that you ran years ago undoubtedly had fat hulls with a LBL ratio of about 8/1 or worse. Kind of the catamaran equivalent to a Morgan OI 41 ketch. A cat with long, narrow 12/1 hulls, fine entries, and progressive buoyancy increase is a different breed entirely.

As I’ve often suggested to someone considering buying a fat, top heavy trawler like a Nordhaven with the intent of actually leaving the dock, they owe it to themselves to book a flight to Hawaii and experience the stability and motion characteristics of a catamaran with relatively contemporary hull designs. (not the typical Virgin Islands bareboat condomaran) The north shore of Kauai is ideal— thousands of miles of fetch all the way to the Bering Sea almost always guarantee a couple of meters of seaway, even in the summer. Kevin Mahoney’s (Holo Holo charters) 65′ power cat regularly runs at 20+ knots in those conditions with 50 landlubbers aboard and doesn’t have to pass out the Sturgeron before hand. You can choose to go out on his 50 foot sailing cat the next day for a comparison of a lighter boat only sailing or motoring at 12-15 knots.

Andy Evans has been running a Gold Coast 53 powered by twin Cummins on the same route for over 15 years. Built in St. Croix and averaged 12 knots between there and Hawaii on its delivery voyage. I’ve personally stood on the foredeck, holding on to nothing and carrying on a conversation while motoring at 18 knots in choppy 1.5 meter seas.

“but catamarans have no load carrying capacity” —– should tell that to the operators of the 65 footer in San Francisco cobbled together from my Sunchaser 58 design who are certified to carry 100 passengers in windy SF Bay—–.


Hi John,
We are still kinda comparing apples to turnips here. Do catamarans or trimarans roll in a sufficiently sized beam seaway? Of course— and typically with a more jerky motion than a much heavier trawler style hull. 1000′ Panamax freighters roll as well , although due to somewhat different dynamics.

The typical power catamaran at your local boat show will have a beam 1/3 of its hull length or less, and those hulls will be semi-planing designs to enable big engines to push them up to the planing speeds that the advertising brochure calls for and compete with the other sport fishermen. Hull beam will be determined by the size of a walk around queen bed, and the weight of the household Sub-zero refrigerator, not by performance considerations. In a large quartering beam sea their roll characteristics will not be much different than an exceptionally beamy monohull.

Add a trawler style superstructure to this type of power catamaran and you have what I call a Tubby Tabbie.

The alternative I’ve been describing has an overall beam at 50% of its length— that’s’ 30′ for a 60 footer. The hulls are pure displacement designs with very narrow entry angle. They have very little flare but substantial freeboard so as the bow punches into a wave the buoyancy increases progressively rather than abruptly stopping forward motion, thus minimizing both pitching and rolling inputs. They can have fake America’s Cup oxbow side profiles or simple vertical bows— it hardly matters. This is what I call a semi-wave piercing design, and its motion characteristics are very different from a Tubby Tabbie trawler catamaran.

How fast do you want to go? Motor at theoretical hull speed producing no wake and using very little power? Or use bigger engines and drive the boat at up to 2.5 times theoretical hull speed before the power requirement curve starts to steepen substantially? Or have the safety factor of twice the speed potential of a monohull trawler combined with much better fuel economy?

Bob Shircliff

Thanks for the great post, John. You did a very nice job of comparing and contrasting the sail and power experience. As a teaching Captain who helps couples transition from sail to power, you are providing one of the few written accounts from knowledgeable captains who have experienced both types of cruising. I look forward to Part 2!

Captain Bob Shircliff

Scott Flanders

OK, I’ll rise to the bait. A couple things are apparent reading between the lines. One is the fear of complexity. A small ocean capable powerboat like an Nordhavn 46 has exactly the same systems for the most part as an equivalent sailboat with the exception of stabilizers which are nearly hands odd except for pushing a couple buttons. What a trawler doesn’t have is all the silly strings, wires, sticks, and giant rags to block your view so you can actually see. Imagine that?

And we stay warm and dry. Imagine that?

Right now we are under way in Long Island sound in light fog, rain with 7 knots 55 degrees to stbd. So I suppose you could be sailing in plastic clothes but why when you could be standing in a warm pilot house playing on an iPad harassing sailors who remember the good days and shut out the rest. Sorta like childbirth.


Your comment gave me quite a chuckle as I transitioned 3 years ago and you are right. We are currently cruising the Cumberland having come up the Tombigbee from Florida. Only negative about power versus sail is costs are much higher; like the $25K per year on maintenance and fixing stuff. Bigger engines are more expensive to fix when they blow up. Example, $25k to rebuild a Volvo 435hp diesel (and that’s a deal). $8k to rebuild a 75hp Yanmar.


Northwest Passage 2014 – the numbers tell their own story. 25 yachts started. 21 continued north of the Arctic Circle. 6 reported being beset in ice during their attempt (likely others but not reported) 2 had to be icebreaker rescued. The particulars of the two rescued were: 36 feet aluminum/25hp singlehanded and 40 feet aluminum/46hp two persons. As of September 15th two yachts have not reported for more than 14 days and their position is unknown. One yacht is purposely wintering over. Counting the yachts still underway and likely to cross the opposite Arctic Circle there will be only 10 complete an Atlantic Arctic Circle to Pacific Arctic Circle Northwest Passage (or opposite direction transit). Of those 10, three wintered over in 2013 (two on the hard and one in the frozen sea) in the Arctic and required two years to complete their Arctic transit. 2014 was a near repeat of 2013 with ice choke-points requiring vessels to wait for weather and late melt season conditions to navigate near to open ice waters. A Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker and a cruise ship were beset for three days in heavy ice but luckily were able to self-escape after a storm moved through the area. Only two motor vessels; a 163 ft. super-yacht and a 68 ft. tug-yacht participated in 2014. In 2013 four motor yachts completed the Passage. All sailboats report motoring or motor-sailing more than 50% of the 3,400 nm Passage. The rule of thumb for two horsepower per thousand pounds of displacement for a cruising sailboat should be re-considered for high latitudes. Six of the sailboats reported being unable to go to weather in 35kts 6 foot seas using both sails and motor. Definite advantage to vessels with reserve horsepower main engines. Motor vessel or sail vessel? It all depends. Knowing what fits your service might be the most important question to answer. Asking one design to do it all is like thinking a convertible sports-car would fit all of your needs… in rainy Seattle. (I just want to keep the rain rumor going… today will be 88F :-))


I think the wise boater realizes that selecting features from both motor and sail then seeing if they can be incorporated into your selected vessel makes sense – now retired I prefer motor to sail, but have selected a sailboat hull but placed 210hp main into a stand up engine room etc… for me my vessel is near optimum and I’m very comfortable in high latitudes – more so than the tropics which now requires air conditioning at night to achieve a restful sleep. It all depends… so learning what works for your travel plans is once again at the top of the list. I just happen to think motor is my choice because I enjoy high latitudes more than the tropics. To each their own.

Scott flanders

Don’t pay any attention to me. I’m just having fun on someone’s else’s nickel while we are chugging along. Power is easier no doubt, however we’re all different and that what makes it fun.

I will say that CCA friends that circumnavigated in the 90’s under sail then went to power just went back to sail. It’s OK. Most of our long distance friends are sailors.

All I’ll say then disappear back into the salon with a view is there is a lot of misinformation floating around so I get sucked into commenting and shouldn’t.


Bill Jacobs

Having sailed ( and still do) both racing and cruising for 30 years, and now motoring in three different trawlers for 20 years, I believe both are different but equal in terms of enjoyment. Life changes, crew capability changes and there is no comparison required nor appropriate. They are equally enjoyable.

Svein Lamark

Hi John, I find your post well balanced, interesting and analytical. As I see it your main point is about comfort. As we get older we need more comfort. As a young boy I always had a long ski trip in the Arctic at Christmas times, only with a pair of skies and a sleeping bag. Not any more. But I still believe sailing in the Arctic winter is fun. As I grew up in The Arctic sailing in winter time was considered to be the best season. Many modern boats does not have the comfort to sail in winter season. I doubt that the trawlers have any good comfort at temperatures around minus 20 Celsius. The modern French alu boats I have seen are not comfortable in cold weather. They have a wrongly installed and inefficient heating system and lots of condensation problems thanks to bad insolation. They are wet, cold and uncomfortable. I think that a modern yacht also should be comfortable in winter time. This is easy to fix with double window glasses, good insolation of the hull and an efficient heating system. But I have only seen that in old boats. I find it strange.