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Solo Sailing: Everything You Need to Know

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on September 2, 2022. In nauticalknowhow

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If you’re serious about sailing then you likely have tried solo sailing. Heading out on the water by yourself, just you and the sea. It can be fun and exhilarating. It’s also a challenge and potentially dangerous. But is it even legal? Sailors like Yannick Lemonnier and Robin Knox Johnston would say it is. They’ve both gone around the globe and lived to tell the tale.

Single-handed sailing has a long history. It’s also one that is rife with confusion. Based on some international laws, single-handed sailing may be prohibited. After all, who keeps watch if you’re asleep? Or do you endure sleep deprivation to keep sailing?

There’s also the question of how to sail on your own. How do you maintain all your equipment? What’s the best way to handle navigating and dealing with emergencies? The process can be quite a bit different from what you experience sailing with a crew.

Let’s take a look at the history of single handed sailing. In particular, the sailing races that have become very popular. And finally, some of the rules and laws regarding solo passage trips. Also some tips to ensure that your singlehanded sailing trip is a success.

What is Solo Sailing?

If you’re interested in sailing single handed, all you need is a boat and knowledge. No one should ever attempt singlehanded sailing without extensive experience. Everything in a single handed situation is going to be more dangerous. Without other eyes and hands, the responsibility is on you.

By far one of the biggest challenges of a solo sail is time management. If you plan for a serious trip, this will be a major concern. Sailing alone for an afternoon is less of an issue. But if you plan on singlehanded sailing in a race, this is vital. A proper watch needs to be kept at all times. This is for your safety and the safety of others. That’s why maintaining a sleep schedule is important.

There is still debate in sailing circles over this issue. When you can sleep and how long you can sleep are not agreed upon by any means. Some feel setting an autopilot or the anchor are enough. Others feel this can never be done responsibly. The debate is likely to continue among sailors.

What is Vendée Globe?

The Vendée Globe race was set up in 1989. Vendée Globe is a single handed, non-stop sailing race around the world. Like the Olympics, it takes place every four years. A lot of preparation and dedication is required.

The race covers 24,000 nautical miles. It starts and ends in the French town of Les Sables D’olonne. The current champion, Yannick Betsaven, completed the race in just over 80 days. As you can imagine, only an expert sailor could handle such a task. And even then, there is much danger. In 1996, a competitor from Canada was lost at sea.

The race is meant as a test of both endurance and skill. Sailors often retire after completing the race. After Vendée Globe there is no greater one-person sailing challenge.

What is the BOC Challenge?

Also known as the Velux 5 Oceans Race, the BOC Challenge was a singlehanded sailing race. It ran from 1982 until 2011. The event was cancelled after 2011 when only 5 competitors came out to race.

The race was conducted in stages unlike other non-stop races. Many of the best solo sailors in history tried their hand at this race. The risk was high through all the stages. Still, it remained popular for the better part of 30 years.

What are the Dangers of Solo Sailing?

Sailing at any time has some inherent dangers. The state of the sea can be unpredictable. Weather is always something you need to be on the lookout for. But there are particular challenges to sailing solo. Things that sailing with others can help overcome more easily.

Sleeping: Far and away the biggest challenge with singlehanded sailing is sleep. Consider this – do you have the right to sleep if you are alone on a boat? Colregs-Part B, Section I, Rule 5- Conduct of Vessels in any Condition of Visibility makes it clear that sleeping is a no go.

Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight as well as by hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.

If sleeping is prohibited then a race like Vendée Globe seems to be in violation of this regulation. Obviously no one is ocean sailing for 80 days on no sleep.

Some serious sailors have adapted a napping system. They will set alarms and sleep for perhaps 20 minutes at a time. This schedule can be brutal but it ensures proper watch is being kept.

Automatic Identification Systems can aid in sleep management. This service tracks vessels at sea. If it detects an imminent collision, a warning is sounded. Recreational vehicles are now able to use these. They offer an advanced warning system. That potentially allows a sailor more time to avoid danger.

Mechanical failure: In a normal sailing situation, mechanical failure can be catastrophic. If the motor or sails become damaged you could be adrift. If something happens to electrical power you could be left with no radio. When sailing alone, these problems are far more dangerous. A helping hand can possibly fix or adapt to technical and mechanical failure. Alone, a boater still needs to maintain all the other boat functions.

Injuries and Illness: Something like a broken arm or a bad case of diarrhea is a major setback for any sailor. But alone, these conditions could render you unable to control the boat any longer.

A boom injury or other issue that knocks you overboard could also be devastating. Even with someone else on board, a man overboard situation can often result in death. That risk increases dramatically when there is no one to help rescue you. The odds on surviving falling overboard when singlehanded sailing are extremely slim.

How to Stay Safe When Sailing Solo

Boat safety is always a priority. When you’re out alone you need to be doubly cautious. There is no one to rely on. Plan ahead and be smart.

  • Use a personal flotation device. Many sailors still refuse to wear life jackets while sailing. They will have them somewhere on board and that is all. When sailing solo you must wear a life jacket at all times. There are no second chances in an emergency situation.
  • Make a float plan. This should be done every time you head out on a boat. That means single handed or not. A detailed float plan lets those on shore know your plans. This includes where you’re going and what gear you have on board. This information can be vital for rescue efforts.
  • Do your homework. Know the route you plan to travel. Are there hazards to be aware of? Do you know the weather forecast? Places you can head to in an emergency? All of this information is key.
  • Test your emergency equipment. Make sure your radio is in good working order. Likewise, make sure you have functional lights and sound alerts.
  • Consider an advanced autopilot system. Although not practical for every sailor, autopilot can be a lifesaver. Some models offer emergency situation response. For instance, if they sense a man overboard they can respond. This can include triggering an alarm. Also it can turn the boat into the wind and lock the rudder. This may allow you the chance to get back on board.
  • Consider a tether. If you were to fall overboard in a storm, that could spell doom. A tether and harness can keep you from becoming a statistic.
  • Have a life raft. Emergency, one-person life rafts are inflatable and compact. You can inflate them and get on board in the water in no time.
  • Use an EPIRB. An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon transmits a signal. This can save you in a man overboard situation. This can allow the US Coast Guard or rescue teams to locate you quickly.

Best Boat Features for Sailing Alone

When you’re looking to go singlehanded sailing in specific, there are certain features you need to be on the lookout for. Things that maybe aren’t the same as you’d get for any old recreational sailboat.

Sails. The combination of a Bermuda sail and a gaff sail is best for sailing solo. This will give you more sail area on a shorter mast. Heeling force is also going to be reduced. You also want a simple reefing system. This will allow you to easily adjust the sheets alone.

Rigs. A gaff rig is ideal for singlehanded sailing. Bermuda works also and is arguably more common.

Rope clutches. Install a row of rope clutches that you can reach from the cockpit. This will ensure easy handling. You can mount rope-tending bags on the bulkhead.

Traveler and mainsheet. Both need to be readily available from the cockpit. Stand at the helm and see how everything is situated. Move the traveler across the cockpit benches. This will allow for easier access.

Winches. Self-tailing, two-speed winches are your best bet. You can also opt for a foot-controlled, waterproof power winch. This is a great option to run from the cockpit

Size: When it comes to boat size you want something with a light ballast. A boat that is close to the water is ideal. A flat-profiled aft bottom section will be helpful as well. All of these make the boat easier to control solo.

Tips for Single-Handed Sailing

Many sailing adventures involve singlehanded sailing. It’s like being an explorer of the ocean. There is risk and reward. You may be out on the Atlantic Ocean facing storms and danger. But is getting across the Atlantic Ocean as simple as all that? Hardly.

Those who have done the trip around the world have given advice to other sailors. There’s more to sailing solo than just heading out to sea and hoping for the best. This advice comes from some of the best sailors to have circumnavigated the globe.

Communicate: One of the most important things to do is keep lines open. Having a radio or cell phone is important not just for safety but for your well being. The isolation of extended singlehanded sailing can be trying. Communicate frequently with friends and family on shore. This is important for your mental health. Also to update everyone on your status and safety.

Check the Shipping Forecast: As we have said, knowing the weather is key. Sailing solo sailing is best done with calm winds. Anything 14 miles per hour or less is ideal. If you are an experienced sailor, obviously you could handle more.

Scheduling: Make sure you have a schedule and a routine. Meals, communication check ins, and sleep all need to happen regularly. If you miss something once that may not be too big of a deal. But missing regular meals and sleep can be dangerous. Make sure you stay hydrated. Under the sun it can be easy to suffer dehydration. That in turn can lead to confusion and more.

Use Checklists: You may end up suffering from sleep deprivation or exhaustion. That can affect your mental acuity. Print out checklists of what you need to do. Post them where you will see them easily. This can help you keep your mind on what you need to do. If you’re tired or you have just awoken, these can be lifesavers.

Safety Equipment: We can’t stress this enough. You need a lot of safety equipment to make sure you’re as safe as possible. Make use of jack lines no matter what. Even if it doesn’t seem like you’ll need them. Keep other items in the cockpit within reach as well. Things you’ll want stowed within reach include:

  • A backup handheld GPS
  • A portable VHF radio
  • A first aid kit
  • A mirror or other signally device that can be used without batteries
  • An air horn with functional air canisters
  • A flashlight with a wrist strap or a headlamp
  • Binoculars
  • Any medications you might need. Seal these in a waterproof container that can float.

You may also want to consider some tweaks to your setup. A bow spotlight could help you out. Without a deckhand to shine a light, this can compensate. Install a ladder on the transom as well. If you do go overboard, you’re going to need a way to get back up. Combined with your autopilot, this can get you out of a bad spot.

Plan for Comfort: Everything needs to be in easy reach. That means more than just the mainsheet and a winch. Everything should be easy, especially small things. Keep some coffee in a thermos. A water bottle on a carabiner clip is a good idea as well. This is going to test you mentally as well as physically. No need to make it harder on yourself.

Simplify Your Setup: That means switching a mainsail to sliders if possible. Use a quality pre-feeder if you have a bolt rope sail. Use a lazy jack system. A roller furling headsail may also prove helpful. Single-line reefing mains and in-mast furling are your best bets for singlehanded sailing. You don’t want to move around any more than you have to. The further you have to travel, the more likely you are to make a misstep or lose track of something. Efficiency is the solo sailors best friend.

Autopilot: We mentioned this before but it’s definitely something to invest in. Racing probably can’t be done without a good autopilot. A wind vane system is an option if you don’t want battery drain. It can alter the boat’s course so you can rest, but uses no power.

Learn the way your autopilot works and get comfortable with it. There are solo boat racers who rely heavily on this feature. Some of the best will let autopilot handle up to 90% of the sailing.

Learn Emergency Skills: Knowing how to sail well is obviously vital for a solo sail. But there is more you need to know. Survival skills are also something you may want to learn. There are sea survival courses that can prepare you for emergencies. There are sea survival courses that you can take. These can help you prepare for and deal with emergencies.

Join a Sailing Club: This is one of the best ways to gain practical experience. There are many single-handed sailing clubs out there. Check your city and state to see what clubs are available. You can solo sail alongside another boat or boaters. That way you can rely on each other for help.

Consider Sailing Insurance: No one wants an accident to happen. But the fact is, sailing solo  can be dangerous. Sailing insurance can help offset any costs or loss if an emergency happens. Not every provider is willing to insure you for singlehanded sailing, however. You may have to do some research to find the best provider.

Gear Up: You need to make sure you have everything on hand to stay safe. That means more than just an EPIRB and an AIS. Keep a good quality knife handy for emergencies. Something like a Gerber knife. You’ll also want to have electrical tape on hand to fix or lash anything in a pinch. Another good product is Dyneema. Also known as cuben fiber, it’s “a high-performance non-woven composite material.” It’s Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene between polyester sheets. Fabric and rope can be made from it. It’s one of the strongest materials in the world and can even be used to make body armor. A couple of meters of it on a boat could save your life.

The Bottom Line

Sailing solo asks a lot of a sailor. If you’re unsure of what to do with mooring lines and have never done a serious voyage, it’s not for sure. Practice and skill is essential here. Racers who sail solo have a lot of hours under their belts.

Long distance single handed racing or sailing is a test. Whether racing from Les Sables D’olonne or the Great Lakes you need to be prepared and educated. Be smart and good luck.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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