The art of solo cruising
Yachting Monthly|August 2020
Toby Heppell looks at the art of sailing alone and considers what constitutes good seamanship when it’s only you on board
Toby Heppel

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 where 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 sail alone – 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 another 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

‘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 on board 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 solo-sailing, when considerations around sleep management become more vital.

Is your boat up to it?

Though the recent trend has been for ever-bigger boats, you need to be fairly agile to single-hand 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

Whether you have a wheel or tiller, the layout of the cockpit is important as to whether it works well for single-handing. 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 chart plotter 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. 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 wind vane 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 wind vane on ocean passages.’

Ensure essentials such as hand bearing 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 single-handed passage.

Physical limitations

Sailing on your own 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 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.’

Solo safety

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