Sailing into the sunset alone


Something is exhilarating about piloting your own sailing boat and taking to the unpredictable waters without anyone in tow. Single-handed (or short-handed) sailing is a challenge that commands a certain mindset and behaviour. After all, it requires a lot of multi-tasking. This is what singlehanded sailing is all about: magical moments that fill the senses, where it’s just you and the boat and the open sky. Singlehanded sailing offers a rare chance in this noisy hyper-connected world to step off the fast track, slow down, and listen to the quiet, if only for a short while. You may even find a little adventure along the way. 

We’ve put together some single-handed sailing tips to help you master this unique and rewarding form of sailing. 

  1. Make the handling easier

You need to adapt so many roles when single-handed sailing, from skipper to navigator. So, you must make the handling as easy for yourself as you can.

  1. Get a reliable autopilot

A good autopilot is crucial, especially for racing as it allows you to focus on sail trim, which gives you speed.

  1. Take safety measures

There’s always a higher risk of crashing or capsizing when there are fewer people on board to take navigational precautions and react to heavy weather. So, you need to take several safety measures to minimise this risk.

Safety equipment

Sailing without a full crew creates serious safety considerations that must be taken into account. There is always increased risk when fewer hands are on board, whether it’s a solo weekend trip or a solo ocean crossing. 

– Always use jack lines, even if it looks like it’s going to be plain sailing. It’s the easiest and safest thing you can do.

– Wear a life jacket and make sure you have one which is suited to the situation and weather conditions. 

Before you set sail on your own, you must let people know where you’re going. Put together an outline of your sailing route with approximate timings along the way so that, if something goes wrong, someone on land has a good idea of where you are. This plan should include a rough estimate of where you plan to sail along with an estimated timeline. It should also include a check-in plan as well as an agreed-upon course of action should you fail to check-in. Onboard wi-fi and satellite phones, while more expensive, are reliable methods of communication if you’ll be far offshore. Otherwise, a trusty cell phone can do the trick (Just make sure you have a battery!).

Educate yourself

Sailing alone means that if you have an emergency at sea, you need to know how to keep yourself alive. You could take a sea survival course, which is a genuine lifesaver. It’s a one-day course covering topics such as survival techniques and search and rescue procedures. 

One major misconception about single-handed and short-handed sailors is that they’re introverted loners who go it alone for a variety of escapist reasons. In truth, you would be hard-pressed to find a more supportive and engaging group of men and women who are always happy to share their knowledge with newcomers. 

The advantages of single-handing

1. The solitude; a momentary respite from the distractions and demands that occur when other people are around. It’s a time of peace, a chance to think and reflect, which refreshes the body, revitalizes the mind, and restores the spirit.

2. Whether you call it “communing with nature” or “feeling at one with the world,” there are times single-handing can only be described as a spiritual experience — days when you marvel at the sea and sky and are awed and humbled by the majesty of nature, days when you savor the interaction of the boat with wind and waves and say to yourself “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” 

3. Always sailing with a crew is like taking your relatives along on your honeymoon and having them move in with you afterwards. Getting away by yourselves provides an unparalleled opportunity to become intimately familiar with your boat. Your ability to handle your boat improves until it becomes an extension of yourself; your senses become so attuned that you pick up on everything and react properly without thinking.

4. Ask a sailor to identify the allure of sailing and a common answer is “freedom and independence.” Take the provisions you want and nothing you don’t. Always sleep in the best berth. Go where you want when you want or go nowhere at all. Do things your way when (if ever) you are inclined to do so. Be messy or neat, noisy or quiet, lead a spartan or decadent existence. It’s your toy and, for a while at least, you don’t have to share it with anyone.

5. Singlehanding is unlikely to kill you. But it offers plenty of challenges that can make you stronger and better. Not just a better sailor, but a better person. Having to do everything yourself necessitates learning which in turn increases self-sufficiency. Your ability to both endure discomfort and appreciate the little things in life will increase. Facing your fears and pushing your limits will boost your self-confidence; while the reality you experience will keep you humble. And, ironically, what you learn about yourself while single-handing will make you a better companion.

6. The vast majority of single-handers are not hermits or misanthropes. On the contrary, they are very sociable and enjoy meeting new people. I think part of it is that, after being alone for a while, they are more inclined to reach out to others for companionship and conversation. The willingness of others to extend a helping hand and offer unstinting hospitality to a single-hander is a commonplace, yet unique and priceless, gift.

7. Fewer people means less weight, as simple as that. If you only have yourself on board then you’ll be free to go as fast as you like (or the wind will take you). More people can add complications along with extra weight which means you won’t be getting anywhere fast.

The disadvantages of single-handing 

1. Steering. Being stuck at the helm is the maritime version of wearing a ball and chain. It limits your ability to attend to other things that need to be done and can turn what would otherwise be a relaxing and enjoyable sail into a chore that is physically and mentally draining. When hand steering is necessary, make sure everything that might be needed for the duration is within easy reach of the helm before starting. On boats with a tiller, adding an extension or running control lines forward will increase your range of movement. Unless circumstances prohibit it, take a short break periodically and move around, even if it means having to heave-to or temporarily alter course to a point the boat can sail itself with the tiller/wheel locked. You never know when a situation may arise that will prevent you from leaving the helm and you want to be as fresh and alert as possible if it does.

2. Docking and locking. Hitting another boat or an immovable object (such as a concrete seawall) can put a dent in your plans and pocketbook (not to mention bruise your ego). Holding a boat against the turbulence of a filling lock with a bowline in one hand and a stern line in the other provides an inkling of what it was like to be drawn and quartered. Maneuvering in close quarters is usually no problem in calm conditions. But as congestion, wind, and current increases, so does the level of anxiety and the need for the skill, planning, and precautionary measures. Get lines, fenders, and a boat hook ready and positioned while there is ample sea room and know when and how spring lines can be used to advantage.

3. Eating. When meal preparation is shared (or done by someone else), it is easier to tolerate a galley which is smaller, less convenient and moves more (except maybe in California) than your kitchen at home. But any tendency not to cook for yourself onshore will be magnified when single-handing. If fast, frozen, takeout, junk, and beer are your five food groups, meal planning and a well-designed galley will help ensure you eat well and as often as needed, especially while underway.

4. Fatigue. There is less time to relax when single-handing. The good news is you will rarely be bored. The bad news is the demands will occasionally push you to your physical and mental limits. Fatigue reduces motivation and efficiency, impairs judgment and reaction time, and, in extreme cases, induces hallucinations. When gunkholing or harbor hopping, lack of sleep is rarely a problem. However, hand steering for extended periods, especially in conditions requiring concentration, can take its toll. Researchers have developed techniques for maximizing sleep efficiency on long solo voyages. They have not, however, come up with any new solutions to the problem of sleeping alone.

5. Lack of companionship. Humans are social animals. They enjoy being in the company of others and sharing experiences, sights, and thoughts. But alone does not necessarily mean lonely. It is possible to feel lonely in a crowd and content when alone. Except for the most unusual voyages, periods of physical isolation rarely exceed 30 days and during that time single-handers normally have at least some opportunity to interact with others by radio. When coastal cruising, the desire for companionship is easily met in ports and anchorages. Boaters are a hospitable group of people and seem especially welcoming to single-handers. 

6. Lack of an extra set of hands, eyes, ears, and mind. This can be a matter of safety but is usually just an inconvenience. It is possible to accomplish most tasks alone (although it may take more time) and avoid most risks with the proper training, equipment, and planning. Arguably, outfitting a boat for, and the experience gained by, single-handing will improve safety when sailing with a crew. The skills, caution, and senses you develop carry over. That means the off-watch crew will have more opportunity to rest and you will have the ability and confidence to continue sailing if the crew is indisposed or injured. Of course, when single-handing no one is present to help if you get into trouble. But you probably put yourself at greater risk of death or serious injury when you drive your car alone.

Having a few people around you can mean you’ll be sure to have a great time while out at sea, with jokes and conversation your days won’t seem half as long.


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