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Going Solo: Getting Started with Single-handed Sailing

The idea of single-handed sailing appeals to cruisers and racers alike. Quantum’s Yannick Lemonnier shares his single- and short-handed sailing experiences to help you get started.​

On November 8th, 2020, 17 registered single-handed sailors will set off on the most challenging sailing endeavor in the history of yacht racing: the Vendée Globe, a solo, around-the-world, nonstop marathon, in which no outside assistance is allowed. In the 31 years since the inception of this race, a total of 167 sailors have started the race, but only 82 have finished the course. Armel Le Cleac’h holds the record for fastest race; in 2019, he managed to lap the planet in 74 days.

But single-handed and short-handed sailors aren’t all Vendée Globe racers with single purpose built, ultra-high-tech racing machines. The magic of being alone at sea is something that almost anyone can experience with a well-found vessel and the desire to venture out alone. Whether you’re racing or cruising, sailing short-handed requires a change in thinking, as now the individual sailor takes on every role in the operation of the boat.

Boat Set-Up and Handling

Once you’ve made the decision to sail short-handed, it’s essential to focus on ease of handling your boat, since you are now assuming all roles: skipper, dial trimmer, navigator, bow-person, engineer, and chef. The goal is to make each of these positions as simple for yourself as possible. One of the best ways to begin this process is to take out your boat on a calm day and go through the motions of sailing as if you were racing or cruising−hoisting sails, steering, trimming, and navigating, and see where you run into problems. Can you reef the mainsail by yourself? Is the spinnaker pole too much to handle on your own? Can you reach the sheeting positions from the helm?
 
Generally speaking, if you’ve never sailed short-handed before, this first outing may be a disaster. Simple things, such as not being able to reach the main traveler while you’re steering, can be problematic when you’re by yourself, so take notes as you flail around, and start investigating changes that will simplify your life. 

These changes may be as basic as moving a halyard clutch or two or a bit more involved such as converting to a single-line reefing system. A single-line reef system is convenient where possible, but even adding a reef tack line and jammer back to the cockpit can be even better and requires less line that ends up tangled in the cockpit. The goal for single-handed sailing is to make the boat easier to sail. Your local loft can also help you with ideas on how to best solve problems and set the boat up for solo sailing.

Hardware

Because of the rising popularity of short-handed racing and cruising, there has been a trickle-down effect in the technology used by Vendee Globe sailors. Equipment manufacturers now offer less expensive products based on the effectiveness of the prototypes used at the highest levels. Roller furling headsails and canting keels are examples of short-handed racing tech that has filtered into the mainstream. More robust and reliable autopilots interfaced with wind instruments to use apparent wind angle upwind and true wind from broad reach to run are now available to the general public. Sail handling systems such as top down spinnaker furlers, electric winches, and code zeros are further examples of commonly used hardware that originated from short-handed offshore racing. I recommend you use a releasable inner forestay with hanks and make your headsail reef-friendly. Make sure you have enough reefs, and use a cushion to make the long hours of driving more comfortable.

Think through the experience you’re looking for as well as your budget to prioritize a hardware and equipment list. Again, consult your local loft with your list. They will have good recommendations and access to industry partners to help you get exactly what you’re looking for.

Safety and Communication

Sailing Sailing without a full crew creates serious safety considerations that must be taken into account. There is always increased risk when fewer hands are on board, whether it’s a solo weekend trip or a solo ocean crossing. Jacklines (stout webbing straps running bow to stern that are clipped into the tether on your harness) should always be in place and used even in the calmest weather. The advice “one hand for you, one hand for the boat” should be followed as well. It’s also important to make sure you have the appropriate life preserver for the conditions and events, perhaps investing in a few designs for different circumstances and weather. There are pros and cons to the different styles of deck vests, so do your research and consult a specialist to decide which ones will be right for you. 

You will also want to create a sail and communication plan and share it with a trusted contact on shore. This plan should include a rough estimate of where you plan to sail along with an estimated timeline. It should also include a check-in plan as well as an agreed upon course of action should you fail to check-in. Onboard wi-fi and satellite phones, while more expensive, are reliable methods of communication if you’ll be far offshore. Otherwise, a trusty cell phone can do the trick (Just make sure you have a battery!). I recommend using an AIS transponder with the call sign changed to “SoloSailorName” and a phone with Navionics with offline maps loaded. Never forget extra battery packs and proper charging ports.

Before venturing out, consider attending one of the Safety at Sea Courses (a requirement for many popular offshore races such as Newport-Bermuda or the Transpac), where you will learn the basics you’ll need for staying safe offshore.

Going Solo Doesn’t Mean Going it Alone

Finally, one major misconception about single-handed and short-handed sailors is that they’re introverted loners who go it alone for a variety of escapist reasons. In truth, you would be hard-pressed to find a more supportive and engaging group of men and women who are always happy to share their knowledge with newcomers. Getting involved with local short-handed sailing clubs like the P.S.S.A. on the West Coast and the Bermuda One-Two community in the Northeast is a great way to meet like-minded sailors and ease your way into this type of sailing. You can also consider sailing solo but leaving at the same time as other boats, which still makes it something of a social activity−one with help nearby if needed.

Single-handed and short-handed sailing is a unique challenge that is not to be taken lightly but one that will push you as far as you are willing to go. For some, it could be a solo passage to Bermuda and for others it could be as simple as going for a day sail without assistance. Whatever your motivation, it’s a special kind of sailing that can be highly addictive and extremely satisfying. Consider yourself warned. 

 

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