The problem/s with boats.

New Facebook page, the Backyard Boatbuilder :

Part 3 of my new series about the problems and risks of sailing open boats in ‘big’ water.

A quick bit of blog time and then i’ll begin so…..It’s 1700 on a dull and grey afternoon right at the end of October 2021 ; at around mid-day today i finished wet fitting the very last of the hull planks on my Pathfinder build and that was my major goal for this year completed. Obviously iv’e still got a lot of work to do just on the hull because iv’e yet to finish the butt strap tingles, to tidy all of the plank edges up and ultimately flip the hull over and glass the underside. In terms of main construction that’s it for the year though and my next job on the list is about a month of garden work.

In this post i want to explore the world of small boat problems by considering the evidence of what those problems and risks actually are ; first i want to review what those are from my own experience, then look at what other sailors have written and filmed and finally take a look at the operational statistics from the English RNLI.

First though another sea story….one of my own.

In the late summer of 2020 we finally got away for a short break aboard my 22 foot Hunter Liberty after a hugely frustrating and difficult year. Our plan was to go east , cruise the section of the west country from the Tamar to Exmouth and then maybe make passage across Lyme bay and go into Weymouth and Poole ; then, maybe, i would over-winter the boat somewhere and/or continue with my round UK voyaging in the autumn.

Well, we had a neat night passage across Lyme bay in light downwind conditions and then rounded the Bill of Portland in a bit of a chop but immediately headed up into Portland bay and put into Weymouth harbor. Our problems started almost immediately in Weymouth bay with first a snotty kid in a beach lifeguard RIB telling me i had to move despite being several hundred meters off the beach and then, in the harbor itself had a bit of an argument with the ‘harbormaster’ who seemed to have been trained in the same charm school as the average jobsworth/parking attendant. Instead of being ‘allowed’ to moor in the main harbor we had to take a berth in the commercial marina and that was actually a lot better because they were friendly, helpful and accommodating ……full marks to Weymouth marina.

Allow me to first go back a passage and then talk about what happened at the end of that cruise…..

Early one morning i was at anchor just off Bow creek in the upper tidal section of the river Dart and my plan for that day was to motor downriver on the top of the tide and then make passage around to Torbay where i would meet up with my partner again. All was well except that my engine – and old but serviceable Mariner outboard just wouldn’t start and i suspected a broken HT cable of which i didn’t have a spare or any way of mending the broken one. It wasn’t a great problem though and in fact i found it an interesting challenge to make way with a combination of a very light northerly breeze….to be honest hardly any of it in the river though, my canoe paddle and the tide of course which was just about to turn in my favor.

I was able to sail for at best a couple of minutes at a time so what i did mostly was to treat the Liberty like a big canoe – lean it down a bit by kneeling partially on one side deck or other and just paddling with my longest open canoe blade. Ideally the job really needs a longer paddle….a stand-up paddle-board blade would be better but it worked well enough. I made quite a good passage downriver and my only real problems were getting past the various ferries at paddling speed….those ferries are absolutely unforgiving and seem to expect a total right of way !. Soon though i sailing easily out through the Dartmouth entrance and breathing a huge sigh of relief as i picked up a clean light westerly and started running for Berry head and Torbay with a plan of putting into Torquay harbor.

It breezed up a bit as i cleared Brixham and Torbay opened out to my left (windward) side – i was perfectly happy to sail across to Torquay harbor, enter the harbour under sail , heave-to and hand my sails just inside the wall and then paddle the little Liberty alongside except…… Then i thought that i’d look pretty stupid if something went wrong so i called up the harbourmaster on my mobile phone, appraised him of my engineless state and my plan of coming in under sail and paddle and he basically veto’d that and said he would send the marina launch out when i was closer in and bring me in under tow. As it worked out i was just preparing to hand sail when the launch came out and the guys tied me alongside doing a neat job of putting me alongside a pontoon… charge either as long as i stayed a few days which was my plan anyway.

Now, the harbourmaster was a decent bloke and he accepted that i was most likely capable of sailing in and getting alongside but as he said and i thought we would both have looked silly if it went wrong and i pranged something expensive while trying to slip into the short space that the launch put me in. No harm done and no pride lost to have communicated with them though.

The main problem with boats it seems are these things.

That one packed up twice on me as well – that being the Deben 23 classic yacht that i bought with a view to making a cruising boat out of an old one . That lump, plus an anchor so firmly buried in shingle that i couldn’t budge it got me into a whole heap of trouble a few years back :

So, that’s 2 engine failures in about 3 years and as i think back i had another one with my Frances 26 when she tried to sink on her mooring and going back many more years i can recall several other major machinery failures on boats that iv’e been involved in myself and that’s just the beginning from personal experience . Iv’e heard many anecdotal stories of machinery/engine failure and then while we were in Dartmouth (UK) after our dismasting i was having a gam with the local lifeboat cox’n who had just got back from bringing in another yacht with engine failure…..he said “a regular occurrence”.

If you’ve ever wondered what the greatest number of RNLI call outs (to boats) is for , well it isn’t heavy weather and capsizes – in fact most lifeboat callouts are in light to moderate weather… : it’s because of machinery failure and it seems to equally effect both motor boats and auxiliary sailing yachts. You see, iv’e been chewing my way through years of available RNLI operational statistics/reports to find out what the actual evidence is and yes – the most frequent call out is for engine failure and that seems to account for some 7-900 callouts a year . To find anything like heavy weather problems and capsizes we have to look way down the list after strandings, anchor failures, rig/sail failures and so on : and once again to also say yet again that they’re not usually in heavy weather but in the same kind of distribution that i wrote about last time ; light to moderate conditions.

My theme in this set of posts is that of evidence – what does actually go wrong with boats and their crew at sea, and not what we mistakenly think goes wrong. There’s a small example going on in one of the sailing forums where one member is insisting that fire is the greatest risk and greatest threat to a boat, and doing that despite the overwhelming evidence that fires aboard boats are statistically rare. In my first post in this series i commented that there is an assumption among the non sailing public and even some sailors that the greatest risk of the sea is storms and heavy weather and yet the RNLI launch statistics show that the ‘curve’ of lifeboat launches is in light weather and for something that isn’t directly related to the sea.

The practical outcome of this, for me, is to start thinking of my build project as an engineless boat even if i do have a small outboard motor say, and always have the ability to move the boat when there’s no wind or not enough on a foul tide. That means having 2 things well sorted – first the ability to move the boat efficiently under paddle,oars or scull (i must learn to scull) and to be able to anchor the boat quickly to sit out a foul tide inshore……anchor failure and strandings do both show up in the statistics by the way. Early on then in the fit-out stage i have to work out the rowing position and sculling position…..Pathfinder is a wide boat and not an intentional rowing boat like some of John Welsford’s other designs and maybe a sculling oar or Yuloh over the stern will be one solution. Just to add though, right at the end, that there will always be the comment and response ‘maintain the damn engine’…..all well and good except that a good mate of mine who is a superyacht engineer has had a perfectly maintained engine break down at sea from a completely unexpected cause.

For anyone that is interested i pulled the following numbers and percentages from just one year of RNLI operational statistics – other years i looked at were similar. This is nothing like the full list of causes of a lifeboat launch but even so are still of interest so…the top 5 :

  1. Machinery failure, 1500 launches and 18% of total.
  2. Stranding or grounding, 678 launches and 8 % of total.
  3. Person in distress, 587 launches…..7% of total
  4. Person in danger of drowning, 578 launches.
  5. Vessel thought to be in trouble, 469 launches and 6% of total.

I would like to finish this post with a link to a video that is one of a series that is relevant to the subject – this is one from a sailor whom i have covered before ; ‘The sailing Frenchman’… preparing for the Mini-Transat race in perhaps the world’s strangest looking scow-bowed mini. This is one of a series in which the skipper is talking about and preparing for ‘stuff that goes wrong’ and in the more demanding environment of an ocean race in a lightly built and hard driven race boat.


  1. Enjoyed the read, thanks Steve. A Yuloh on the stern sounds like the way to go and has the added advantage of you looking cool using it 😉 Good article here should you choose to use one:

    Click to access Yuloh%20efficiency.pdf

    Or you could just buy a SUP paddle…

    Funnily enough, Web Chiles has constant problems with his engine, or rather the batteries for it as it’s an electric outboard, and he hardly uses it! Same goes for his tiller pilots but they do get an almighty work out, likely far beyond their design parameters, so you can understand that.

    Hope the weather stays dry for the gardening.


    1. I looked at it but i don’t think i can create the space for batteries big enough for an electric O/B. I’m going to work out the loom length for standard oars and see if i can first set up just to row,,,,maybe facing forward or using one oar to scull. With this boat being lower than the Liberty i might be able to paddle with my longest canoe blade by kneeling on the seat. If budget allows i might look out for a nice 2.5 Hp outboard secondhand.


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