Which is Safer, a Sailboat or a Motorboat?

Which is Safer, a Sailboat or a Motorboat?

If you dream of going out on the water, one of the first questions that will occur to you is whether you want a motorboat or a sailboat. The next question is, which is safer? Safety may be especially important if you don’t have much experience on the water and are a bit nervous about getting out there.

Which is Safer, a Sailboat or a Motorboat?

Which is safer, a sailboat or a motorboat? Sailboats are considerably safer than motorboats, according to the statistics. Sailboats account for significantly fewer deaths annually. Keep in mind, however, that many more motorboats are on the water every year. That said, there are some important reasons why sailboats may be safer. 

You need a boat that you feel confident will be safe for your family. Here is what you need to know about sailboat and powerboat safety to help you make the right choice. 

Are Sailboats Safer Than Powerboats?

According to the statistics, sailboats are considerably safer than motorboats. The most common types of vessel involved in accidents are open motorboats, which account for 50% of deaths.

After open motorboats were Kayaks with 13.5% of death and canoes with 7% of deaths. While there are certainly deaths due to sailing accidents, they are considerably less common. 

Why are Sailboats Safer than Motorboats?

At first glance, it may seem that sailboats and motorboats should be very similar in safety, so why do so many more people die on motorboats every year? Here are a few explanations for the statistics. 

Boats on The Water

The statistics positively reflect more danger associated with motorboats, but there are also many more motorboats on the water at any given time. Overwhelmingly more people own and used motorboats, which means that motorboats are more likely to end up in an accident.  

Sales of powerboats are in the billions, around 3.5 billion in 2017. Sailboat sales, on the other hand, are in the millions, about 435 million in 2017. If you take safety precautions like wearing your life jacket, not piloting at high speeds, and not drinking to excess, there is no reason to think that you should not have a very safe experience on your motorboat.

Speed

Motorboats are faster than sailboats pretty much across-the-board, under nearly all conditions. Since motorboats are so much faster, they can get into trouble quicker, and the consequences of a mishap are more severe.

  • Running aground. If you run your sailboat aground, everyone will get a jolt, and you may have some damage to your underbelly or your daggerboard, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will be thrown overboard or be injured. On the other hand, if you run your motorboat aground at speed, the chances of being thrown out of the boat are much higher.
  • Hitting something. It is improbable that you will hit something with your sailboat, but if you do, it is unlikely to cause much damage to the boat or a significant jolt such that someone might be knocked overboard. On the other hand, it can be much easier to hit something when going quickly on a powerboat, especially when visibility is less than ideal.
  • Handling. It is certainly possible that a sailboat may capsize because of poor handling, especially under full sails in a good wind. However, generally, competent sailors rarely capsize a sailboat due to mishandling. If they do, injury at such a low speed is unlikely. On the other hand, it can be almost irresistible to handle a motorboat at high speed with lots of fun twists and turns. This kind of handling can result in capsizing at high speeds, which makes injury more likely. 
Which is Safer, a Sailboat or a Motorboat?

Motor vs Sail

Sails certainly have some inherent dangers associated with them, especially the mainsail attached to the boom. You can be hit by the boom when the boat is tacking or jibing, which can cause a serious injury or knock you overboard. You can also be tangled in the rigging. 

However, most sailors are very aware of the dangers associated with the boom and rigging. Even if you are hit by the boom, the chances of very serious injury are relatively low. 

Perhaps most importantly, if you are knocked overboard, and the boat runs over you, the chances of serious injury a much lower in a sailboat than a powerboat. Being knocked over the bow of a powerboat can happen fairly easily if the boat suddenly reduces speed because it hits something or because the engine falters. 

If you go over the bow and the boat runs over you while the engine is running, you can be very seriously injured by the propeller.

Effort Required

Most people who have done both agree that sailing is more challenging than piloting a motorboat. There is certainly significant skill involved in piloting a powerboat, especially in inclement conditions or difficult to read water. 

However, piloting a sailboat requires the same skill set and understanding of ocean conditions, along with an extensive skill and knowledge of wind conditions and sail handling.

Motorboat owners can handle their boat and get themselves into all sorts of situations with relatively little skill. If you don’t know how to sail properly, you won’t be able to leave the dock in the first place, much less find yourself in a dangerous situation. 

That means that motorboat owners may be more likely to get themselves out onto the open water or into difficult to read waters without much effort and have trouble navigating once they’re there. 

Alcohol Use

The effort required in sailing vs motoring may be associated with another important aspect of boating fatalities: Alcohol use. Alcohol is a leading factor contributing to fatal boating accidents. In 2018, alcohol contributed to 19% of total fatalities, or 100 deaths. 

There is no question that both sailors and motorboat captains may use alcohol, but because it can take so much more active effort and skill to sail, sailors may be less likely to drink to excess. 

If they do drink to excess, sailors are less likely to be able to cause significant damage, since their boat will not achieve the kind of speed that leads to serious accidents.

Equipment Failure

Both sailboats and motorboats are vulnerable to equipment failing out on the water, but in general, equipment failure in motorboats may be more likely to be disastrous. Nearly all sailboats sail under at least two sails, and most have a third available as well. 

That means that if one sail fails, you’ll still have another sail to rely on. Many powerboats have two or three engines for the same reason. Other powerboat owners can only afford one engine, either in cost or in weight.

Which is Safer, a Sailboat or a Motorboat?

Even if a powerboat is equipped with multiple engines, if there is an electric failure like what can easily happen if the boat capsizes, the engines may not function. 

Sailboat vs Motorboat Safety

SailboatMotorboat
Percentage of deathsUnknown, but under 7%50% 
Boats on the waterValue of sailboats sold in 2017: 435 millionValue of motorboats sold in 2017: 3.47 billion
SpeedEven racing boats under perfect conditions rarely achieve enough speed to hit anything hard enough to cause injury.Often cruise at high enough speeds that collision or running aground could cause injuries to people aboard. 
Motor vs sailSails can cause injury if you are hit by the boom or caught in rigging, but not as serious as being hit by the propellerMay be more likely to go over the bow, and if the propeller runs over you serious injury can occur
Effort requiredSignificant skill in order to pilot the boat at all, and ongoing effort required to keep trimming the sails and making good speed Relatively easy to steer at high speed under normal conditions, making it more likely that motor boat owners will end up in dangerous situations without the skill to get out of them
Alcohol useMay be less likely to use alcohol because of the concentration and effort required to continue to sail. If alcohol is consumed in excess, the slow speed of the boat makes injury relatively unlikelyLess  concentration is required, so drinking may be more likely. If drinking is to excess, high speeds are more likely to result in injuries.
Equipment failureGenerally have at least two to three sails to rely on. The failure of one sail is unlikely to result in the failure of anotherEngine failure results in complete stop of the boat. Even if multiple engines are on the boat, an electrical failure will stop the boat entirely.

Which Should You Get? 

The decision of whether you should get a sailboat or a motorboat is entirely up to you and your needs.

If you use common sense and make good decisions, either vessel can be very safe and perfectly fit your lifestyle.

If you’re not sure which feels better to you, try taking chartered trips on both powerboats and sailboats to get a feel for what kinds of risks and level of risk you’re comfortable with in either one. 

Coral Dawn Drake

I spent most of my childhood on the family sailboat. On weekends and short holidays, my family sailed the waters around our home in South Florida. Over the summers, we sailed through the Bahamas, exploring the lonely islands of the Abacos. It wasn’t unusual to go weeks without seeing another person, but that was just fine by us. We fished or gathered conch for our dinners and spent the hot afternoons snorkeling over some of the most beautiful reefs in the world. Now I’m a fulltime writer. My parents still have our Maine Cat 30 and I spend as much time on the water as I can.

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