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NCC320 06-06-2011 12:36 PM

Single Handing Made Easy - What Are Your Techniques?
Single Handing Made Easy – What Are Your Techniques?

Most of us, who single hand our boats, have developed or learned little tricks or techniques; or found assists to make the job easier. I’ve observed that many of us are older, a few in their late 80’s … (I’m 71, the boat is a Catalina 320), and often, single handers sail relatively large boats, some even in the 40-50 ft. range. Most of us might still be able to use a few new tricks. I suspect that many others, whether they single hand or not, could also benefit from such techniques, especially relatively new boaters. So:

Let’s share our knowledge….What are your techniques? Please describe them sufficiently that readers understand why, how, and will be able to duplicate the techniques.

Boats, docking constraints, waters, and sailing conditions vary greatly from place to place, so what will work in one case might not be the best technique in another, and sometimes the techniques will even seem at odds with one or another. A potential user, should read and select what is best for his situation.

I’ll start with several things….one a concept, three techniques.

Dock Lines are not Docking Lines. Most of us use dock lines consisting of stern, bow, and spring lines in some arrangement to hold the boat securely when we are away. The placement and length of these lines are usually not ideal to aid in docking the boat, but often with great frustration, we attempt to use them, with lots of running about, jumping on and off the boat, trying to stop or position the boat while the wind or current repositions the boat, often banging against the pier or pilings. Docking lines are lines, usually temporary, placed solely to aid in docking or undocking. Docking lines may be further broken down into: permanently placed assist lines, docking/arrival lines, and un-docking/departure lines.

Un-Docking Lines. In my case, the boat usually has a beam or quarter crosswind that wants to blow me down onto the short finger pier and the adjacent boat or piling. Additionally, with only about a foot clearance on either side on the outer pilings, the boat wants to be more or less centered for control when it passes the outer pilings. Usually, there are assist two lines, that if properly placed for the wind, will hold the boat in the correct position. Place these lines and they will hold the boat. Now, you can leisurely take you time to undo and secure all the other lines. No running, no jumping, no pushing against the wind. A fumble is no problem, take your time. Whenever you are ready, the boat is in the correct position. One to these lines is typically placed at the stern cleat, adjacent to the helm. The other is either a bow line or amidships line. Now, I have only one line to untie (done from the boat) that is away from the helm. Except in high crosswind conditions, take-in that far line first, then the stern line, put engine in gear, and you are on your way. Once clear of the dock, remove and store these temporary lines. No sweat, no bother. (If you can snug up against the dock using a spring line and the engine, you can do all this with a single line…I’ll let others describe the spring line technique).

Buddy Lines Plus. Buddy lines are two lines (same size as your dock lines) strung on either side of your slip, parallel to the slip from the each outer piling back to the pier. Pull these two lines tight and tie them securely. Now, at any point in your slip, you have something to push or pull against if things begin to go wrong. Generally, when docking, if you can get your boat between the outer pilings even just a bit, you can then work it in using the buddy lines. Now the Plus: In the buddy lines, at a position adjacent to your stern cleat or amidships cleat, tie a small loop in the line. Now, when you are placing the un-docking lines mentioned above, place a temporary line having an eye splice on either your stern cleat or amidships cleat, pass the eye splice through the buddy line loop and drop the splice eye over your cleat. Now, with this temporary line attached to the windward buddy line loop, the boat can neither go forward, backward, or downwind. Now, the second Plus: If you permanently place a simple block, with a large bow shackle attached to the block, on the buddy line, you can easily move the boat partially out of the slip by using the temporary undocking line (having been passed through the shackle on the block). You don’t have to pull the boat either, just use the engine to position the boat forward. The boat stays centered in the dock. (The downside of relying on a buddy line, is that slips away from your home dock probably will not have buddy lines, and you will have gained no experience in not having this assist. But, they sure are handy in the home slip, from which, most of your sailing is likely to occur.)

Toggle Lines. A toggle line is a line rigged so that when a toggle or pin is pulled, the line will fall apart, disconnecting the line from whatever it is attached to. Its value is that, if there is a small line or lanyard attached to the toggle, you can disconnect the line from a remote position, which in our case, will be the helm station. Three things are needed: A standard ½’ nylon line, the toggle pin, and a 3/16” braided lanyard/retrieval line. In the discussions above, one of the two un-docking lines mentioned is located some distance from the helm station. Using a toggle line, this line can be dropped and taken in from the helm station. No running up and down the deck. When you are ready, take in the stern assist line (at your station) by slipping eye loop off cleat, pull the toggle to drop the second line and retrieve it at the same time (again from your station at the helm) using the lanyard/retrieval line, shift into gear and motor out. If you are using the block and shackle arrangement on the buddy line above, you can motor approximately half way out of the slip before you disconnect the toggle line. So exactly how is a toggle line rigged? First, the toggle. Take a piece of 3/4 – 1” PVC pipe, 6-8” long. In one end, drill a hole completely through the pipe segment. Take a length of 3/16” braided line sufficiently long to reach from the area that the toggle will be used to the helm station, and pass through the holes. A knot is tied in the 3/16” line on either side of the PVC toggle pin, so that the pin is held in place on the line. The shorter tail of this line should be approximately 18” long. When you use the toggle line, it will not fall apart as long as there is tension on the line, but sometimes, there can momentarily come slack in the line. To prevent the pin from falling out, a piece of rubber (bicycle tube works well) or bungee cord is used to hold the pin in place. One end of the rubber strip is permanently attached to the lanyard end of the pin; the other end of the rubber strip has a hole in it slightly smaller than the PVC diameter. When the toggle line is rigged, the rubber strip is pulled over the free end of the toggle pin. Now if the toggle line goes slack, the pin cannot fall out, but when toggle pin is pulled with the lanyard, the rubber strip will slip off the pin so the toggle line connection can be dropped. The boat is held in place with the larger line, typically 1/2 “ nylon. In this larger line, tie a large loop (or use a line with an eye splice). At the inboard end of this loop or eye, tie the short tail of the toggle retrieval line at its extreme end. Now, the large line and toggle pin retrieval line are one continuous line. If you are securing the toggle line to another line, only one loop or eye is needed in the larger line. If you are tying around a piling or cleat, tie a second larger loop in the larger line, so that when this larger loop is passed around the piling, the two loops or eyes will meet away from the piling (or cleat). You do not want the piling to contact or press on the toggle joint or it will be hard to pull the pin. The other end of this larger line is tied to your boat’s amidships or bow cleat. Now, to connect the toggle line to either a line, a shackle, or to the second loop in the line, do the following. Take the eye (or loop), place it around the connecting line and fold the eye back on itself. Reach in the folded back portion of the eye, grab the two parts of the eye line on the opposite side of connecting line. Pull these two parts through the eye and insert the toggle pin (with free end away from helm station). Pull the line tight against the pin and place the rubber retaining strip over the free end of the pin. Tie the other end of the larger line to boat’s cleat. Pass the lanyard/retrieval line back to the helm station. Now, the toggle line is properly attached. When you are ready to break away, just pull the lanyard/retrieval line. Pulling this line will also retrieve the toggle line. The toggle should be slick so it comes out readily. (The conventional alternate to retrieving a line on board the boat from a remote piling or cleat is to tie off one end of a long line, pass the line around the piling, and back to the boat, where the line is tended. To break free, one end is cast off and the other end is used to pull this line back on board. The down side is that this long line is likely to drop into the water, with the chance that it is going to wrap the prop, or alternately, the free end of the long line will snag on something as it is being retrieved). Try the toggle line…I think you will like it. We used it in the Navy for small boat launching/recovery from a moving ship. Other than me and the Navy, I’ve never seen any others using it.

jjablonowski 06-07-2011 08:55 AM

"...I'll let others describe the spring line technique."

b40Ibis 06-07-2011 09:02 AM

Electric wenches are key to single handling. The hardest thing is holding the button down!

WanderingStar 06-07-2011 09:18 AM

I haven't any specific techniques. But I always think ahead and always have a "Plan B". If I might have trouble backing into a spot on my return, I hang a spring line on the piling. When I'm sailing to pass a point of land I think of what I'll do if I can't pass safely: tack, bear off, or motor. My anchor is ready to let go anytime I'm on soundings. My halyards are bent on and my sails uncovered when I motor in case the motor should stop.

deniseO30 06-07-2011 09:23 AM

Timing when coming about = saves lots of pulling cranking on the winches.

Ajax_MD 06-07-2011 09:30 AM


Originally Posted by deniseO30 (Post 738085)
Timing when coming about = saves lots of pulling cranking on the winches.


NCC320 06-07-2011 09:46 AM


One can either dock bow first or stern first. Bow first is generally the easiest in properly placing the boat into the slip. It works well with the springline concept (see the earlier post on springline). But, if you fumble that springline and don't get it on, you have limited chance to abort the landing...stand on the engine in reverse and hope it will work, but then sailboats generally have limited stopping power in reverse. So you may be bouncing off the dock or neighbor's boat.

Backing into the slip is more difficult, but not that much more if you do it properly. It's advantage is that you are at the helm at the stern of the boat. The outer pilings come to where you are when you are backing. You can reach out and place your lines on the piling as you enter. If you fumble, you can easily abort the docking, go back out, and try again. If it comes to an abort case, you will want the best maneuvering, control, and power situation. This is what you have going forward.

A word of caution, however, if you are docking in high wind, especially gusty and crosswinds, bow first will, in my opinion, be the preferred method since your major issue in such conditions will be successfully getting the boat into the slip in the first place. Also, high, gusty winds can require backing at higher speeds and can sometimes grab the boat and spin it around out of control. You have to make your decision as to whether you can safely control the boat in reverse before you enter the fairway. Once in the fairway is a poor place to learn that you can't control the boat in reverse, because you have little or no room to recover control over the boat. Sometimes it's a bit difficult to know for sure that one will have control in reverse. But the solution is easy. Run a test outside the fairway. Start backing well outside the fairway and see how much control you have. If you have control, simply continue backing down the fairway and drive the boat in reverse (just like when going forward) between the outer pilings into the slip. If you are having to back relatively fast down the fairway, generally your rudder will be amidships or nearly so, so just before you start your turn into the slip, put the engine in forward and give it a little power to check and reduce your speed. Go back to neutral, start the turn. Use the boat's tendency to propwalk to one side as a fine tuning adjustment to your rudder control in reverse by momentarily putting engine in gear or taking it out of gear. If you misjudge and brush the piling, you have lots of power in forward to stop the boat, or if necessary, to abort the landing if it's that bad.

Unless the conditions are bad, and generally, I prefer backing in as mentioned above. With partial finger piers, it also facilitates boarding.

If you have a fin keel boat with a reasonably large rudder (typical of sailboats), your boat will probably back just fine. You just have to experiment to see how to do it. Most people drive down the fairway in forward, stop the boat at their slip (stopping just achieved a no control state, since control exists only with significant water flow past the rudder). Then, they put the rudder over, shift to reverse. The boat starts to prop walk to one side and the wind or current pushes them out of alignment with the slip. Thus, they conclude that their boat won't back. To really know if your boat will back, take it out into open water. Put it into reverse and see what happens. Frequently, the gearing in the transmission is such that you really have to stand on engine rpm to get the same rotation at the prop, and since the prop is tailored to for forward, it is less efficient in reverse. Your boat will go to the side initially, maybe a lot, but eventually it will also begin to move somewhat backwards, then more and more as water flow past the rudder increases. Eventually, the water forces on the rudder will overcome the tendency for the stern to walk to the side. While these issues are being resolved, keep the rudder admidships so it does not act as a brake in the beginning. Once the boat is moving in reverse, you can use the rudder.

One additional note. On wheel equipped boats, you have a wheel brake. Use this to prevent the rudder from slamming into the stops when backing into your slip. Just when you start your turn into the slip, tighten down on the brake sufficiently that it will hold the rudder in postion so you can take your hands off the wheel to deal with lines, but not so tight that you can't override the brake to make rudder adjustments in entering the slip. Don't tighten the brake until you reach the slip becauses it desensitizes the rudder feel, which you need to help you compensate for wind gusts or direction change. On tiller boats, a tiller tamer probably will do the same function as the wheel brake.

nolatom 06-07-2011 10:11 AM

I've found singlehanding is much easier if I bring someone else along.

But seriously, the less walking you have to do underway, the better. Lead everything to the cockpit, get a wheel or tiller lock, self-stowing mainsail bag, roller-furling (and reefing) jib. Mark your docklines and sheets so you only have to adjust them once to get the right tension for whatever situation. Portable VHF to keep you in the cockpit. Cold beer to give to the nearby dock rats whom you've asked to catch a dock line or help you get in, or fold some sail, etc.

The fewer times you have to leave the tiller, the better.

Oh, yeah, a harness and jackline or clip-in places. No one to get you if you fall overboard, so don't. Make the portable VHF water-resistant and clip it on your belt in case you didn't do the harness thing.

tempest 06-07-2011 05:42 PM

Like Wandering Star, I try to think ahead, have a backup plan.

I take my time, move slowly around the boat...I will often heave-to, well outside a harbor and clear of any other boats... to prepare fenders and docklines so that I'm not trying to do that in a crowded harbor with traffic.

Handheld VHF radio at the helm. Stern anchor ready in an emergency..
I can deploy the roller furling pretty quickly from the safety of the helm if need be.

mgiguere 06-07-2011 07:17 PM

Because I single hand often enough, being on a mooring greatly simplifies everything. Relative to other single-handing issues, I would say the following items help a lot: 1. An auto pilot (relatively obvious). 2. "Hoving to" (a solution for many potential problems), e.g., upside down or fouled dingy that you are towing and need to untangle, taking a genoa down when over-powered, reefing the main when over-powered, having a relatively quiet lunch in boisterous seas, one of a number of man overboard tactics....Oh, that's right, you're single-handing...:>). Actually we throw stuff over just to practice, and the best technique for me is to jibe on man overboard...With this technique, I more often end up where the hat is.

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