Single Handed Sailing! 
By Trish Lambert

Thinking about a boat from the point of view of single handed sailing and safety requires "worst case scenario" thinking. For a double handed team, I believe that the worst case scenario is losing one of the crew because of sickness, an accident which puts them out of commission, or (I hate to even say it) loss overboard.

It is important, therefore to think in terms of singlehandleability when looking at boats to buy.

Putting a worst-case cap on, assume that something has happened on the water that demands that only one person gets the boat to a safe harbor.

Further, assume that the one person is the least physically strong. What kind of boat would stack the deck in her (or his) favor? When single handed sailing here are some factors to consider when looking at a boat from the standpoint of "singlehandleability" and safety.

After the first one on single handed sailing, I put the rest in alphabetical order since I don't consider one factor more important than another-they are all important!

Minimizing Fatigue:  

This is probably the most important safety issue to provide for single handed sailing, and isn't limited to a discussion of "suddenly single handing."

Fatigue is an enemy of any shorthanded crew-it slows down reflexes, clouds judgment, and can almost totally debilitate a boat handler.

I remember experiencing the realities of fatigue off the Pacific coast of Baja California. It was night time on the third day of the trip and I was on watch. I don't remember why I was so tired...all I remember is looking at the compass and not being able to read the bearing! I could see the dial clearly; I just couldn't process what I was seeing into usable information. That was one scary experience.

single hander must fight fatigue every way possible. One way to accomplish this is to make sure that the boat is set up so that a minimum of energy is required to handle it. Thinking in terms of minimizing fatigue will help you add items to your boat-shopping list that will increase the safety factor of your final purchase.

The Keel:  

From the standpoint of single handed sailing, the boat's under body should be designed so that:

  • The risk of broaching is minimized. Boats with deep fin keels and spade rudders can be tender, and will tend to surf down wave faces. A lot of hand steering attention must be paid to keep the vessel from turning beam-on to the wave.
  • The boat tracks well to weather, so that you can claw off a lee shore. Boats with skeg rudders and partial skeg rudders perform well in this regard.
  • The boat is a stable platform with sea kindly motion. The traditional heavy full keel boats hold the honors on this one.
  • The rudder and propeller are protected from groundings and underwater obstructions. Boats with the prop in an aperture provide the most protection-that is, they either have traditional full keels or more modern cutaway full keels.

It should be apparent that you are unlikely get all four of these characteristics in the same boat. Like so many areas of the cruising life, you will have to decide what's most important for you and settle on the best compromise.

Sail Handling & Single Handed Sailing:  

Sails should be easy to handle by one person; this includes raising, lowering, trimming and reefing.

Beefed up winches, furling head/main sails, halyard lines that can be handled from the cockpit, and high mechanical advantage on travellers and running back stays are examples of ways in which sail handling can be made singlehandleable.

Size of Boat:

From a worst-case single handing sailing standpoint, the boat's size will impact its maneuverability. For example, the larger the boat, the more canvas it will carry, and the more strength required to raise and trim the sails.

Ditto the anchor. If difficult weather overpowers the self-steering system, the healthy crew member will need to hand steer, which may be a physical challenge that dangerously increases fatigue.


From the point of view of singlehandleability, the type of steering mechanism, the size of the rudder, and the amount of weather helm inherent in the boat (after sails are trimmed and the rig is tuned properly) will affect the ease with which either the autopilot or the weaker crew member will be able to steer the boat.

This is most significant when it comes to dealing with heavy weather and single handed sailing, when both the boat and the crew will be under stress.

Weather helm:  

Some weather helm is not a problem, and in fact is desirable as wind speed rises. But excessive weather helm that can't be decreased by trimming the sails or tuning the rig will make the boat difficult for the auto steering system to manage, which will require attentive hand steering-not safe due to the fatigue factor.

Word of mouth has tagged some designs as having too much weather helm for safe cruising; the only other way to get a feel for this characteristic is through test sails.

If you are serious about a boat that displayed "untrimmable" weather helm during your sea trial, consider getting the rig tuned and going out again. If the problem hasn't been fixed, I suggest you walk away from her no matter how heartbreaking it will be to do so.

Trish Lambert has been a cruising sailor for over twenty-five years and a first mate three times, with three different skippers and three very different cruising styles.

She knows first hand what makes cruising successful, and what she has to share may surprise you! Whether you are a skipper or first mate, a single hander or part of a cruising couple, sail boater or power boater, Trish has insights that will help make your cruising dream a reality.

Article Source: Ezine Articles by Trish Lambert  

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