By fitting commercial fishing boats with sails now, America's fishermen could save not only a significant amount of fuel, but also their industry. This seems to be the conclusion of many of the engineers and boat builders who attended a recent international conference here on sail-assisted fishing boats.
''With the price of fuel so high, fishermen now can take their boats out only when they know that catching fish is a sure thing,'' said Jack Shortall, a naval architect and University of South Florida engineering lecturer. ''But if their fishing boats were retrofitted with sails, they could cut their fuel consumption by 15 to 40 percent,'' he added, ''and their boats would not sit idle. . . .''
A French study presented at the mid-May conference showed that a fishing boat designed to use sails could reduce fuel consumption between 15 and 30 percent, depending on how the sails are employed. If the boat were designed with a catamaran hull, another 23 percent could be saved.
A German study showed that a Baltic fishing boat retrofitted with sails saved 19 percent of its fuel under North Sea conditions.
And an American company brought its own 51-foot, two-masted, schooner-rigged combination tug and fishing boat, the Norfolk Rebel, to Tarpon Springs to demonstrate how sails work on a modern vessel.
''We got excited to see that on long runs this boat would save between 20 and 43 percent of its fuel by using sails,'' said Jon Lucy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, which has been studying the Norfolk Rebel's performance. ''That shows what the vessel is capable of. When the crew gets more experience with sails, we think this boat will show a 20 to 30 percent fuel savings overall.''
Out on the Gulf of Mexico, the Norfolk Rebel cruised along under sail at about five knots as its engines turned slowly to keep up that pace. Lane Briggs, the boat's captain, said to maintain that speed without sails would have taken about twice the power.
''A sail-assisted boat would have an advantage . . . ,'' Mr. Lucy said. ''When the fish are running 200 or 300 miles north or south off Chesapeake Bay, this boat can go after them and compete. But other boats based in Chesapeake Bay have to stay in port because they can't afford the cost of the fuel, which would outweigh their profits.''
Captain Briggs, a central-casting type of boat captain with weathered face, muttonchop sideburns, a bushy, blond mustache, and a gold ring in his ear, said he is so impressed with the advantages of sail power that he is having an 80 -foot fishing boat built for himself.
''Sure it has its drawbacks, don't get me wrong,'' he said. ''Sometimes the sails get in the way of your long lines, but you learn to work around it. The fuel savings is good, and there's a lot less wear and tear on your engine. And if your boat breaks down, you know you can always get home without a tow.''
Architect Shortall said the nation's fishing fleet has to be studied on a fish-by-fish basis, because sails may not be efficient on all types of fishing boats. They are most cost-effective on vessels that must cruise long distances to find a catch. And some fleets are based behind bridges too low for boats with masts to pass.
But he figures US shrimp boats, which have been hurt by competition with a Mexican fleet powered by low-cost diesel fuel, can operate on at least 15 percent less fuel with a simple rig.
With snapper and grouper boats, sails could be added even more easily, he said, and they could burn 30 percent less fuel.
In New England, wind patterns and the location of fishing ports offer ample opportunity for boats retrofitted with sails, according to a study done under a Massachusetts Institute of Technology sea-grant program.
Now is the time for private industry to step in and start retrofitting fishing boats, Shortall said.
''There's a clear case for someone to come in to design and market these things,'' he added. ''This could be a way to diversify and stabilize the present boom and bust of the yachting industry.''