Can A Sailboat Be Propelled?

One of the most challenging parts of learning to sail can be learning the language of boats, ships, and maritime navigation. Sometimes knowing what to call something and why is just a point of pride for boating enthusiasts, but at other times it can be an important part of knowing what to do or what rules to follow.

Can a sailboat be propelled? Sure it can. However, strictly speaking, a sailboat is only a sailboat if it is powered solely by its sails. The instant you turn on a motor to bolster power or aid in navigation, the craft ceases to be a sailboat and becomes a motor-sailor.

Does a sailboat by any other name sail as sweetly? For the most part, yes, it does. But there are certain instances where the difference between being a sailboat or a motor-sailor will dictate the right course of action while you’re on the water. Read on to learn what you need to know about using a motor on your sailboat.

Does the Motor Matter?

Small boat sailing is a popular hobby across the country, and ocean sailing is a common recreation activity in coastal areas. From a simple 10-ft, single-mast sailboat on a large pond or a small lake to the largest ocean-going luxury sailing yachts, there are some common activities that are made much easier by having a motor on board.

For any sailing vessel, switching on a power source in addition to or as an alternative to the sails will designate the vessel as a motor craft. Technically, you won’t be sailing any more—you’ll be motor-sailing. This distinction is important for knowing what to do when you encounter other boats on the water or enter into certain specially designated areas.

Having a motor on your boat will also require you to have certain additional equipment before you can use the motor if you want to stay on the right side of the authorities.

Why Would You Want A Motor Anyway?

If you’ve ever seen movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or television shows like Black Sails, you know the doldrums can be a sailing ship’s worst nightmare. While you probably don’t have to worry about mutiny or running out of freshwater when you’re on the water, a motor can still give you the freedom to go where you want, when you want, regardless of what the wind is doing.

No wind is the most obvious potential pitfall to sailing that a motor will get you out of, but there are others:

  • Sailing into the Wind: Sailing into the wind can be one of the most challenging skills for a novice to master. There are formulae to help you figure out what headings are available to you and how to set your rigging, but out on the open water, it can still give even experienced sailors the fits. At the same time, motor-sailing into the wind can be just as bad as the increased drag of your sails, and rigging will make it difficult to make headway. But if you have both sails and a motor you have options. Depending on where you’re headed, the distance, and the weather, you’ll be able to make the most of your situation.
  • Marinas and Docking: Getting into or out of a marina efficiently and with the maximum control over your craft is an important part of making sailing and enjoyable recreation rather than a source of irritation. Navigating these areas and other tight spots or technical challenges with the aid of a motor can mean the difference between sweating it out and making it look easy.
  • Fuel-Efficiency: This approaches the question from the other direction, but it definitely warrants mention. If you’re running under motor power and your craft has a mast and sails, then motor-sailing can be a great way to supplement the engine’s power and increase its fuel-efficiency. If you’re running with the wind, why not take full advantage of what creator is offering you?

Sure, there are some purists out there who will insist that no sailboat needs a motor and that a good deal of the enjoyment of sailing comes from learning how to meet the challenges that weather throws at you. But they probably won’t be around to help you out when you’re struggling through a task that would be much easier with a motor to turn to.

What You Need to Know About Motors on Sailboats

The most important thing you need to know about motors on sailboats is the comparative advantages and disadvantages you’ll get depending on whether you choose an inboard engine or an outboard motor.

Most sailboats are designed for one type of power source or the other, but some boats designed for inboard engines are later converted to outboard motors (the reverse is almost never the case).

Inboard Engines

Here are the advantages of an Inboard Engine:

  • The vast majority of inboard engines are diesel. This eliminates the hazards of gasoline, improves reliability, reduces the cost of operation, and increases the lifespan of the engine.
  • The weight of the engine will be lower and more centered in the craft’s hull, giving your craft better stability.
  • Many boaters prefer the appearance of a sailboat with an inboard engine.
  • Inboard engines typically lend themselves to a more extensive array of electrically powered equipment installed on the boat.
  • The propeller will sit lower in the water and decrease the chances of cavitation in steep waves.

Here are some of the disadvantages of an Inboard Engine:

  • Inboards weigh more and will make your boat slower.
  • Because they are mounted in small spaces, working on inboard engines can be a real pain. It is also difficult to remove or replace them and may require cutting the hull.
  • Replacing an inboard engine is typically more expensive than replacing with an outboard of equivalent size.
  • Inboards will eat up a lot of your below deck space.
  • Because the prop shaft runs through the hull, inboard engines require shaft-packing which increases your maintenance and introduces one more thing that can go wrong.

Outboard Motors

Here are the advantages of an Outboard Motor:

  • Much easier to work on, service, repair, or remove/replace than an Inboard Engine.
  • Many outboard motors can be raised to get the prop out of the water. This will reduce drag when under full sail power as well as the risk of getting tangled in debris.
  • Certain mountings give outboards the ability to turn for additional steering capacity in tight places.
  • Outboard motors are more inexpensive than inboard engines.
  • Outboard motors keep getting quieter and smoother every year.

Here are some of the disadvantages of an Outboard Motor:

  • The most important disadvantage to many sailors is the appearance.
  • The prop is not deep in the water, which increases the chances of cavitation in steep waves.
  • Outboard motors can have a negative effect on the balance and handling of the boat.
  • Gasoline fuel tanks onboard are an increased risk.
  • Older outboards are notoriously smoky and noisy.

Day Shapes and Night Lights

Regardless of whether you’re running an inboard engine or an outboard motor, there are certain marking devices that you will need to equip your sailboat with in order to motor-sail in compliance with Collision Regulations.

  • Day Shape: When motor-sailing during daylight hours, you must display an inverted black triangle to signal other craft that you are doing so.
  • Night Lights: When motor-sailing at night, you must display a white light visible to the fore and positioned 2/3 of the way up the mast.

Aye Aye, Cap’n

There you have it. Maybe it isn’t everything that you’ll ever need to know about sailing, motor-sailing, and the differences between them. But it’s a pretty good start to figuring out when you might prefer one over the other and how to set yourself up to safely make the transition between them.


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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