In Cape Horn: The Logical Route, Bernard Moitessier wrote about the joy of sailing into a harbor at night. Not just entering a harbor, but sailing in.
“It is wonderful to enter a harbor at night. A hundred times better than in the day,” he wrote. “For in daylight, you’re always a bit inhibited by the presence of onlookers who might think that you want to show off or demonstrate how well you can handle a boat. You try in vain not to care, you still feel ill at ease. At night, on the other hand, everyone does his job, without fuss, because he likes doing it well, with the boat as the only witness.”
I’m almost certain I have referenced this passage in another article, perhaps several, and yet it still bears repeating. The joy Moitessier expresses in the simple act of sailing his boat is captivating. It inspired me to learn how to sail—how to really sail—all the boats I’ve skippered to experience for myself that which the philosophical Frenchman so eloquently describes.
For as long as I’ve worked as a sailor, I’ve sailed into and out of harbors. Sailing as a deckhand on the 74-foot schooner Woodwind on the Chesapeake Bay, when conditions were right, we’d make a lap under sail around the mooring field in Annapolis at the end of our two-hour day sails. Annapolis Harbor is pretty tight in summertime, and 74 feet is a lot of boat. We did it anyway as a test of seamanship (and partly as a marketing tool). We called these runs “harbor burns,” and they were a hit with the guests onboard, we sailors on deck, and the tourists ashore.
Perhaps my proudest moment as a skipper came in 2009 when Mia and I worked for Broadreach, leading a group of teenagers in the Eastern Caribbean. The 32-day itinerary saw us sail from the French side of St. Martin down island all the way to Trinidad. Broadreach’s Arc of the Caribbean program was really about leadership, taught through sailing at sea and community outreach ashore.
The first 10 days were pretty intense with sail training; the kids had little to no boating experience, but they learned fast, and soon we were sailing onto and off of mooring balls, executing quick tacks and jibes, and performing our own harbor burns in Gustavia among the superyachts in St. Barths.
In Nevis, my kids were tested when I switched places with the skipper of our buddy boat running a parallel program to ours. We ran each others’ kids through a series of drills to test their skills as sailors and boathandlers. I was a bit stressed and distracted when I saw that my kids hadn’t left their mooring ball yet—until I saw why. They were hoisting the mainsail. They were going to sail off!
When the kids I was testing completed the series of tacks, jibes, reefing, and unreefing, we returned to the mooring ball under power, secured the boat, and tidied up. I had a front-row seat to watch my kids wrap up their day. Sure enough, they came in under sail. Their first attempt to grab the ball failed, but they didn’t panic. Instead, they bore away, jibed back out of the harbor, and made a second run under sail, nailing it next time round. I couldn’t stop smiling. I hadn’t briefed my kids to do that during the test, nor was it required in the curriculum. They’d done it of their own accord.
Late that same year, Mia and I delivered a Mason 43 to the Bahamas with the owner, his son and girlfriend, and my dad. Landfall in the Abacos from the north and east can be tricky; there are narrow reef passes you must run before reaching the relative safety of the flat water among the islands. Several of these are impassable even in fine weather, and when they’re “raging”—when a sustained, strong northeasterly kicks up a heavy swell against current, sometimes creating whitewater all the way across the channel—there’s no way in at all. You just wait it out offshore.
We timed our landfall well, arriving outside the cut just after dawn, with the sun high and behind us, just like the books say. It was fine weather, but windy from the northeast. There was a distinct swell running, but not enough to close the widest channel outside Marsh Harbor, and from a distance we could see whitewater on either side of the pass, but blue in the middle. That was our path. Turning downwind with three reefs in the mainsail, we motorsailed through the cut, using the mainsail to stabilize the boat against the rolling swell, and emerging on the flat water on the inside.
I’ve continued the tradition of sailing into and out of ports whenever I can. On 59º North passages, when crew raise an eyebrow about the close quarters maneuvers I coach them on attempting under sail, I joke that, “She’s just a big dinghy.” At 65 feet, Falken, our latest addition to the fleet, is a big dinghy indeed. But she’s a sailboat in the end, fundamentally no different than a dinghy in how she handles and responds to the wind, the sails, and the helm.
August Sandberg, skipper of our Swan 48 Isbjørn, conducts a week-long offshore training camp passage outside his home port in Bergen, Norway. Talk about close quarters maneuvering—the rocks and skerries around the west coast of Norway provide spectacular cruising but leave little room for error if you’re not confident in your boathandling skills. Wrapping up a recent trip, August excitedly sent us a message stating they’d just docked…under sail!
Maneuvering under sail, while sometimes showy, is oftentimes safer. On that Bahamian reef pass, the sails stabilized the roll of the boat against the heavy swell, making it far easier to see ahead and to drive a straight line.
Maneuvering under sail leaves you options. Under power only, you have a single point of failure. Lose the engine and you lose control.
As Moitessier describes, there is something almost spiritual about maneuvering your boat purely under sail, but there’s also something fundamentally practical about it too. A sailboat is designed to sail, and often she’ll handle much more nimbly that way. There’s a reason that on the official documentation of your boat she’ll often be listed as an auxiliary sail vessel—the auxiliary referring to the engine as the secondary source of propulsion.
She’s just a big dinghy, after all.