Toby Heppell looks at the art of singlehanded sailing and considers what constitutes good seamanship when it’s only you on board
Singlehanded sailing is often something we associate with feats of adventure and endurance, bringing forward ideas of the lone sailor heading off across oceans.
Setting off on a significant offshore voyage on your own is a truly specialist activity.
You are likely to experience sleep deprivation, the stresses of being alone for long periods of time and the possibility of facing inclement weather by yourself.
That may well not be for all of us.
But closer to home, many of us are likely to go singlehanded sailing – be it regularly or just the odd occasion, a short coastal trip or a longer voyage, or when a crew member is laid low by seasickness or other ailment.
You might end up without a crew and face the choice of leaving the boat in a distant port or taking a fair wind home alone.
You may be a couple sailing with a young child that needs constant attention, leaving the skipper to handle the boat alone.
Understanding the skills and kit necessary to successfully and safely sail by yourself is, if not an essential skill, certainly a useful string to the bow.
Freedom and responsibility of singlehanded sailing
‘Sailing solo there is the dependence on oneself that is really appealing,’ say Mervyn Wheatley, veteran of many solo ocean races and trips.
‘A great deal of that appeal is that you know if something goes wrong then you are going to have to sort it out yourself.
As a solo skipper, you are master of your own destiny, entirely free to run the boat exactly as you wish.
With that comes total responsibility for everything on board: food, maintenance, sail choice, pilotage – it’s all up to you.
‘There’s an unmistakable excitement in slipping the lines and knowing that success or failure is entirely down to your resourcefulness and seamanship,’ says Wheatley.
‘Completing a solo passage satisfies like nothing else. But with that responsibility comes a significant reliance on making sure everything onboard and yourself are up to the challenge.’
In this article, I’m going to look at the various aspects you should consider to make sure you’re ready for solo coastal daysails, rather than long-distance offshore singlehanded sailing, when considerations around sleep management become more vital.
Is your boat up to singlehanded sailing?
Though the recent trend has been for ever-bigger boats, you need to be fairly agile to singlehand a boat much over 35ft, or have invested some serious money into automation.
Typically at about 35ft you are reaching the point where sail size is a big factor in terms of managing reefing and winching.
Setting up your boat so that you have to leave the helm as little as possible is important.
If you do have to leave the helm when sailing, doing so on starboard tack, keeping a good lookout and setting an autopilot will keep you in control.
A furling headsail saves foredeck work and in-mast or in-boom furling makes mainsail reefing simpler, and the slight loss of performance may not be important to you.
A slab-reefed main can take longer to reef but lines led aft make it easier.
Crucially, if you drop it as you are coming in to harbour, the main will block your vision forward unless you have lazy jacks.
Fortunately, these are easy to add if you don’t have them already, and a stack-pack sail bag makes stowing the sail even easier.
Leaving the cockpit for any reason is among the highest risks for solo sailors, particularly as handling sails at the start and end of your passage is likely to be close to harbour with more traffic around.
Leading lines back to the cockpit will make life easier, with the caveat that any friction points, particularly in single-line reefing systems, need addressing.
Taking the main halyard back to the cockpit at the very least is a must.
When it comes to mooring by yourself, ‘midships cleats are often underrated and underused, but they are invaluable,’ says ex-Navy navigator and cruising author Andy du Port.
‘With only two of us on board, we have become adept at lassoing pontoon cleats from amidships and hauling in reasonably firmly before the boat has a chance to start drifting off.’
In terms of safety, eliminating risk of going overboard is key and staying clipped on is a good way to do that.
Make sure your jackstays can be reached from inside the cockpit, and let you get to the mast or other working areas on deck.
Webbing rather than wire won’t roll underfoot.
Sensible cockpit strong points should let you move from helm to winches, halyards, instruments, and companionway without unclipping.
Optimal cockpit layout for singlehanded sailing
Whether you have a wheel or tiller, the layout of the cockpit is important as to whether it works well for singlehanded sailing.
It is worth noting, however, that a tiller can be slotted between your legs when hoisting sails or handling lines.
The ability to see a chartplotter on deck is important, as you will need to do much of your navigation from the helm and modern chart plotters make this easier.
Particularly in coastal waters, you will want to spend as little time as possible down below at the chart table so you can keep a proper lookout.
Effective self-steering is essential for singlehanded sailing.
An autopilot is excellent under power as the engine keeps the batteries topped up but under sail, if you haven’t trimmed correctly for a neutral helm, the autopilot has to work hard and will draw more power.
Modern units draw 2-3A but older models can draw double that.
For this reason, an easily visible battery monitor will help.
Some autopilots include a remote control you can wear on your wrist or on a lanyard to alter course.
For smaller boats or longer passages, a windvane is effective on every point of sail and draws no power.
However, they are vulnerable in port, and struggle under motor as prop wash confuses the servo blade.
‘If I am in coastal waters then I use an autopilot as it’s easier,’ says Wheatley.
‘If I’m nipping across the Channel then I know I can plug into the mains on the other side. I use a windvane on ocean passages.’
Ensure essentials such as handbearing compass, sunscreen and water are in place before you slip lines. Finally, get to know your boat well. A refresher on the key parts of each of your main systems might be a good idea before a singlehanded passage.
Singlehanded sailing requires a reasonable level of physical fitness.
Every manoeuvre is slower and more arduous when sailing alone, so you’ll need the endurance to handle longer passages.
It’s really easy to become dehydrated, so keep a bottle of water in the cockpit, preferably in a pocket along with a few biscuits to keep your energy up and help you deal with tiredness.
‘If you’re feeling a bit tired to begin with, if you’re going to sail a long way that is only going to get worse and will probably guarantee seasickness,’ explains ocean sailing legend, Pete Goss.
‘Sometimes if you just take it a bit easy at the start of a longer passage that makes things easier for the rest of the trip.
‘Plan to only go a short distance before possibly anchoring up for some hours, to make sure you get some rest and you have properly got your sea legs.
‘That can be the difference between a great solo passage and a terrible one where you are tired and sick from the off.
‘No-one functions well in that sort of condition.’
‘Eating is a really important thing to focus on too,’ says record breaking skipper Dee Caffari.
‘It is really just getting the balance right and realising the effect hunger has on your body and mind.
‘I did a lot of work with sports psychologists before doing big races to understand myself a lot more.
‘Much of it was focused on understanding when I am tired and when I am hungry.
‘There are moments now when I realise I just need to eat and take a 10-minute break, and then I am a totally different person.
‘Clearly not everyone has access to a psychologist, but taking the time to notice the signs of sleep deprivation and hunger and what they mean in terms of how you function is crucial.’
Singlehanded sailing should be approached much like sailing at night in terms of safety.
You want everything you might need ready to hand, and to take a much more cautious approach.
Going overboard is not a good idea at the best of times and becomes even more serious when solo.
Everything should be done to minimise this risk.
While much of this is a matter of attitude, and planning each manoeuvre to predict the main dangers, having the right equipment in the right place will also help.
Navigation and communication
Being able to manage your boat, and all of the key navigation and safety systems from the cockpit is the key.
Think through your navigation and communications equipment.
A chart plotter and a VHF radio handset on deck will save the need to go below.
Should you need to make a distress call, having a radio that is set up with a DSC button will make things easier.
Modern handheld VHF radios are capable of this, as are command microphones for fixed VHF sets, which also have the advantage of a longer range.
It is worth having binoculars, flares, and a grab bag easily to hand too.
AIS and radar
Making your boat more visible to others will help make up some of the potential shortfall of only having one set of eyes to keep lookout.
A properly working AIS unit, radar reflector, and potentially a radar enhancer and alarm, will help alert you to approaching vessels and you to them.
On board equipment
Though they are key bits of safety kit on any yacht, the lifebelt and danbuoy aren’t so important for singlehanded sailing, as there will be no-one left to throw them after you if you did go overboard.
But the rest of the boat’s standard equipment should be located, inspected and brought up to spec before a solo passage if they aren’t already.
These include the liferaft, fire extinguishers, bilge pump, flares, first aid kit and so on.
Falling overboard, serious enough with a fully-crewed boat, becomes even more unpalatable solo.
Everything should be done to avoid this possibility.
Clearly, a mindset that is consistently aware of the risk is your biggest asset, and will help you avoid doing things that could leave you exposed.
Keeping clipped can serve as a reminder of this, and goes some way to keeping you connected to the boat, though being overboard on the end of the tether may be little better than being overboard without one.
‘I do wear a tether often,’ says Wheatley.
‘But the thing to remember about going over the side is that a tether does keep you there, but if you go over by yourself and you are tethered on, then you are not going to get back onboard.
‘However, it is much easier to find a boat than a body so I take the view that I wear one to make it easier for my family should I go over.’
Often the biggest risk of going overboard for a singlehander is actually in harbour.
Picking up the mooring buoy, or even stepping across from pontoon to boat has often led to an unexpected dunking.
This can rapidly become serious if you are wearing heavy clothing or the water is anything less than balmy, and do not have an easy means of climbing out.
For this reason many solo sailors carry an emergency ladder with a line that can be reached from the water.
In this scenario, a lifejacket will help you float during the initial phase of cold shock, and should therefore be worn, not just when things start to get ‘a bit lively’ out at sea.
Modern lifejackets are far more impressive than their early counterparts.
Lightweight, slimline, and comfortable to wear, the hood helps prevent secondary drowning and the bright colour and light makes it easier to locate you by day and night.
Crucially, technology has moved on so that it is possible to carry AIS and satellite distress beacons in or on the lifejacket.
Along with a VHF radio in your pocket, this is likely to be your only chance of calling for help at sea should the worst happen.
It should therefore be a serious consideration for anyone sailing solo, however far they venture.
As a solo sailor, it is a good idea to have a shore contact who you keep updated with your plans and your estimated time of arrival, and who knows to call the Coastguard with the details of your boat if you become overdue.
This can be supplemented by having your details up to date on the RYA SafeTrx app, which the Coastguard now uses as its leisure vessel registry, as well as being an active passage-tracking tool.
Even if the alarm is raised, hopefully a phone or VHF radio call will quickly establish all is well.
It’s easy for piles of rope to mount up when there’s no second pair of hands to help.
Keep up with tidying lines away, so you don’t end up with a tangled mess that could jam just when you need a halyard to run free.
With a little patience, singlehanded sailing is rarely more difficult than sailing two- or three-up for the experienced skipper.
Manoeuvres take longer to complete and you are likely to spend more time in the cockpit than you otherwise might, but your approach to most situations will be broadly the same.
Where things can get tricky is in slipping the lines and mooring.
The latter being all the worse for coming at the end of your passage and so your decision making is likely to be impaired through weariness.
Slipping the lines is clearly much easier if the wind is blowing you off the pontoon.
Here your midships cleat will come in handy as you can get yourself tight to the pontoon with this and then drop the bow line, before heading back to remove the stern line and finally slipping the midships line.
Do remember to have plenty of fenders fore and aft as the boat may pivot around the midships cleat, depending on wind and tide direction.
As ever, the process for leaving a windward berth can be trickier.
It is easier to spring off the bow first as you have cockpit access to your sternline.
So this is your best option if there is little to no tide, or the tide is coming from ahead.
If there is no tide running and the wind is blowing to onto your pontoon, then you will probably need to motor astern with the stern line firm to help bring the bow out.
Once it moves clear of the pontoon you can motor ahead as you slip the sternline.
With the tide from astern, use a slipped bow spring.
With sufficient tide the engine does not have to be engaged; simply slip all the lines bar the bow spring, go to the foredeck, watch the stern come away from the pontoon, slip the spring and return to the cockpit.
Once you are in open water, set the engine slow ahead and engage the autopilot while you recover lines and fenders.
Lines can be coiled and fenders tidied away in the cockpit.
On the water
Before taking on any planned singlehanded sailing, your boat handling should be up to scratch, but even the best sailors will find their skills improving quickly from a bit of time on the water alone.
Thinking through manoeuvring into and out of marinas berths and moorings, and then practising this a few times can take away some of the stress of a solo trip.
At sea you need to be able to heave-to or stop comfortably, as this will give you time to boil the kettle, tend to any problems, or even have a quick break.
Manoeuvres such as tacking or reefing can also be rehearsed: which lines are eased or hauled in first, and when to put the helm down will be particular to your boat, but can be practised.
Once you’re at sea, it is worth keeping manoeuvres to a minimum when possible, as they take time and energy, and incur an element of risk.
As beating will involve a heeled boat and some tacking, it is, by its very nature, the toughest point of sail.
Vane steering systems or an autopilot that can adjust the course to the wind shifts, will keep the boat steering effectively.
Some newer autopilots also have tacking and gybing functions, leaving you free to concentrate on trimming the sails.
An autopilot remote is also an option, giving you access to control from anywhere on the boat (usually worn on the wrist).
It’s also worth spending time on your passage planning and general theory.
Going below for five minutes to check when the tide turns or to find out what a specific light means will be five minutes that you’re not on deck keeping a lookout.
When coming in to harbour, start the engine relatively far out from your destination to give you time to douse sail and prepare yourself.
Lazyjacks prevent a dropped mainsail blowing off the boom and restricting visibility forward.
Rig your fenders and lines in open water where you have space to drift or motor slowly under autopilot.
If you do not yet know where you will be going it is well worth fendering port and starboard with stern and midships lines on both sides.
Most marinas will send someone to help you if you radio ahead and let them know that you are on your own, or others on the pontoon will normally be happy to catch a line, but you should be prepared to do things alone if needed.
Coming alongside a pontoon, the midships line is critical.
Position the tail so that it is easily picked up when you move forward from the helm.
Prepare bow and stern lines and bring the ends amidships so you can reach them from the pontoon.
Stop the boat dead with your midships cleat as close as possible to your selected pontoon cleat, and throw a lasso of rope over it – a skill well worth practising.
Sweat the line to bring the boat as close as you can.
You are then secure and have more time to take bow and stern lines across and adjust your position.
You can also use the midships line as a spring.
Once the line is made off, put the engine ahead with the helm towards the pontoon.
This will hold the boat snug alongside while you sort the other lines.
This is harder if the wind is blowing off the pontoon; your boat handling has to be positive and accurate.
If coming alongside isn’t working, getting a line onto a cleat from the bow or stern will get you secure and give you time to warp the boat in.
If you don’t fancy it, consider picking up a swinging mooring or dropping the anchor until help is available or the conditions change.
The key to mooring alone is to be ready beforehand, in open water, and to have planned what order you will do things in.
This can be practised while you have crew by getting the boat to stop in her berth without relying on lines to take the boat’s way off.
It looks much better too!
Don’t get overpowered
Managing the amount of sail you have set before you become overpowered is more important when you are singlehanded sailing as it takes longer to reduce sail and you will have no extra pairs of hands if things get exciting.
If you know it’s going to be a windy sail, reef before you leave your mooring.
If you have a ramshorn for the tack reefing point, you may need a small piece of bungee to hold the cringle in place until you have hoisted the sail.
If you are already out on the water, reef early, before the wind increases too much.
Be conservative with how early you reef.
Before you tackle reefing the mainsail, furl away some of the headsail.
This will slow the boat, making the motion easier and reducing heel, so making reefing the main easier.
Having a more heavily reefed main, and using the genoa to fine-tune the sailing area with the furling line also makes changing gears singlehanded less arduous and avoids trips on deck before needing to shake out or take in the next reef.
‘For short-handed crews, mainsails need to be quick to drop in an emergency and require no feeding when hoisting, to avoid unnecessary trips out of the cockpit,’ says Pip Hare.
‘Avoid using a main with a bolt rope, because when the sail is dropped it will not remain captive at the mast and can quickly become uncontrollable.’
Downwind, keeping the rig under control requires some forethought.
A main boom preventer should be used if you’re sailing deep downwind, but is precarious to rig at sea, so have this ready before you set off, or even rig one on each side.
Most singlehanders are likely to be reluctant to set coloured sails off the wind in all but the best conditions and using a headsail, poled out, is more likely.
To set your poled-out headsail, begin by furling it away while you ready a pole on the windward side with uphaul, downhaul and guy.
This will give you full control of the sail from the cockpit.
Once you are set up it is simply a case of unfurling the sail and trimming from the helm.
It’s an easy and easily manageable solution and can be furled away without dropping the pole.
It will be easiest to furl the sail before you gybe, then attend to changing over the pole before again unfurling.
Setting a spinnaker or cruising chute is a more long-winded process solo so should only be taken on if you have a long leg ahead of you and you are sailing in relatively traffic-free waters.
A cruising chute is simpler to set up than a spinnaker.
Rigging can be done with the headsail furled and hoisted in its snuffer.
You’ll probably need to be on the foredeck to raise the snuffer, so make sure you are secure before doing so.
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Set the boat on a course deep downwind until you can get back to the cockpit to trim the sail.
Hoisting a spinnaker takes more planning and more time both to set and douse.
For gybing either of them, you would be best to snuff or drop the sail and reset on the new side.
Singlehanded sailing checklist
- Boat well maintained with all known faults rectified
- Sail handling arrangement set up with lines back to cockpit if possible
- Autopilot or self-steering set up, calibrated and working, with remote if available
- Hove-to practised and balanced sail plan checked
- Furling headsail and mainsail lazyjacks set up and working
- Enough fenders and mooring lines to rig both sides, and means of getting midships line onto a pontoon cleat
- Confident you can handle the boat for the given forecast
- Practised mooring, manoeuvring and sail handling alone
- Well rested ahead of passage
- Food and drink prepared in advance and available on deck
- Familiar with boat’s key systems and how to troubleshoot each of them
- Short passages and daysailing in coastal waters are better
- Avoid overnight passages initially
- Full passage plan completed with necessary notes available on deck
- Passage plan and ETA shared with shore contact, coastguard or RYA SafeTrx app
- Boat details registered on RYA SafeTrx app or website
Safety and kit
- Adopt conservative approach to risk and safety
- VHF radio on deck
- Chartplotter or paper chart on deck
- Wearing lifejacket at all times, particularly start and end of passage recommended
- Carry personal safety equipment, including VHF, knife, torch, and PLB or AIS beacon
- Jackstays rigged, tether clipped on
- Emergency ladder in reach from water
- Have easily available: wet weather gear, binoculars, handbearing compass, knife, sunscreen, snacks, and water.