OCC Forums

Best Practices in Single Handed Sailing


By DariaBlackwell - 15 Mar 2015

There is a book getting great review on single-handed sailing and an earlier edition is available for free as a pdf. Single-handed sailing may be another good subject for a Best Practices paper. Please feel free to share your thoughts about your single-handed experience here.

By David.Tyler - 28 Apr 2015

This book had really better be retitled " Singlehanded Racing Tips". Huge swathes of it are to do with setting up a fast, lightweight boat for such races as the Figaro, and then racing it aggressively. I wouldn 't want to recommend it to anyone looking for "Best practices in single handed cruising".
By DariaBlackwell - 2 May 2015

Thanks David, I would tend to agree on that, although there are sections in it written by experienced offshore sailors that may have merit as a starting point. You certainly have a great deal of experience as does Tony Gooch, and many other OCC members. Perhaps one for the back burner.
By Gianluca - 4 Jan 2017

It would be great if we can learn from other experiences. I have been drifting slowly into thinking that single handed cruising could be interesting and fun and my curiosity is increasing. However, there is little material for single handled cruisers. There is a lot more for racers but clearly this is a very different approach.

I imagine that you start with short passages and learn from there slowly but, it would be great to hear from others....
By DariaBlackwell - 6 Jan 2017

The following is posted on behalf of David Tyler:

Hi Gianluca,

Yes, you 're right, you start with short passages and build up your experience. My most recent and notable singlehanded passages were from New Zealand to Alaska and back again, but before that, I 'd been learning the trade. First in a 25ft boat in the English Channel for 12 years, then in a 28ft boat around the W coast of the UK, and then two-handed sailing in a 35ft boat up and down the Atlantic and Pacific. So, singlehanding for 24 - 36 hour passages first, then learning about ocean passages with a crew, and only then moving onto singlehanded ocean passages.

It goes without saying that you need to be completely comfortable with your ability to do the sail handling and boat handling alone. Not only to be able to put in a reef and shake it out unaided, but to be able to do it numerous times a day in squally weather without exhausting yourself. Boat size is important - not so large that you aren 't strong enough to do everything alone and can 't manage to be everywhere you need to be, quickly enough; not so small that the motion is too tiring. 30 - 35ft is good. Also important is setting up the boat so that you don 't need to be in two places at once. For example, it wouldn 't be good to have the main halyard lead aft, but to have to go to the mast to hook on a tack cringle. I 'll just say here that I wouldn 't dream of ocean sailing under anything other than the modernised, westernised junk rig, because I 've been able to make long passages in all weathers without undue physical stress, but this is a personal choice.

The absence of physical and mental stress-inducing factors is important, because this leads into the chief difference between singlehanded and crewed sailing - getting enough rest and sleep. You can 't rest if you 're nervous about your ability to cope. And to get enough physical and mental rest, it is important to lie down and close your eyes - even if you don’t sleep.

The big leap you have to make is to move from getting a whole four hour watch below to being able to catnap. This can be defined as staying within the “light sleep” period. It’s worth studying the science of sleep, and there’s enough material in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep for our purposes. Basically, we go through light sleep, down to deep sleep, back up through REM sleep in cycles of about 90 minutes. In a normal night we go through several of these cycles; and in a four hour watch below, we can go through two of them, which can provide much of the rest and renewal that we need in each 24 hours. A singlehander has to manage with shorter periods, and herein lies a difficulty. We can wake up if we are in the light sleep section of the cycle, and towards the end of the REM sleep section, but if we are awakened during the deep sleep section, we cannot function well for some time. So, what we have to do is take much of our rest in sections of less than half an hour. This ties in with the time it takes for a modern ship to go from first being visible to being too close for comfort. That time is getting shorter, as ships get faster. Luckily, we don’t meet fast ferries in mid ocean, but are more likely to meet bulk carriers and container ships doing about 11 - 16 knots. We can count on 15 minutes of rest; more when well of the shipping lanes, less if there are fishing fleets around. The difficulty with catnapping is that we really need our REM sleep, which we don’t get unless we go through a whole sleep cycle. REM sleep is when our mental filing system sorts out and stores memories. When deprived of REM sleep, we can become very confused. I find that I need one period of sleep of two hours in every twenty-four to remain on my best form.

How do we catnap, in practical terms? Two things: there must be a berth where you can lie down and rest, as near to the point of minimum motion as possible (low down and just aft of amidships); and there must be a timer that will wake you up. A clockwork kitchen timer is a good start, but better is to make a timer based on a two hour “run back mechanical timer” (enter that into the search box on eBay), wired up to a loud buzzer. Our ears are the last things that go to sleep and the first things that wake up, so a buzzer is better than, for example, switching on a light. I described the timer that I made in an issue of the OCC Newsletter.

Posted on behalf of David Tyler
By David.Tyler - 6 Jan 2017

Thsnk you for posting that, Daria.

Also of interest is to look at "power nap" in Wikipedia. This says more about the necessity of sleeping either for less than 30 minutes at a time, or for more than one sleep cycle.
By David.Tyler - 6 Jan 2017

I 'm going to post in short scraps, because of the way the forum won 't accept long postings.

AIS is the biggest single thing in recent years to make the singlehander 's life easier. To be able to set a range that will trigger an alarm if a ship comes within it, and to be able to set an alarm if anything outside that range is going to come close, is a tremendous boon, doubling the warning that one gets from a visual scan of the horizon. An AIS receiver consumes minimal power. A radar consumes more, but of course should pick up everything within the alarm range, not just vessels transmitting. A radar detector is useful, but I 've come across ships in mid-ocean that had turned their radar off...
By Tonygooch - 15 Jan 2017

I am in complete agreement with David 's thinking particularly regarding sleep. A common mistake by sailors new to solo sailing is to stay up on deck on watch too long. Close to shore, this is sometimes unavoidable, but at the first opportunity the salon should go below, lie dow, get warm nod off, even if it only for ten minutes. Tired sailors make mistakes.

As David notes, the boat must be easy to sail, everything must be in perfect operating condition. Systems should be simple, visible and easy to maintain. This particularly applies to the mainsail reefing system. Tried and true slab reefing handled at the mast is preferred. David 's junk rigged boat is a masterpiece of low tech simplicity.

For long distance sailing it is desirable to have both a hydraulic auto pilot and a wind vane. Both of high quality and easy to use.

For long passages food is important. Eat on a regular schedule and eat well.

Solo sailors have to be content with their own company and happy to rely on their own resourcefulness. If not, don 't do it. It should be a pleasure not a struggle.

Fair winds
Tony Gooch
By simoncurrin - 15 Jan 2017

I am posting this on behalf David Tyler who is unable to post due to problems with his IP security.

I’m glad that you’ve contributed, Tony. I was beginning to think that no other singlehanders were looking at this forum.

I was privileged to have known Blondie Hasler a little. I remember him saying to me: “If theres’s nothing else that you should be doing - looking out, navigating, boat handling, cooking, eating, essential maintenance - lie down and close your eyes”.

Don’t use caffeine or anything stronger to stay awake. It doesn’t work. Or rather, it works for a while, and then comes a point where it ceases to work, and you go to sleep whether it’s convenient and safe or not. You don’t have to stay fully awake all the time; there’s never a time when you can’t snatch five minutes in your berth. I compare singlehanding to the state of being of a wild animal: never completely off-duty, always alert to changes in circumstances, but only at a low level of alert most of the time, just ready to raise the level of alertness when needed, but only when needed. This kind of mindset can only come with practice.

Clothing: since you have to be able to react to changes at a moment’s notice, but be comfortable and warm all the time, it’s not good to have to wear foul weather gear. Being able to work the rig and vane gear, and keep watch, from the companionway is a huge step forward in comfort. I find that a tight belt is irksome while I’m resting, and wear a Helly Hansen Extreme Workwear “onesie” or ski salopettes in cold weather. Or, of course, nothing at all in the tropics - you’re on your own, there’s nobody to laugh at what you look like!

Yes, systems should be simple, but I rate changing hanked-on headsails, waist deep in cold water, as a vastly over-rated pastime. Yet roller furling is unfixable when it goes wrong at sea. The solution is to avoid headsails…

I look back with awe at sailors like Joshua Slocum and Harry Pigeon who sailed around the world singlehanded without a vane gear. I couldn’t. I engage the vane as soon as I set sail.
David Tyler
By Gianluca - 17 Jan 2017

Very interesting conversation and a lot of insights for a newbie.
I have two questions:
1) not headsails?
2) how about electronic autopilots? a wind vane will be much better but on heavier boats, it seems that they are not as rugged to hand the heavy loads. I know they are power hungry but the new models are quite efficient and with solar panels you can somehow reduce the battery charging by engine.
By David.Tyler - 17 Jan 2017

1) This is my personal view, as one who has owned junk rigged boats for forty years, and who has occasionally sailed on bermudan sloops during that time, hating the laborious processes of sail handing involved. The tolerable bermudan exceptions might be a genuine cutter (not a “slutter”) with headsails that are hanked-on and just hoisted or lowered, not reefed. Notable users of this rig include Lin and Larry Pardey. Or a 3/4 fractional rig with a small self-tacking jib, preferable boomed. But still, I’d prefer a two-masted Freedom with tracked sails (not wraparound), if I couldn’t have a junk.

2) You need both powered autopilot and wind vane. A powered autopilot for motoring in flat calms and for when the wind is very fluky and you need to hold a good course, and a wind vane self steering for use during the great majority of your sailing time. True, singlehanded raceboats use powered autopilots - this is because the apparent wind alters so much on fast boats. But they have to take a lot of spares. The biggest size for a tiller steered yacht is for a maximum of 7 tonnes displacement, and even then, it can’t cope with a boat that is sailing fast and demanding a lot of helm, applied quickly. For a wheel steered yacht, the choice is wide - if your pocket is deep. The noise, as they saw to and fro in a seaway, is irritating, whereas a vane is silent.
By DariaBlackwell - 2 Feb 2017

Posted on behalf of Richard Hudson:

Excellent information in this forum topic! I must say that I do like Andrew Evan's book, which I have read a few versions of over the years. I like that he has a humble and analytical approach, and think there is much worth reading in his book, even if one is not racing.

As David mentioned above, I would emphasize the importance of really knowing how to handle all the sails on one's boat, solo. That's quite boat-specific, and I think most boats will need some kind of modification to get systems to work well singlehanded. It may take a lot of sailing one 's boat to fully figure out how to handle it effectively solo. For instance, it took me a long time to realize that if Ivery loosely tied a rope around the end of the spinnaker pole to the lifeline or pulpit, then I could manage connecting/disconnecting the mast end of the pole much more safely and easily.

I got into single-handing because I couldn't find crew to leave Argentina with. I was fortunate in having met some singlehanders who gave me advice and encouragement. Most of the time, I still sail with crew, but I've come to enjoy single-handing more and more. It can be a really powerful and positive personal experience. I wasn't an OCC member when I started singlehanding, and didn't know of David's timer. Searching for a clockwork kitchen timer was a culturally interesting experience in South America, where time seems to have a different meaning :). I couldn't find a kitchen timer in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil. I was able to buy digital alarm clocks. The trouble with digital alarm clocks is when you've just woken up, looked around, want to set the alarm and get back to sleep, and the next 20 minutes (or whatever time you're using) takes you into the next hour. The simple math of adding 1 to the hour to set the alarm on a digital clock is surprising hard to do correctly just after waking up--I frequently got the hour wrong and overslept.

Drinking a large glass of water before going to bed will wake you up after a while if you don't have an alarm (but it's much better to have an alarm). I think the boat most people will singlehand is the one they own. My 50 'staysail schooner is not an ideal singlehander's boat, but it serves. Whenever it is gusty and I'm doing frequent sail changes, I think a lot about how much easier a junk rig would be.

I also appreciate David's point about headsails being undesirable. My jib's roller-furler failedmid-Atlantic on my last singlehanded trip and it was a pain raising and lowering the jib with all the friction in the roller-furler 's foil. I found myself delaying raising the jib and dousing it very early--making for as lower passage--due to the troubles of handling it.

I definitely agree with David & Tony that having both a reliable autopilot and a windvane is best. The autopilot that came with my boat gave me no end of trouble, so I discarded it and just use the windvane and then sheet-to-tiller when the wind is too light for the windvane. This makes me hate motoring even more because I have to hand-steer to motor :). Some day I will get a good autopilot. If one doesn't have both a reliable autopilot and a windvane (and even if one does), I think that learning how to do sheet-to-tiller self-steering is really worthwhile. Sheet-to-tiller isn't good for sail changes and is much less convenient than a windvane, but if the windvane is broken, at least you can keep sailing instead of having to heave-to while you fix it.

---this email is from: Richard Hudson