Do Sailboats Have Engines?

Sailboats are powered by the wind, so do they even need engines? While sailboats may not by definition need engines, most of them have them. Engines can offer a number advantages to the sailor, making them a welcome addition to most sailor’s equipment.

Do sailboats have engines? Most sailboats have engines since it is safer and more convenient to sail a boat that has an engine. However, it is not essential and some sailboats do not have engines.

Engines are considered a must by most sailors, but not all. Here’s what you need to know about why most sailboats have engines and how to choose the right engine for your boat.

Why do Sailboats Have Engines?

The vast majority of sailboats today have engines. The only time that you are likely to find a sailboat without an engine is if it is extremely small and only taken for casual outings under easily navigable locations and superb conditions.

Sailboats that go out into the open ocean or that people live aboard typically have motors. However, this is not always the case. There are certainly times when very dedicated sailors may choose to sail without having an engine at all.

This may be especially likely for racing sailboats that are unwilling to give up any amount of speed because of added weight. However, for most cruisers, a motor is a standard piece of equipment. Why is the engine such an essential tool for modern sailors?


Even dedicated sailors that almost never choose to use their engines often still maintain an engine. Why? Because engines can be a very important safety tool. In perfectly still conditions, a sailboat is completely without the ability to move.

If you find out that a serious storm is approaching or that for any other reason you need to make a hasty retreat, you won’t be able to do it on sails alone if there isn’t any wind. Therefore, you will probably choose to keep an engine in good condition on board even if you do not plan on using it often.

Use Your Boat in any Conditions

When you imagine sailing, you probably visualize breezy, sunny days in which you lose yourself out on the water. There will certainly be many days like that in your sailing career, but there will also be days that make you question why you ever wanted a boat in the first place.

When the weather is bad and you need to get where you’re going, an engine is the best way to do it. Even if there is sufficient wind to sail, if it’s not going the direction you want, you may spend all day tacking to get where you’re going while not enjoying your sail very much at all.

In very high winds and rough conditions, you may be afraid to have your sails up at all. Experienced sailors can typically trim their sails to almost any wind conditions, but while you are still learning and gaining confidence, it can be extremely intimidating to try to sail under harsh conditions.

On such days, if you have to be out on the water, you’ll probably want to use your engine to get where you’re going as quickly as you can.


It is possible to anchor or dock entirely under sail, and there are certainly sailors who take a lot of pleasure in showing off the skill. However, most people find that it is simply not worth the effort or risk to try to do these things under sail.

One small mistake and you will have to circle back and do the whole thing all over again. Therefore, even when conditions are favorable to anchor or dock under sail, most people prefer to drop the sails and make their landing or takeoff under motor.

Pros and Cons of Having an Engine on Your Sailboat

More control over your boat in dangerous situationsAdded weight which can slow your boat down
Ability to navigate in inclement conditionsTendency to take more risks and depend on sails less
Increased control when docking and anchoringGreater cost both in the purchase of the motor and in paying for gas to run it
Safety in being able to power up when necessaryCapsizing isn’t that big of a deal as long as you can right yourself, enabling you to potentially have more fun while sailing

How to Use Sailboat Motor Wisely

Most sailboats have motors, but most sailors may not use them as effectively as possible. Here’s what you need to know about how to make the most of your motor.

Maintain a Loose Schedule

The stricter your schedule, the more often you’ll find yourself motoring, and the less you’ll enjoy it. Sailing is not a hobby meant to be performed with an agenda. You will regret having a tight schedule when you are motoring upwind against a rocky sea.

A looser schedule will let you sail when it is convenient to you. Even if you choose to use your motor because the wind may not be strong enough, you can enjoy doing so on a pleasant day rather than beating against the wind when the weather is very bad.

Only Motorsail When it is Really Advantageous To You

Motor sailing is a great way to enjoy a lot of the pleasure of sailing while making better time or being able to cut a sharper angle to the wind. When done correctly, you can save a lot of gas and make better time by motor sailing.

However, motor sailing isn’t always advisable. You may find that you are tacking at an angle that makes you cover much more ground than you would have if you had simply motored. You may also find that you simply end up being on the water longer, which will eventually eat up more of your gas.

As a rule, it’s best only to motor sail when you see an increase in your speed over sailing or motoring alone and when you can tack a relatively conservative angle to your destination.

Don’t Fight to Windward

The times when you will want to use your motor most is when you are going upwind. Your sails can’t help you in this circumstance, so if you want to go directly against the wind and not tack, you will be employing your motor.

This is a fine technique to take in light winds and mild weather, but when conditions are very bad, your engine may not be as helpful as you assume. You may even find yourself fighting to windward and thinking you are making headway because it looks like you are making progress, but you may not actually be covering any ground at all.

Do Sailboats Have Engines?

This can be an extremely dangerous situation, as you will run out of gas without having actually made progress towards your destination. Whenever you are going to windward, be careful to keep an eye on your GPS or radar to make sure that you really are making progress.

As a rule, it’s better never to fight to winward if you can avoid it. Instead, take a tack similar to what you would have taken if you were sailing and give your engine some help in making headway against the waves.

Go Slow

Sailboats aren’t made to be powered by engines, and sailboat engines usually are not the most efficient. If you do need the motor, it’s best that you not push your engines too hard. You will conserve gas and your sailboat engine will last longer if you are gentle on it.

Maintain a slow, steady speed when you are motoring whether you are motor sailing or not. As conditions change, be conscious of it and take the opportunity to try turning off the motors and going by sail periodically.

This is the best way to make sure that you are only using your engines as much as necessary and not wasting fuel.

How Much Engine Does a Sailboat Need?

Buying an engine for a sailboat isn’t like buying one for a motorboat. Motorboats need a lot more power, since the engine is their primary and sole means of travel.

However, sailboats really only need as much power as it takes to move them even when the wind is against them. It often isn’t really worthwhile to get more engine for your sailboat, since your sailboat is not designed to move well under engine power in the first place. Here are a few tips to help you decide how much motor you need:

  1. What will you be doing with the boat? If you will be open ocean cruising, you may want more engine than if you are just taking the boat out for day sails. Sailors that find themselves caught in inclement conditions generally require more sails so that they can feel confident of making their way out of those situations.
  2. How heavy is your boat? It should come as no surprise that heavier boats need stronger engines. Your engine needs to be strong enough to push your boat against the wind or waves when you need to. Choose an engine just strong enough to push your boat even if conditions are very rough.

Make Good Choices With Your Engine

Most sailboats have engines, and you will likely choose to have an engine on your boat as well. However, it’s wise to keep in mind that the engine is only supposed to be a helpful tool on your sailboat.

Sailors who become over-dependent on their engines may not make the best sailing choices, so be sure that you remember that you are a sailor first and that the engine is just there as an aid.