Saturday, 5 May 2012


Making a list of boats which might suit my needs the other day, I mentioned a Colvic Watson Motorsailer as an option. Then yesterday, Michael commented that he had a great deal of respect for them – even though many people would find them pretty ugly craft. Well beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I’m with Michael on this point. They are heavy traditional looking serious vessels and, to my eyes at least, they have a beauty all of their own – built out of their ruggedness and practicality.
Traditional fishing vessels - the inspiration behind Motorsailers

So, motorsailers might be a bit like Marmite sandwiches, you either love or hate them. Why should that be? Have they had a bad press? Are they out of date or are they simply misunderstood?

One view is that, at best, they are a strange hybrid sort of craft, borne out of commercial fishing vessels, lacking the right shaped hull to be driven efficiently under power, and far too heavy to be effective sailing boats. At best they are mediocre sailing vessels and slow displacement motorboats. With a motorsailer you get the worst of both worlds.

There are other views of course. Supporters argue that their powerful hulls and rugged scantlings make them excellent sea boats, slow maybe, but dependable craft that will take you anywhere and get you through the worst that the wind and water can throw at you.

I suppose there is an element of truth in both arguments. In the 1950’s many UK motorsailer manufacturers drew a great deal upon commercial fishing vessel designs. You’ll find plenty of examples still around and their lineage is written large in their general hull shape, the powerful bow and the curving shear line much loved by motorsailer enthusiasts. Early examples also carried very heavy slow turning diesel engines which did nothing to enhance speed under power and which contributed a great deal to limiting sailing performance.

Across the Atlantic however, ideas about motorsailer design were very different. No less an authority than Norman I Skene, author of countless articles and the classic book ‘Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design’ (get it on Amazon) was a well-known supporter of the concept. For him the essential difference between a sailing boat and a motorsailer was the ability to drive straight into the wind in a lumpy sea under power alone.

‘the wind quickly freshens to a strong breeze and the head seas build up. You soon notice that with all the resulting pitching you are really not making much headway. Going slower and slower straight into it, there is only one thing to do. Beat to windward under shortened sail. If you were on a sailboat that could keep going under power into the same head sea and get there sooner, your boat should be called a motorsailer.’

He also argued that such craft should be liable for lower insurance payments on the grounds that they would be able to power their way off a lee shore whereas a sailing boat might easily become embayed.

He went on to say:

Motorsailers are in my opinion an excellent type of yacht in every respect. They combine the better of two worlds. The best of the world of out and out sailing vessels and the best of the world of displacement type powerboats. I would say that they are more seaworthy than a sailboat because of their huskier higher sided hulls and more seaworthy than a power boat because with their sails set they do not have the uncomfortable motion of a power boat in a seaway.’

He was an American of course, and the motorsailers he was so fond of were a very different breed of vessel to those known in the UK. His motorsailers were large expensive cruisers, purpose built for a generation of yachtsmen who had a disposable income undreamed of in the UK.

On this side of the Atlantic, there is an argument to suggest that the critics of our homegrown motorsailers never really understood them. As sailing boats, it’s true that they were never anything to write home about but then how many sailing boat enthusiasts these days rely simply on the canvass to get them to their destination. Faced with a headwind ten miles out of Cherbourg after a five or six hour crossing from the UK how many sailing boat crews would be happy to spend another four or five hours tacking to their destination? Who wouldn’t wish for an engine powerful enough to take the wind and waves on the nose to get them directly to their destination in less than half that time. Motorsailers may be slow under power, but at least under engine they can point directly to their destination and get you there quicker.

So why not simply buy a motorboat? Because as every sailing boat owner knows, when the wind is right, working with you rather than against, there is nothing better than to close down the engines and enjoy the trip without the noise, smell and vibration that large engines produce. When it’s good, it’s very very good!

So what about a Colvic Watson, the mother of all UK motorsailers? These craft have an almost fanatical fan club. Heavily built with powerful engines and a wheelhouse taken straight from a North Sea trawler, they are the nautical equivalent of the chieftain tank. A Colvic Watson will take you anywhere. They date back to the 1970’s but they were heavily built and their powerful diesels were built to last. Get a good example and you’ve got a vessel for life. The problem for me is that prices for well maintained example can start at around £20,000.

But maybe, just maybe there might be one out there with sound ) Perkins 48hp diesel engine, needing a new owner and a lot of TLC.

So, for now, Colvic Watsons stay on my list. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes – with a surprising number of engine configurations. The most affordable are probably the 25footers.