13 Reasons Why Sailing is Better Than Powerboating

Written by Shawn Buckles in Maintenance

Want to know why sailing trumps powerboating? In this article I'll give you 13 clear-cut reasons why it's the case - and why I'll never go back.

Why is sailing better than powerboating? A sailboat is quiet and clean, whereas a powerboat is not. Sailboats are much cheaper to buy and to run. They're also safer and more reliable. Sailboats are more challenging and exciting than powerboats. Sailing is about the journey, not the destination. Powerboats are better at getting someplace, but it will cost you.

Sailboats are clearly the better choice ... but not for everyone. Of course, it depends. So, to be fair, I'll talk about some of the advantages of powerboats as well - after I've made my case for sailing,

1. Quiet

Quiet - I use only this one word on purpose. It's the one major reason why sailboats are better than powerboats, period.

If you're out on the water under sail, you only hear the water splashing on the hull, and you hear the wind, and it's just extremely peaceful.

Now imagine the same cloudless day, and you're in your motorboat. You're relaxing, looking across the water, the birds are shrieking ...


There's this constant screeching sound in the back, as a soundtrack to your beautiful day out.

Some people aren't that bothered, and I really respect that.

But let me point out that your boat's engine can easily reach volumes of 80 dB. That's about your alarm clock going off next to your head - only now the sound goes on and on, and there's no snooze button whatsoever.

When powerboaters say a powerboat gets you somewhere quickly, I suspect that is because getting their very quickly is the only way to get rid of the noise.

2. Sailboats Are Clean

Besides being very quiet, sailing is also very environmentally friendly. I'm not at all against using gas, but we have to admit it: using wind instead of gas is just a great way to help the environment. And if that's not something you're concerned about, just think of the smell.

Using wind power is clean. It doesn't smell of anything. Some people like the smell of gas (and so do I). But I like the smell of the salty ocean even more, or the blossoming forest surrounding the lake.

Of course you will use your engine every now and then, and that's fine. But being able to travel without the smell and noise is great. Not only because it removes a nuisance - it actually allows better smells and sounds to reach you.

3. Sailing is Cheaper

So, besides being less noisy and smelly, a sailboat is also way less costly than a powerboat.

Running a powerboat is notoriously costly, and for a good reason. You use A LOT of gas. Actually, if you have a really fast powerboat, it's about 25 gallons of fuel per hour. That's roughly $300 (per hour). Yikes.

To be fair, smaller powerboats use a lot less. Cruising at lower speeds in inland water also reduces fuel consumption.

Actually, most powerboats use 1 gallon per hour on average. So an inland weekend trip will cost you anywhere between $30-$80, which perhaps isn't too bad - but that's for the fuel alone.

It becomes really painful if you plan on sailing long distances. It's true: you get there much faster than on a sailboat. But, for example, crossing from San Diego to Hawaii also costs you about $2,000 more.

By the way, if you want to know how to do it, check out my post on the route here.

Example: crossing San Diego to Hawaii is about 2,600 NM.

Let's say you cruise at 25 knots (29 mph or 46 km/h).
It will take you roughly 100 hours to get there.
Fuel consumption would be around 5 gallons an hour.
That's 500 gallons total ... or $2,200!

Not using an engine doesn't only reduce engine cost but also engine wear. On a sailboat, your engine runs a lot less miles, so you will have to replace moving parts (like the belt) a lot less often.

Powerboat engines are more expensive in general. Bigger, more powerful, and also more expensive to maintain.

4. A Sailboat is Cheaper to Buy

Sailboats are also a lot cheaper to buy. Powerboats are about twice as expensive.

Let's say you don't own a boat and need to get the boat before you leave. Your trip to Hawaii already is about $2,000 cheaper on a sailboat. I've checked Craigslist and come up with two boats in San Diego:

  • You can get a nice 22' sailboat for about $1,500 (and a bit of luck).
  • A 22' powerboat will cost you at least double, more likely $5,000-$8,000.

The trip is now $5,500 more expensive on a powerboat vs. the sailboat.

That's a lot of nice meals in nice restaurants once you get there:

  • take-out for each day of the entire year
  • a nice dinner each week, 52 times
  • or one really fancy dinner each month for the entire year

5. Sailboats Have Right of Way

Sailboats come first. If you're sailing and not motoring, you generally have right of way over motorboats.

If a motor vessel is large and has a hard time maneuvering, it may get right of way over the sailboat.

The exceptions are:

  • Very large motor vessels in large channels
  • Large motor vessels (over 65 feet) in narrow channels
  • Motor vessels that are in trouble
  • If a sailboat is overtaking the motor vessel, the latter has right of way

Please note: if you're on a sailboat and use the engine, you're considered a motorboat.

6. A Sailboat Is Safer

This seems like a bold statement, but sailboats actually are much safer than powerboats. Sailboats are more stable than powerboats, precisely thanks to the characteristics that we need for sailing.

  • They are generally heavier and have a deeper draft.
  • Most sailboats also have a centerboard or keel, making it nearly impossible for them to capsize.
  • The hull materials used for sailboats is heavier.

All these factors help the sailboat to be more stable on water.

The powerboat has an achilles heel. The reason it's so fast is also the reason it's less safe.

First of all, a powerboat can go a lot faster, making it unsafer in general.

To go faster, the powerboat's hull has a lot less draft than the sailboat. It's lightweight, allowing it to plane. Planing a boat means the bow comes out of the water, which reduces the water resistance. This is great in smooth weather, but it can be dangerous with heavy winds. If the wind catches the hull, the powerboat may flip over (powerboats are known to do this).

7. Sailboats Are More Reliable

Besides being safer, sailboats are also more reliable.

If you run out of fuel on a powerboat, that's that. You'll have to wait to be saved.

A sailboat typically only carries fuel for when the sailor gets bored. It's to speed up light air sailing, because sailing in light wind can be quite intensive, and doesn't go very fast. However, if you run out of fuel, nothing happens. (Even if, at the same time, the wind disappears completely, it's just a matter of time until you can get back at it and save yourself).

True: you can get dismasted on a sailboat. But that's an incident. Running out of fuel on a powerboat is a certainty, because that's what it's made for: burning fuel, and lot's of it.

8. Sailing is More Exciting than Powerboating

In general, sailboats are more about the journey, and powerboats are more about the destination.

If you need to go somewhere quickly, the powerboat is the quicker, more comfortable way to do it. If you want to go for lunch on an island, having an engine do the work allows you to drink a beer while you wait to arrive. In this regards it's no different from a train.

Yes, a powerboat is comfortable ... because it's boring.

But sailing is so much more. If you get out on the water for the sake of being there, sailing is for you.

It's exciting to plot a course and then try to figure out how to use the wind to get there. It requires some physical strength to operate the mainsail, which is why it's more rewarding.

But most of all: it's just a thrill to harness the force of nature with your own hands.

9. Sailors Work with Nature

If you make a mistake by plotting a less-than-ideal sailing course, you could find yourself tacking upwind for the rest of the afternoon. A powerboater would just spin the wheel and go that way instead. It's true, the engine is perhaps the superior technology here.

But have you ever wondered why a powerboat uses so much fuel? It's on water after all. Well, they work against nature. They have to plow through each wave, pushing itself forward.

It's a sort of Monday-morning-boat - it doesn't really want to go.

So you first have to fill it up with plenty of liquids.

A sailboat uses drag and lift to propel itself forward. It's almost symbolic - like it wants to go forward. All you do is finding the right point of sail, and let it.

10. Sailing Helps to Improve Yourself

This may sound a bit corny, but I believe sailing is a form of self-improvement.

Every time you find yourself in heavy weather and deal with it, you improve your self-confidence. Every time you successfully plot a course, or cross an ocean, or even find the right point of sail, you improve.

You improve by overcoming these challenges. Sailing is a form of art: learning to read the wind, the waves, to feel your boat.

Every time you fail, you learn as well - sometimes about sailing, but also about yourself. It helps you to get to know yourself.

Getting good at sailing is a very rewarding process, but it can take time, and be frustrating at times.

But the reward is huge. If you know how to sail, you know how to navigate, how to harness the power of wind, and how to master the seas.

By sailing you become a seaman; by powerboating you become, well, a powerboater.

11. You Get to Go More Places

Sailboats can go pretty much anywhere. Okay, to be fair, they have a deeper draft, so some places are off-limits. (However, if you have a boat with a centerboard, you can fix this pretty easily.)

But, overall, sailboats get to go more places.

  • you can sail in waters where motoring isn't allowed
  • you can sail in rougher waters like the ocean or lakes
  • you can sail in more weather conditions

Some waters are protected, due to birds breeding there, or some other preservation rule. Sailboats can just go there, because they don't disturb the wildlife in any way.

If you own a powerboat, you're probably not thrilled with 12-knot winds. Also, wind gusts can be a big problem. If the weather is unsettled, you probably don't bother going out.

If you own a sailboat on the other hand, you're probably excited. Sailboats are made to handle rough waters. You'd be surprised how well small sailboats are able to handle extreme conditions. This is thanks to the same factors I've mentioned reason 6 - safety.

You can also go for longer trips without worrying about the next gas station. You can actually just leave indefintely and be fine on a sailboat.

12. You Can Live On a Sailboat

Alright, I'm going out on a limb here. Of course, you can live on a powerboat as well, if it has a cabin. Most don't. Pretty much all sailboats over 24' have a cabin. It's small, but you can definitely live there.

The most important argument is the cost. Pretty much all powerboats with living accommodation are just incredibly expensive.

You can actually live pretty decently on the $1,500 sailboat from Craigslist I've used for sailing to Hawaii.

Want to live on a powerboat? Think more in the $50,000-ballpark.

13. You Can Cross an Ocean in Almost Any Sailboat

Powerboats are not made for open sea. Sailboats generally are. I know, I go on and on about it.

"Ok, I get it. They're more stable, have a stronger hull, better hull shape."

Surely any sailboat under 30' (9 m) isn't made for the ocean, right?

Well, I'm afraid it's far worse.

The smallest sailboat ever to sail around the world was 21 feet (6.4 m).

Try and cross an ocean in a 21' powerboat (- and then tell me how much it cost you to fuel it without crying).

Point in case is that even a small sailboat can get you almost anywhere, but a powerboat can't do it. It's not made to do so. It's made to fly over the water for a short distance, look cool, then return home.

Disadvantages of Sailboats over Powerboats

Powerboats can be great fun. Expensive, yes, but so is every hobby.

Powerboats aren't all bad. I actually quite like them. Two friends of mine co-own a Mastercraft 220 (Ford V8). They let me take her out for a spin once. Oh boy was it fun.

And powerboats do have some real advantages over sailboats. They are a bit more flexible inland. They are very comfortable. And then there's these things:

Places you can't go

As I've mentioned, powerboats have a lot less draft than sailboats. This means you can use them in very shallow waters, like the canals of Giethoorn (which is near my hometown). Even a sailboat with centerboard has a hard time here.

Beautiful farm near small canal with small wooden bridges, in Giethoorn, Holland.
Giethoorn - can't go here in a sailboat I'm afraid

Oh, and have I mentioned bridges before? Can't go there in a sailboat.

Cost of sails and rigging

Another disadvantage of sailboats is the cost of equipment. Equipment like rigging, sails, can be very expensive. Sails have to be replaced every 3,500-4,000 hours. The rigging needs replacing every 10 years or so.

The sail will cost you anywhere from $1,000 - $3,000 for a mid-sized sailboat.

The rigging will cost you anywhere between $800 - $2,600.

So that's roughly $5,000 every 5-10 years. Which is expensive, but hey, you get to sail to Hawaii for free.

My guess is your fuel cost (or lack thereof) will pay for this easily.

If you wan't to go in-depth on the cost of sail replacement, I've just written an article with formulas and tables. Check it out here.

Other disadvantages of sailing

  • You can't wakeboard behind a sailboat (or maybe you can, but we've never tried).
  • In general, towing is probably a better idea using a powerboat.
  • Also, sailboats generally offer less space than a powerboat.
  • You are always busy

When Is It Better To Choose a Powerboat?

I would prefer a powerboat over a sailboat if I have to get somewhere. For example:

  • for fishing trips
  • for family day-trips to a beach or island
  • if I'm a Coast Guard
  • if I want to water ski or wake board

Which is safer: a sailboat or motorboat? A sailboat is safer than a motorboat. Most sailboats have a deeper draft and a keel to improve their handling in rough water. This makes them more stable. Powerboats are light weight to increase speed, making them more prone to wind. Sailboats are generally slower than motorboats, which makes them safer overall.

Are sailboats cheaper than powerboats? A sailboat is cheaper to purchase and to run than a powerboat. A second-hand sailboat is about half the price of a powerboat. The engines on powerboats are a lot more expensive than those on sailboats, which adds to the maintenance cost. Fuel consumption of a powerboat can range between 5-30 gallons ($20-120) per hour.

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