Wind, Tide and Oar: Capturing the Art of Engineless Sailing

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Photographs taken from footage shot by Huw Wahl with a Bolex camera on 16mm film.

An exciting new film project is underway, capturing the art of engineless sailing on a variety of vessels around the UK. Set to hit screens in early 2024, Wind, Tide and Oar is currently in production, having secured Arts Council funding and successful crowdfunding to cover film stock costs. I caught up with director and filmmaker Huw Wahl and production manager Rose Ravetz at Sea Salts and Sail festival in Mousehole earlier this month while they were filming on 40’ (12m) Looe lugger Guide Me, owned by Jono and Jude Brickhill. 

Huw and Rose’s film aims to explore what it means to sail engineless in a world reliant on fuel, shining a light on the skills and artistry of engineless sailing and its maritime heritage, while looking to the future and its role in sustainable transport and ecology. Huw, an award-winning filmmaker and photographer is using 16mm analogue cameras to collect his footage, so is no stranger to a slower and somewhat anachronistic way of doing things. “Because I’m using film you don’t go back until it’s developed and scanned. The whole process is similar in stubbornness to sailing a boat without an engine!” he says, acknowledging the parallels. 

Guide Me is a boat close to our hearts and our office – her home berth is just across the road from WaterCraft HQ, at the head of the Helford River in Gweek. Built in 1911 by Peter Ferris of Looe as a pilchard drifter, she worked out of Looe and Mevagissey until the mid 1960s when she was taken up to Hampshire. The Brickhills found her in Fareham Creek in 1977, in need of much work. They bought her and extensively restored her before sailing her around the world with their children and without an engine. She carries a powerful dipping lug rig and is operated entirely under sail and oar. Watching her lead the fleet at the Looe Lugger Regatta – for many years Guide Me has remained almost unbeaten – or negotiate berthing in tidal harbours is an incredible sight and testament to the remarkable handling skills of the Brickhill family. 

Guide Me at Sea Salts and Sail in Mousehole, with Huw and Rose aboard. Photo: Cat Holman 

This decision to go sea relying only on natural elements and with no auxiliary power is not a conventional one, but it seems to be gaining traction. Of course, some historic vessels remain engineless for both purist and practical reasons – take the Falmouth working boats which still dredge for oysters under sail because of local byelaws – but there also seems to be a growing movement of people opting for a future in engineless sailing as an ecological choice, whether on sail cargo boats, charter trips, sail training vessels or private yachts. It is this interaction of individuals with the natural world which fascinates Huw as a filmmaker and has motivated him to focus on engineless boats and the artistry of the people who sail them. “It’s about working with nature rather than against it.”

The idea for Wind, Tide & Oar came about after a trip on Rose’s boat, Defiance, a 23’ (7m) Percy Dalton designed gaff cutter. Inspired by a friend and fellow sailor Stephen Hunt who had removed the engine on his 42’ (12.8m) steel ketch Birubi, Rose did the same on her own boat, then took Huw – her brother and a total newcomer to boats – sailing for a few days. Rose has been working with boats since the age of 19, when she “hitchhiked” across the Atlantic as crew and began a career in sailing. She is currently working freelance as a traditional rigger and professional crew alongside her filming work with Huw and is passionate about engineless sailing. “The best kind of seamanship is when you’re always thinking, what if the engine dies?”

Huw is continuing his filming with the Brickhills as they take part in the maritime festival in Douarnenez this weekend. Before joining Guide Me, Huw was filming on board Blue Mermaid, the Sea-Change Sailing Trust’s 87’ (26m) engineless steel Thames Barge. Built in 2019 as a replica of the original 1930s sailing barge of the same name which was lost during WW2, Blue Mermaid now provides sail training opportunities for young people and vulnerable adults and is based in Maldon in Essex. On completion in early 2024, the Wind, Tide and Oar film will have its premiere on the Cutty Sark at Royal Museums Greenwich, followed by a 10-week sail-powered screening voyage around the east coast of the UK on Blue Mermaid. Huw and Rose also plan to organise an engineless sailing ‘jolly’ on the River Orwell, which they hope to include footage from in their film.

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