Solo sailing can be an equipment intensive activity. Alone at sea, far from shore, the single-handed sailor succeeds by setting the boat up so tasks which are easy for many pairs of hands are manageable with just one.
The single most important piece of equipment for single-handed sailing is a reliable self-steering system. This can be an electronic autopilot or a wind vane system, as long as it frees the sailor up to do other jobs and grab some sleep. Sail handling systems, safety gear, and communications are also crucial.
The Importance of Self Steering
Crossing the Pacific with my family, we lost our autopilot a day and a half out of the Galapagos. We had four people on board - two adults and two teenagers, and we set a watch schedule to handle the lack of self steering. But we learned a few things, the most important being that it is nearly impossible to leave the helm without an autopilot. We used our watch schedule to make sure someone was always on hand to relieve the driver for nature breaks or to fetch drinks and adjust things in the cockpit you couldn't reach from the helm.
Sure, you can lash off the wheel for a couple of minutes to run forward and deal with something, but if that slips, you're going to drop the course and the wind. If you're in the middle of handling a sail change or tying something down, that could turn bad quickly. When you're by yourself, you really don't want to lose control of a sail or the boat.
Types of Self Steering
Electronic autopilots and wind vane steering are the two most common types of self-steering, and they both have strengths and weaknesses. An autopilot needs power and has a processor, compass, control head, and some sort of drive system connected to the steering. If any of these components can fail, and if you don't have a spare, you may be out of luck.
A good autopilot will steer a straight line in all but the worst conditions, and can be programmed to follow a plotted course or sail with the wind. The smart capabilities of the autopilot make it better for more accurate navigation, as it's not just pointing you straight against the wind, it's trying to get you to a specific point on the ocean. But it can't adjust the sails, so it's not a "point and forget" solution - if you want to sail in a straight line under autopilot you may need to adjust the sails.
Wind vane steering is a popular option for solo sailors if the boat can fit it. Using a wind vane and a series of gears and control lines, a wind vane will keep the vessel pointed on a set angle off the wind. They are very forgiving, require no power, and keep the sails filled. But they don't navigate for you, they just keep you going in a straight line. If the wind shifts, they’ll keep you on that angle with it, even if you’re suddenly sailing in the wrong direction.
Backups to backups
Without self steering, a solo sailor may struggle with basic boat handling. Lashing the wheel or tiller is a short-term option, but it's not the best for longer tasks or sleeping.
A best practice approach is to install a wind vane along with an autopilot. It's more expensive, but gives you a couple of advantages.
First, you can pick which tool to use for the conditions. In light or shifty conditions or when motoring a wind vane is not very helpful, but an autopilot can keep you in a straight line no matter how the wind clocks around. With steady breeze, use the wind vane, save power, and sail well.
The most important benefit is backup. If one self-steering system breaks, you still have a fallback position, so you can still sail the boat by yourself.
Other crucial single-handing gear
Self steering isn't the only game changer for the solo sailor. For successful short handed sailing, there are two goals. The first is to set up everything on the boat to be as easy to handle as possible for one person. The second is to allow the solo sailor to do all functions on the boat while keeping it in control and staying safe and healthy.
"One hand for you, one for the boat," is a great safety rule to live by, but it's sometimes a hard one when there's no one on hand to help you. Dropping, hoisting, changing, and bagging sails are one of those tasks they do well with four hands, are doable with two, but can get quite time-consuming with just one.
Sail handling gear gives the solo sailor that extra help. By "sail handling," we mean anything that eases the tasks of managing sails, from furlers and flaking systems to dousing socks and self-tackers.
- Furlers can go on any sail, and allow the solo sailor to reef, set and douse a sail without leaving the cockpit. The major downsides are the possibility of mechanical failure, and they make changing sails harder if you must put a different sail up.
- Flaking systems like the Dutchman or a Stack Pack, help get the mainsail down into compact storage and leave it ready to re-hoist.
- Dousing Socks for cruising spinnakers makes them much easier to hoist, drop and stow.
- Lazy Jacks don't flake up the like more complex systems, but they keep the sail from spilling all over the deck and make it easier to flake.
- Self-tacking headsails may use a small deck boom or a track on the deck to control the head sail and simplify switch it from side to side.
No matter which approach you take, the right combination of sail handling equipment can turn a complex operation into something simple you rarely need to leave the cockpit to do.
Although some single handers hold the view that they'd rather drown quickly than get dragged to death behind their boats if they fall overboard, the idea of not wanting to get rescued in an emergency is a minority position. Most sailors heading offshore do their best to avoid trouble, but still want to maximize their chances of survival if something goes wrong.
A few pieces of safety and survival gear are important to safe solo sailing.
- Jacklines, tether, and a harness will keep you on board if you slip. Used properly, they shouldn’t let you slide outside the lifelines and get dragged.
- Personal flotation is still important. Going overboard offshore in cold water will kill you quickly, but if you're knocked unconscious without a PFD, you'll drown no matter the temperature of the water. Your odds are never good going overboard when solo, but a PFD gives you a chance.
- A life raft may still get you to safety if the boat sinks from under you.
Instruments, Radar, and Alarms
Part of maintaining good health and safety on board is getting enough sleep. A two-person watch schedule can be exhausting, but a solo sailor has no respite. To be safe, a single hander has to have a way to maintain a safe watch while still getting some shuteye.
We can program modern Radar and AIS with proximity alarms to wake someone up if a ship gets near. They aren't prefect, of course. Vessels without AIS or that Radar can't detect are still collision risks. But when the single-hander needs sleep off shore, instruments and alarms will make a difference.
Solo sailing is an individual and self-reliant act, and there's nothing wrong with that. But solid communication is another important tool for the solo sailor.
Beyond the minimum requirements of VHF, long range radio or satellite communication can keep the single-hander in touch with land. Whether that's desirable is another discussion; many head out to sea to get away from people and shore-side noise.
The strongest argument for long-range communications is weather. Staying informed of developing weather, whether it's via weather fax, satellite GRIB downloads, phone calls, or SSB nets, is critical to safe solo sailing. Getting completely blindsided by weather developments in this day and age and triggering a massive search-and-rescue is almost inexcusable when information is available.
Sometimes reaching people at a distance is important, or even life-saving. Medical emergencies are one instance, where something comes up that's not in the training course or books the solo sailor has access to. The ability to speak to a doctor while they still can may save their life. Emergency situations, whether to get technical help or reach search and rescue services, justify the expense if you use it just once.
And finally, those who set sail but leave loved ones on land may also want to hear from them, or let them know they're okay from time to time. The land-bound may not understand what the solo sailor doing, but they still want to know they're doing well.
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