It was a warm night for late October on the Great Lakes, and I had anchored in a quiet cove. The light tapping of halyards on the mast woke me at 0400. Time to go. Without starting the engine, I raised the anchor and ghosted out onto the open lake. A soft wind filled the sails as I set course for home. I was completely alone with the moon and the stars and the joy of sailing.
This is what singlehanded sailing is all about: magical moments that fill the senses, where it’s just you and the boat and the open sky. Singlehanded sailing offers a rare chance in this noisy hyper-connected world to step off the fast track, slow down, and listen to the quiet, if only for a short while. You may even find a little adventure along the way.
Of course, solo sailing is not without its hazards. In our risk-averse society some might view it as foolish, but the same could be said of mountain climbing or motorcycle racing. A life lived without some risk is a life only half lived. A solo sailor takes a calculated risk, does everything possible to ensure his or her safety, and forges ahead.
Many of us may not realize it, but we are already solo sailors. As Randy Fryfogle, who sometimes solos his Irwin 43, puts it, “When I take the boat out with family or friends, I’m often the only one who knows what’s going on.” Partners and children are typically little more than passengers, with all the sail handling and decision-making falling to the skipper. Given this fact, why not take things to the next level and just go it alone? Many of us are already halfway there.
Before cruising alone, however, you must be thoroughly familiar with your boat. How does it handle in a blow? Can you reef quickly? Can you get in and out of your slip or pick up a mooring unassisted? Can you easily set your sails? To answer these questions, go sailing for a day doing everything yourself, but with someone else along to serve as a backup.
When I’m daysailing alone I always wear an inflatable life vest, but I usually don’t clip myself in, either to a hardpoint or to any jacklines running along the deck. At night or when sailing offshore, I wear a harness and tether, although even with a harness on it wouldn’t be pretty if I went over the side; even at slower speeds, the chances of climbing back aboard are slim. Some sailors rig lines alongside the hull, which they can clip onto and then use to slide back to a boarding ladder at the transom. Others have lines to disengage the autopilot. The best defense is to simply stay onboard. One hand for you, one hand for the ship. It’s like mountaineering on an icy ridge: if you fall, it’s adios, amigo.
When you first start to singlehand your boat, it’s a good idea to set only the roller-furling genoa. This simplifies sailhandling. Once you’re comfortable sailing alone, hoist the mainsail. A system that allows you to set and furl sails from the cockpit is a huge advantage: that said, my boat has hank-on foresails, and I reef the main at the mast. You don’t need all the latest gear to sail alone—but it does make things easier. The most essential piece of gear is an autopilot. There are just too many jobs that compete with steering: setting sail, navigating, making a cup of coffee, taking a nature break… I use a tiller pilot for daysailing and an Aries windvane when I’m offshore.
Sailors should always think ahead, but this is especially true for the singlehander. If the weather even hints at taking a turn, take in a reef. Trying to handle an overpowered boat by yourself in a rapidly rising wind is no fun. Keep an extra sharp lookout while working the sails; there are many distractions when you’re on your own, and it’s easy to miss seeing other boats. Keep a close eye on your surroundings and make sure you know where you are at all times. It is possible to kedge off a grounded sailboat on your own, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Once you’re comfortable with daysailing, stay out one evening and enter the entirely different world of sailing at night. Complete familiarity with the boat now becomes critical. A small LED light on a headband is helpful, but you should almost be able to run the boat blindfolded.
With some local solo experience it’s time to graduate to cruising and sailing offshore. Sleep now becomes an issue. Tom Corogin, an active singlehander at 84, has made numerous solo transatlantic crossings. “At sea I sleep for only 15 minutes at a time,” he says. “I’m up 40 times during the night checking for traffic. Big ships just don’t keep a good lookout.” He strongly advises using an AIS alert system that will notify both you and ships around you of each other’s presence. Even for a solo daysail it’s a good idea to file a float plan with a spouse or friend, so that help can be sent if you’re late checking in.
I use a sleep timer with an earsplitting alarm to wake me on solo night sails. As Tom points out, that big freighter just over the horizon can be on top of you in 15 minutes. Sometimes sleep just isn’t an option. One time, on a solo passage from Bermuda, I was awake for 30 hours dodging ships and fishing vessels off Sandy Hook as I approached New York Harbor. Coffee was my best friend.
A solo cruising sailor should have a reliable anchor windlass and a lightweight dinghy. I use all-chain rode with a 45lb CQR, which would be impossible to handle without a windlass. I lift my 7ft 6in dinghy aboard with the main halyard and deflate it before setting sail. By not installing the three plywood floorboards, I save both time and weight. I can easily lift my 2hp outboard down to the dinghy transom. When you’re by yourself, lighter is always better.
Once you’ve gained experience as a solo sailor you need no longer rely on anyone else to go sailing. You can come and go as you please. A whole new world opens up. Your ambitions can take you to the next harbor or across an ocean. Solo sailing takes practice, a good dose of caution and some patience, but it is within the reach of us all. So step aboard, throw off the lines and find your inner Joshua Slocum—a life of adventure and a world of distant horizons await!
Top photo by Charles Scott