Single-Handed Sailing - SailNet Community
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Single-Handed Sailing

There are plenty of books filled with tips about single-handed sailing. I confess, I used to believe that it was bit excessive for writers to publish an entire book about single-handing, an example of the microscopic analysis that occasionally weighs down sailing. A chapter maybe, even a long section, but a whole book about being alone—after all, sailing is still just sailing regardless of crew size. Of course I spouted this opinion after a lot of experience sailing with crew and very little sailing alone. Therefore, it came as a surprise to find that I was completely exhausted after a day and a half of single-handing. The problem was, I still had 800 miles to go. With fatigue making even simple thoughts seem like great revelations, I realized that I had been too casual in my preparations for delivering a Beneteau First 38 from Virgin Gorda to Ft. Lauderdale.

An emergency back home forced my crew to change her plans and catch the first flight out of the islands. I was anxious to be on my way and had little enthusiasm for rustling up new crew off the dock, a process that is often fraught with risk anyway. I phoned the owner—a friend—and told him that I was considering coming back alone. He contacted his insurance agent and then called me back; if I wanted to single-hand it was OK with him. I hastily provisioned and cleared the dock.

The early summer passage from the islands to the mainland is usually ideal. Prevailing southeasterlies are warm and moderate, and the current gives you 15 - 30 free miles every day. The lumpy silhouette of the islands dropped beneath the horizon just before sunset. We, the boat and I, were easing along with a poled out genoa and main paid well out. Aside from the rolling and occasional slatting of the main, life was good. I dropped below to make a sandwich when I felt the boat suddenly lurch to port. "Come back," I said out loud. "Come back, come on," in a flash I was back in the cockpit. It was too late to prevent a noisy jibe. But the backed sails didn't concern me. I stared in disbelief at the broken autopilot belt. Without an autopilot single-handed sailing quickly loses its charm and becomes a lot like work.

In my haste to get underway I failed to check for a spare Autohelm 3000 belt. Darkness was minutes away. The first priority was to get sailing again and I went forward to free the whisker pole that was tangled in a preventer line. Several times I had to dash aft to the wheel, to bring the boat up into the wind, only to have the sails back again before I could clear the line. I was beginning to understand that single-handed sailing requires a little more planning, you can't just bark orders back to the helmsperson.

I also noted that my harness wasn't shackled to the jack lines I had rigged before leaving port. I had to slow down and think, not just react. There is no margin for error when it comes to falling overboard when you are alone. Frustrated, I dropped the pole and soon had the sails drawing nicely in a freshening breeze. I was perched at the helm, a position I would maintain through the night.

I was a prisoner in the cockpit because I just could not make the First 38 steer herself for any length of time and maintain a course off the wind. I tried to lash the wheel with bungy and experimented with trim. The best tactic was to ease the main well out, and over trim the genoa, but this slowed us down and increased the likelihood of the boat rounding up. The night dragged on. I made several frantic dashes below searching for a spare belt. My best bet was a spare engine alternator belt and I decided that at first light I would fashion a jury rig.

I considered turning back to the Virgins, or detouring to San Juan, but I hate to backtrack once I've begun a passage. Besides, I had another delivery scheduled just days after my return. Tight schedules and sailing shouldn't mix, but they almost always do. In the morning I brought the boat hard on the wind and readjusted the autopilot motor to fit the alternator belt. It actually steered rather well and I boasted to the flying fish that I was still the king of the short-term solution. The wind died as the day wore on and I decided to take a quick swim while crossing over the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest spot in the Atlantic Ocean. A personal ritual, I always swim in the trench if weather permits, there is something about cavorting in 30,000 feet. Yet swimming alone was different. Although I had lowered all sail, I just couldn't relax. After a quick dip I was back on board and making way under power.

That evening fatigue became a factor. I simply had to sleep for more than 15 minutes at a crack. I felt guilty. Disregarding watch on your own boat is one thing but on a delivery, it is doubly irresponsible. Also, I was plying a route well traveled by cruise ships and I couldn't stop thinking about the possibility of a collision. I decided to steer farther offshore, adding miles to the rhumb line but lessening the likelihood of encountering a ship. I also increased my sleeping periods to 30 minutes. However, when the light of another day crept above the horizon, I was still exhausted.

On my third day at sea I realized that there was something to those books on single-handed sailing after all. Sailing alone required much more planning. Even simple tasks needed to be thought out in advance; when making sandwiches, make an extra one and stash it in the cockpit. When going forward to free a fouled lead, consider rigging a preventer line just in case the wind changes. It is critical to conserve energy and limit your chances to make stupid mistakes.

By day five I had established an efficient routine. I was sleeping in 30-minute intervals in the evening and cat napping in daytime. I was preparing all the day's meals at one time, and not putting anything off that turned up on my daily deck and rig inspection. Seven days from Virgin Gorda I spied the familiar tanks that stand sentinel over Port Everglades. I had already decided to throw a book about single-handed sailing in my sea bag to read on my next delivery.

A Few Thoughts on Single-Handing

1. Gear makes a difference for the single-hander. Obviously furling sails and power winches lighten the work load for sailing alone. Also Radar with guard zone alarms are helpful but never let a clear Radar screen lull you into not personally scanning the horizon. The most important piece of equipment for the single-hander is a reliable self-steering system. Carry a backup system and spare parts as well. Remember, sophisticated gear can be a mixed bag, simple systems still are the best.

2. Shorten sail earlier and try to avoid getting caught with too much sail up. This is a general rule of good seamanship but especially valid when sailing alone. Be sure that your sail control systems are well laid out. While I am not usually a fan of leading all controls aft, it makes sense for single-handers.

3. Single-handing requires more planning and less reacting. If you are considering a short passage, a week or less, do as much work as possible before you shove off. Pre-cook meals, pre plan routes, make notes on the chart, etc.

4. Conserve energy and develop a workable sleep pattern. I found that sleeping in 30 minute intervals provided me with enough sleep in the night only after I started conserving my energy and cat napping during the daytime hours. Staying rested will be one of your biggest challenges.

5. Choose routes that take you away from shipping lanes and areas of coastal traffic. Even if you have to add miles or alter destinations, sailing alone will be much easier if you are truly alone at sea.

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