When Your Motor Can’t Go Forward, Drive in Reverse

There we were in the Gulf Islands, drifting between Sidney Spit and several threatening rocks on flat, windless water. We were motoring backwards with our mainsail up. Other boats must have thought we were completely crazy. While sailboats around us were motoring like normal, we were traveling in reverse.

Our transmission was failing – the forward gear would no longer engage. But reverse worked just fine – meaning we could motor in reverse, but in forward could only go about ½ a knot – the speed gained from the prop spinning at about 500 rpm with the clutch slipping; and that would only work in windless, waveless conditions.

A failing transmission was a giant kink in our plans – everything became more difficult. Getting into marinas without forward power was scary, so we avoided marinas except for one stop in Ganges to get a mechanic to check out the transmission. Sailboats don’t drive well in reverse (the rudder isn’t designed to work that way), but we could motor that way at 2-3 knots a short while if we needed to get out of trouble or to some wind.


Luckily sailboats have two means of propulsion – the engine, and the sails. So we took light air sailing to new levels – sailing in 2 knot winds where every other sailboat was motoring. There are a few sailboats that sail across oceans with no engine, but those sailors are by far a tiny, minuscule minority. I don’t know how they do it, and have tremendous respect for someone who could. Sailing without a motor is an exercise in frustration when wind can be absent for hours, or days, at a time.

Fortunately the transmission magically popped into forward after 2 ½ hours waiting, and we slammed it into full power for 10 hours from the Gulf Islands to Port Townsend, crossing a glassy, windless Haro Strait and a windless eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca. We had to exit Cattle Pass against current, but with the motor finally in gear there was no way we were turning it off – if we throttled down too much the clutch could slip and we’d lose forward gear again.

This was like our own version of the 90’s movie ‘Speed’ where they’re on a speeding bus that they can’t slow down.

A dead transmission is not a problem we could fix underway. No one I’ve heard of carries spare transmission parts with them, and repairing it requires removing the transmission from the prop shaft – this model, a Hurth v-drive, is not easily opened up.

And we don’t know what caused it – as far as I know, we didn’t do anything wrong that would contribute to the transmission issue. The mechanics we’ve talked to so far thought most likely it was just old and gradually wearing out.

A makeshift oil funnel I made out of a beer box because the engine oil funnels I had were too big to fit the transmission. The oil looked okay, but I topped it up just in case.

A makeshift oil funnel I made out of a beer box because the engine oil funnels I had were too big to fit the transmission. The oil looked okay, but I topped it up since we didn’t have any other ideas.

Perhaps what scared me even more than whether or not we’d be able to get home was that this could have happened anywhere. If we decided to sail to Mexico someday, this could’ve happened 50 miles offshore of the Oregon coast. Then we’d be in ocean waves (possibly with no wind) and no power. We’d be far from rescue, and far from any ports that could repair the issue. And there’d be nothing we could do to fix the problem ourselves – unlike most other boats problems where we could have jury rigged a solution.

Even if the transmission had kicked the bucket when we were on the west coast of Vancouver Island we would’ve been pretty screwed. There are no major marine ports like Port Townsend there, probably few if any mechanics experienced in marine transmissions, and the boat would’ve been stuck there for months while we tried to fly parts in.

After anchoring overnight at Port Townsend, we sailed all the way back to Seattle the next day, having a wonderful downwind sail with blessedly consistent 10-12 knot winds. Then came our last challenge – getting into Elliott Bay Marina without forward gear and a 12 knot wind blowing through the entrances! We could sail in, but sailing a 38 foot, 18,000 pound displacement boat into a marina you’ve never entered before is not so easy, nor necessarily a good idea when there are breakwater rocks and million dollar powerboats. After an hour of getting pushed by wind and current, when we were just about to try reversing in, the clutch miraculously engaged in forward and we made it in!

Violet Hour is out of commission now for at least a month, all of August which is prime sailing season in Seattle. And will cost many boat bucks to repair. So this is a disappointing end to our trip, but there were many great moments before this – more to come soon!

6 thoughts on “When Your Motor Can’t Go Forward, Drive in Reverse

  1. Robert Boyer

    Patrick: I’ve gone thru this recently myself with my LF38. I had 3 options: (1) have it repaired for about $1,800, (2) buy a used transmission for about the same amount, or (3) buy a brand new transmission for about $3,000. I went with the repair and it was my second in 30+ years. I understand that the average life for a Hurth transmission is 1500 hours between rebuilds (which in my case, worked out to be about 1650 hours). The work can be done with your boat in the water as long as the shaft is clamped from falling out the stern. It is not as bad as it may seem right now…


    1. Patrick

      Thanks Bob! Those are similar options to what I’ve been hearing. The hard parts are: A) Finding a mechanic to do the removal and reinstall/alignment. August is peak season in Seattle, so all the mechanics are super busy. I’d rather not do it myself since this seems a fairly advanced job with plenty of potential for things to go wrong – ex, popping the prop out too much and having a geyser of water in the boat, misalignment, etc.
      and B) I don’t know the reduction ratio since the transmission is missing the id label. So if I wanted to buy a new one I don’t know yet which I need. And Hurth has been out of stock of 2-to-1 since June and won’t have new ones ready till October.

  2. Steve Hulsizer

    We had a Hurth gear on our old Westerbeke Perkins 4-108 that lasted 4000 hours. We have gone through two reduction gears for our Worsterbeke Kubota V1505 in 4600 hours. The first was loss of oil, a complicated story, and the second was a thrust washer and bearing worn out in 3100 hours. The gear for the Kubota is a ZF 150, a unit carried over from Hurth when ZF bought them out. The gear is overrated for the Kubota, and I’m surprised it went so soon. The dealer (Larry Stewart) has some ideas, but I think part of the problem is the shape of the stern timber and that I use a Sailor two blade propeller which is completely hidden each half revolution. This feature causes a sudden collapse and reapplication of thrust twice each revolution, which I can’t imagine is good for the forward bearing.
    Steve Hulsizer

    1. Patrick

      Well, with the help of Pat from Pat’s Marine Engines, we figured out what caused the transmission to wear out.
      Whichever prior owner replaced the original Paragon transmission with a Hurth reused the shaft coupling. The shaft coupling for the Paragon has a smaller pilot ring than the Hurth is designed for. The pilot ring is the raised ridge that creates a snug mating from the transmission coupling to the prop shaft. Since the wrong size was used, the shaft was probably wobbling around a bit, or the transmission itself was gyrating around the shaft. I need to file this under #PriorOwnerMistakes.


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