Motor Head

Gartside 6 Meter Lugger: engine ready

by Scott Sadil

I’ll remind you again: I’m hardly a boat guy. And the four boats I’ve built over the past decade (well, three, actually, plus the one I’m finishing right now), which constitute the entirety of my boating career, have all been small open sailing craft, each with its own set of hand-shaped spruce oars for auxiliary power should the wind die – or when poking about in tight quarters, looking for likely spots to cast a fly.

Sailboats of any kind, of course, make lousy fishing vessels – unless you just want to drag something through the water, hoping for a strike. And they’re generally restricted by weather, or even tides, as to what water you can fish, not to mention the time spent getting there and back. Worst of all, no doubt, is the rigging and other paraphernalia that clutter up any sailboat, including a mast or two, all of which conspire to snag flies, grab fly lines, or even snap rods  more casts than not.  

I recall talking with Gray’s own Jim Babb, who has a better handle than most on the subject of boats, about Tía, my stitch-and-glue Northeaster Dory, the boat I sailed up the Columbia and Snake rivers, from Astoria, Oregon, to Lewiston, Idaho. Babb wanted to know how it was, fishing from Tía. I hemmed and hawed. He pretty much already knew the answer.

Some boats just can’t use an engine.

“It doesn’t matter what you do trying to fly fish from a sailboat,” Babb said. “Sooner or later you see something over there, try to change direction with your next cast and, well, you know what happens then.”

I do – to the degree that the next boat just might turn out to be some sort of power skiff — David Stimson’s Ocean Pointer, say, or one of Doug Hylan’s Chesapeake deadrise Point Comfort skiffs.

Which brings me to the point of this piece:  Thinking about the engine I need for the new boat, too big to handle, at times, solely with a pair of oars, I’m trying to decide if I’m going to forgo a small, gasoline-fueled outboard for, instead, an outboard that runs on electricity. 

With the prospect of a true power skiff, as well, in my not so distant future, and the state of the world today, it’s a question I’m no doubt going to continue to face – and probably not face alone.

Gartside Dinghy: Who wants to spoil a transom such as that?

It may be worth noting, at this juncture, an observation once made by Paul Gartside, boatbuilder and boat designer extraordinaire, in an essay he wrote to go with plans for a steam-powered canoe he originally published in the British boating magazine, Water Craft. Gartside, who designed my last two boats (not specifically for me; I chose stock plans from his extensive library), pointed out that, in most cases, you’re either a motor head or you’re not.  It’s one of those fundamental divides, he said, that is rarely straddled.  

“All boatbuilders,” wrote Gartside, “need some mechanical know-how in order to install the machinery and to get it running, but it is unusual to find a good boatbuilder with high mechanical and machining skills. The worlds of wood and metal just don’t mix that easily.”

There may be a similar divide — I’m not sure — between owners of sailboats and owners of power boats.  Clearly, not everybody falls on one side or the other.  But I can tell you that for all the time I’ve spent building and using boats over the past ten years, I’ve never once looked forward to owning or captaining a boat that required competence in the operation, maintenance, and repair of a small internal-combustion engine.

That’s more or less the last thing I’m interested in when I head out on the water with a fly rod in hand.

The good news, of course, is that the technology for small, clean, lightweight, easy-to-operate electric outboards finally exists.  Or at least I think it does.  A search online, or a glance at current issues of boating magazines of all sorts, will introduce you to a range of options. To get a small sailboat like I’m currently building up to hull speed, I need only four horsepower – a lot less oomph than Ford is putting into their new electric-powered F150 pickups.

Has the time come to make a change?  I know a lot of boaters are going to resist switching from gas (or diesel) to electricity – and maybe for good reason.  But for a guy like me, who hates the thought of stinking up his pretty wooden boats with gasoline fumes, of listening to the clamorous palpitations of both two- and four-stroke engines, or who even, sometimes, hates seeing blood on the decks, a tidy battery-operated outboard might prove just the ticket.

I’ll keep you posted.


Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil believes that if people everywhere spent more time rowing boats, at least boats designed to be rowed, the world would be better place than it is today.