Singlehanded Sailing

I’ve been asked a few times about the realities of single-handed sailing. It’s taken ages to get round to writing a few thoughts down. Over time I’ll doubtless modify some of what I may say here. But right now, this is how I feel about it.

A common question is, when do you sleep? Or, what about keeping watch?

And a frequent comment is, it’s so brave (perhaps meaning foolish).

Other questions that people ask :- Is long-distance single-handed sailing safe? Is it responsible? Is it easy? Is it for you?

I’d answer with a provisional ‘yes’ to all these. (There are those, often from that army of armchair Facebook commentators, who clearly think otherwise.)

In my view, long-distance single-handed sailing is much more to do with ‘you’ than ‘how’. Who you are, rather than how you do it. Your personality, not your physical prowess.

So, rather than the questions : “When do you sleep?”, “Don’t you need help?”, “How do you reef/set an anchor/climb the mast?”, “What happens when you are unwell?” I feel the leading questions should really be along the lines of 

“Do you need company?”, 

“Do you often feel lonely?”, or

“Do you need other people to stay happy?”. 

Ultimately, “Are you an introvert or extravert?” 

Both introverts and extraverts usually like other people, value friendships, and enjoy companionship. I certainly do. 

But after a while the classic introvert tends to find other folk draining and often needs a break. People are exhausting!

Extraverts, in contrast, in many cases are lost without others; they need people to restore their energy, happiness and vitality. People are their essential tonic.

In any case extroverts, people who need people, are not cut out for single-handed sailing. They try it certainly, but once is enough. (There are possibly one or two exceptions but I don’t think I’ve met them.)

In a nutshell, single-handed sailors are typically introverts. That’s their defining quality. Those that are not may well be desperately looking for crew. Even I sometimes look for crew, though from experience do feel that the responsibilities normally outweigh the advantages.

I could draw up a reasoned list of the pros and cons of single-handed sailing. But it would not help. I only know that for me crossing oceans is best done alone. I’ve never taken crew over an Ocean. 

Apart from appreciating the intoxicating delight of utter solitude with nature, I do not wish to take the risks and responsibilities of sailing long distances with anyone I do not know very well. Accidents can happen, emotions are tested, privacy is absent. There’s no escape.

And I hasten to add that coastal sailing or island hopping with friends is quite different, another matter entirely. You’ll usually stop at night, be near to land for a walk, a meal, other people. And I greatly enjoy the pleasure that comes with shared experiences, the joy of watching dolphins with others who love them, of sharing those glasses of wine, of another person’s cooking. 

I’ve often had crew aboard for shorter distances; and I like it. But I point out that I prefer women to men, unless they are my relatives or very good male friends of course. Women, I’ve found, are generally more fragrant, tidier and usually nicer to look at, and at least on a boat seem less critical. Some can cook veggie food too. And for sociability a balanced pair is best.

As for the practicalities of single-handed sailing, answers are easy enough.

Sleep? Personally on passage I never sleep for more than two hours at a time, even if I’ve seen no other vessel for a week. I set an AIS alarm to warn of nearby ships. And set an alarm in case I oversleep, but rarely need to be woken. You subconsciously come to sense changes in conditions, waves, wind or direction, even when asleep, and leap to action if necessary. 

Where ships or fishing vessels are around, you can seldom do more than cat-nap, just ten or twenty minutes when no-one’s nearby. But you try to avoid such areas. The English Channel as one example, means sleeplessness – though at least there, the boats have lights.

The world has recognised areas and routes where ships may be commonplace. Ships being legally obliged to operate AIS are less troublesome than the smaller fishing vessels which demand visual sighting. They tend to travel on a predictable course at steady speed. In contrast, poorly lit, or unlit, fishing vessels, and FADs, old oil rigs, are more difficult and make for high levels of anxiety. I try to avoid such places at night.

For me one night with no sleep is fine, two nights much harder. With extreme tiredness, judgements and decisions become sloppy or silly; forgetfulness creeps in; carelessness is potentially dangerous; risks increase. 

The answer is easy: Avoid long passages in places where there are lots of boats, ships, obstructions.

Most of the world’s oceans are empty of other boats. Risks associated with being exhausted through sleep-deprivation far outweigh the risks of hitting something when asleep. I have an AIS with alarm set to warn of any approaching ships. Ships without AIS in the ocean are very rare; the chances of a collision are extremely remote.

If you’re the sort of person who cannot function properly without six or eight hours uninterrupted sleep at night, then don’t go single-handed sailing. Don’t go ocean sailing at all!

Sometimes you will feel exhausted. Bad weather, broken gear, whatever. But I’ve mainly been sailing the longest distances in the tropics, where other than squalls, or thunderstorms, gales are rare; and noone sane sails in cyclone or hurricane seasons without good forecasts. Personally I doubt I shall sail single-handed round Cape Horn or visit the NorthWest Passage, even though a few inveterate sailors (much younger than me) have done so. I’m just a ‘normal’ long-distance cruising sailor. Nothing special. I’d estimate that at least 10% of ocean sailors are solo, much more in some places.

I develop routines of cooking, sleeping, checking boat, reading, listening to podcasts, thinking, washing, always punctuated with sail trimming and course adjustments. Days and nights usually pass easily enough. 

Keep healthy, hold on when it’s rough, don’t drink alcohol, sleep when you can, wash and dream… and you may just enjoy the purest freedom and beauty on our planet.

After a week I may begin to miss other people, but I don’t need them (at least I haven’t needed them yet). I guess that’s it.

I like you, I may even love you, but I do not need you. I can enjoy nature’s charms in solitude, just occasionally in rare dark moments longing for others to share more of such delights.

When I reach other people, perhaps I value you and appreciate you all the more for the absence that went before. I like to hear your voice, watch what you do, and reconnect with fellow man. At any rate, when I reach the end of an ocean voyage I shall be only to happy to see you, interact, share a beer or meal, chatter and discuss experiences.

Back to the practicalities. ‘Henrietta’ is a beautiful, strong, well-built Swedish boat, a Najad 391, a sloop. I endeavour to keep her well-maintained. She’s quite ‘forgiving’ in that she’ll suffer the harshest of squalls or roughest of seas without immediately giving up; there’s time to reef and take action to lessen any impacts. 

Since you cannot physically take the helm much of the time on long passages, good reliable self steering is of course essential. I have both an autopilot (electric) and Hydrovane (wind), and for over 90% of long passages the Hydrovane has taken care of me.

Hydrovane does most of the steering

There’s inmast furling for mainsail and all control lines come to the cockpit. Whilst I’d probably favour a slab reefed main, I find inmast easier and quicker to reef, and you don’t have to head into the wind for sail changing.

There’s a furling genoa. Also a temporary inner forestay where I can hank on a staysail or storm jib (latter not yet used). There’s a cruising chute but rarely hoisted when alone as it can be hard to lower if wind gets up, and speed, that extra fraction of a knot, is unimportant. There are no electric winches.

The windlass for anchor can be controlled from the cockpit and at the bow. I’ve had a few failures of several parts of the anchor system, and can manage without two controls, but when it all works it’s easy enough. 

Most of the time, cruising boats are at anchorages. Globally, once away from the richer countries, there are few marinas; and who wants a busy costly marina anyway when there are peaceful, pretty and secure anchorages at hand. For the singlehander anchoring is normally much easier and more convenient than a marina.

The tender? I have an old Avon inflatable stored in its bag on the foredeck, and a kayak. Alone and if it’s not rough I use the kayak to go ashore. Of course I can’t compete with increasingly common davit-mounted high powered RIBs, but I always get there in the end. 

As mentioned there’s AIS. I have a radar but don’t use it unless visibility is very poor.

For any work on deck, day or night, I clip on, and if it’s rough I stay clipped on in the cockpit too. Any sailor’s worst nightmare is falling overboard and seeing the boat sail on without you. Single-handed sailors don’t come back after falling overboard to tell you about it.

Think I need to edit some of this!

A final thought:

There’s no single way to go sailing alone. Everyone has their own ideas and preferences. Just because I do it my way, doesn’t mean you need to. When on your own, you can do exactly what you want!