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Steven R. Van Hook

Single-Handed and Solo Sailing Tips
Be prepared to do everything twice as fast and flawlessly.
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 by Steven R. Van Hook

Solo SailingFor sure one of the most challenging aspects of sailing is scheduling a capable crew on short notice, when perfectly coincided winds and seas and skies irresistibly beckon. 

Sometimes your hastily assembled crew may be less than perfect hands, or have no sailing skills at all. If that's the case, often the best help they can offer is to find an out-of-the-way perch and stay clear as you set sail unassisted.

It's a supreme confidence booster and comfort to know you can get the boat out and home again on your own, especially when your entire queasy crew starts feeding the sea from the rail. 

Of course you want to make sure all your fundamental skills are sharp as you single-hand (or 'shorthand') -- and certainly before you solo once you're proven adept at single-handing with back-up aboard. 

Here are a few extra tips for crewing a boat on your own:

  • Do as much setup as possible before leaving the docks with fenders, equipment checks, bathroom pit-stops ... anything that can reduce your cognitive load once underway.

  • Always plan two steps ahead and work twice as fast. Your lines should be already flaked and winched well before unfurling and tacks; your motions rehearsed and purposeful.

  • Keep the sail times shorter, beware fatigue, and reserve a burst of energy for docking.

  • On departure and return, get that view-obscuring jib out late and in early to clear blind spots, minus an extra set of lookout eyes.

  • Allow twice the safety window for unfurling and furling sails: for example, instead of furling the jib 5 minutes before the home breakwater make it 10.

  • Stow your water, snacks, harmonica, etc., in the cockpit for easy access without heading below.

  • The autopilot is a useful aid for single-handers, but never turn your back on it -- especially when you need it most in heavy seas and winds.

  • Know your limits and consider any sail with inexperienced sailors a single-handed operation. 12 knots of wind is a good maximum to start.

  • Be adept at reefing, heaving to, and depowering the main in a flash. Reef at the first hint of uncomfortable winds. Heaving to can quickly calm a boat and crew. A sharp jerk of the windward traveler line can release the main to leeward and instantly depower the boat if a gust heels you over and heads you up when sailing close hauled.

  • Use a 'chicken jibe' rather than a standard jibe when you're on your own in anything but light winds; that means performing a 270-degree tack with your bow through the wind, rather than a 90-degree jibe. 

  • Pay extra attention to the weather and radio reports during the sail. 

  • Keep any background music low, especially during departures and arrivals.

  • Avoid shipping lanes and high-trafficked areas that require extra diligence.

  • Have your lifejacket, harness and tether at the ready for sudden blows.

  • Keep an air horn at the helm for instant warnings.

  • Stay seated as much as possible to prevent bone-cracking tumbles. Keep any tripping spaghetti of lines especially clear from the deck and walkways. There's no one there to chuckle or help you up when you go splat.

  • Be able to dock smartly without any ankle-spraining leaps, and have a beam docking line handy in case of any slips.

  • Polish your radio technique, and keep a backup hand-held on board. Know the difference between a Mayday, Pan-Pan, and Securite call.

  • Store all emergency numbers and data in your cell phone (Harbor Patrol, Coast Guard, Vessel Assist, and such). My towing service won't come running until they have the account verified. It's no time to be fumbling with slips of paper.

  • Make sure someone ashore knows your sail plan. 

  • Master your craft -- be unhesitant on the winches, sail trim, anchor, rules of the road ...

When I was learning to fly, my instructor repeated the most basic of warnings over and over so they'd echo forever in my ears. "I never want you to feel alone up there," he reasoned. That's even more so at sea.

Steven R. Van Hook has cruised California waters since 1976, 
starting with a 19-foot Glen-L powerboat in Santa Barbara Harbor, 
and currently sails a Hunter 33 out of Channel Islands Harbor.
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