off Cabo Trafalgar - that pillar thing
at the back is the Hydrovane self-steering gear

Revised: 28 March 2012

9 metre sail logo

On Singlehanded Sailing

This is either a very large topic, or an exceedingly small one, depending on your viewpoint: one could just say that single-handing is sailing the boat normally but doing everything oneself - usually a very satisfactory situation with no possibility of misunderstandings! Indeed, in many ways, skippering a crewed yacht can be every bit as demanding - it's just a different skill-set that is required. However, since it seems to concern quite a lot of people, I've put together some salient points in a question and answer format. By all means, send me any questions that occur to you and I have not otherwise covered properly, and I'll do my best to answer them on this page.
Do you have to steer all the time?
Some yachts, notably the old-fashioned, long-keeled jobs with heavy displacement and a modest size of rig, will sail themselves for quite lengthy periods without any attention or special gear other than a bit of light rope to hold the tiller or wheel in the right place. Spearhead can only do this when everything is perfectly balanced and the water is smooth, i.e: hardly ever. So we have a windvane gadget at the back which remedies all the little imperfections of wind and sea virtually instantaneously. You can see it in the heading picture on this page.
There are, of course, a number of designs and systems to choose from or, as I did for Spring Run, you can even design one of your own, but for this cruise I got a second-hand one made by
Hydrovane. These aren't cheap, but are very well engineered, and have their own, independent rudder, mounted (usually) directly behind the ship's own (main) rudder. So if that falls off, or breaks its shaft, there is still the secondary, vane-operated one to carry on with.
In use, having got the boat to go in the right direction, you turn the vane (up on top) so that it points directly into the wind and sits upright, engage "gear" and leave it to get on with it. If the wind changes or the waves knock the bows round a bit so that you are now heading too much towards the wind, then the vane is blown back, and the crafty linkage makes the rudder turn the boat a bit away from the wind (and vice versa). The advantage of this type of system is that it is self-powering and doesn't flatten the batteries. The disadvantage is that, if the wind changes direction and you don't notice, you can go a long way off course or even back the way you have just come!
These sort of gadgets are widely used on all short-handed cruising yachts, not just by singlehanders, but for the latter they are almost indispensible. There are also the electronic steering systems, which may be operated by wind direction or magnetic compass, but they tend to be noisy when working and, of course, flatten your batteries.
Do you stop at night?
If there's somewhere to stop, then yes - however on longer passages this does add to the time taken considerably (singlehanded or crewed) and in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, for example, no-one has thought fit to provide a floating harbour! So one continues sailing, day and night, possibly slowing down a bit at night according to circumstances. I find that I can keep going without sleep for more than 36 hours, but it isn't wise to keep pushing whatever one's personal barrier may be, and I conserve rest in much the same way as everything else on the boat by taking "20 winks" whenever the opportunity offers. Other people may recognise these as "power naps" - basically I go to sleep for a maximum of 20 minutes, timed by my trusty Smiths kitchen (egg) timer, then wake up, check that all is in order, do what needs to be done, and then consider whether I need another 20 winks or will do something else (like eat) for a while. Early in a voyage, it often happens that I don't actually get to sleep in 20 minutes but this isn't something to get worried about: a) pretending that you are asleep for 20 minutes is still quite relaxing and b) if you really are that tired, you'll drop off instantly. It is the action of going to sleep that restores the grey matter apparently, not the duration. After a couple of days like this I get quite accustomed to the system and wake up before the alarm goes off, thinking I must have overslept!
What about keeping a lookout?
Er --- yes! There's no denying it. Any singlehander, from Dame Ellen down, cannot accord with Rule 5 of the International Rules for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea. On the other hand, should she/he get it wrong, it is very probably the singlehander who is going to come off worse in any resulting collision, so simple self-preservation rules OK. We do the very best we can, and also try to allow for the possibility that the lookout on that massive ship is away getting tea for the officer-on-watch, who is studying some malfunctioning device rather than looking through the windscreen. For my part (especially after the
salutary experience right at the outset), I now consciously try to maximise my time on deck at night, and take 20 winkses in good daylight conditions rather than in the dark. With our extra windows looking forward, I can still keep some sort of lookout from inside, if it is necessary to be there or the weather is bad, but the limitations have to be borne in mind. I am thinking of getting a clear, see-through panel built into the genoa, after the fashion of Flying Fifteens and suchlike, although I have never seen one on a cruising yacht.
To help the big-ship man, there is a fluorescent orange top to the mast (as near his eye-level as I can get it) and the Sea-Me radar active transponder on the top of the pole at the stern. The Sea-Me uses remarkably little power and flashes a red light at me whenever it responds to a radar interrogation, but cannot indicate the direction it came from. It normally is quite busy replying to ships well beyond my horizon, so isn't much of a help to me in heavy traffic but that changes south of the Gibraltar Strait, where it is more worth keeping an eye on it.