TIPS FOR SINGLE-HANDED SAILORS
by Jean-Christophe Guillaumin
Sailing alone is more rewarding than difficult. It is also the best way of getting to know your boat well. It is not a question here of describing the methods used by the big ocean racers, who have to keep one eye open at 30 knots on one hull, pulled by a 300m² gennaker… What interests us is cruising sailing, close to the coasts, or on the high seas. Sailing alone can be a choice, a challenge to be taken up, but also an obligation. A delivery trip when no crew is available, or much more often, when cruising as a family. At sea, with young children and mum looking after them, or with a group of friends who know nothing about sailing, you have to handle your multihull alone… A statement of the obvious, to begin with. Don’t overestimate yourself. If your experience of sailing is limited to a few courses and three weeks’ charter, you are not ready. Sailing alone is not however reserved for old sailors who have sailed round the three capes. It’s just a question of mastering the boat, and yourself.
There is nothing better than testing yourself ‘in situ’, with an inactive crew, or really singlehanded. Don’t look for difficulty. The aim is just to go out for a few hours’ sail in good weather on your multihull (which is good condition, obviously), to take stock of your aptitude, the difficulties encountered and the pleasure felt. Certain sailors appreciate sailing singlehanded, others get bored, as they cannot share their emotions. Again, be humble. You can’t be dishonest with the sea… especially when you are on it alone! The person who hopes to do a real two to three week ocean crossing will train over a three or four-day route. Remember that a little 28-foot catamaran is obviously easier to manage singlehanded than a Lagoon 500. But the bigger of the two is also the safer.
Preparing your sail
Don’t leave with just your enthusiasm! A solo sail must be prepared quietly at home or in the harbour. Study the route, therefore, on the chart or the plotter. Read the sailing guides to the area attentively (Imray, Reeds, Bloc Marine…) familiarise yourself with the dangers which stud the chosen route (which will obviously be easy). Harbour entrance and exit, other possible shelters, breakers, wrecks, firing areas: you must integrate all this data before leaving. Why so much anticipation? So you don’t, in the case of an emergency, have to dive back into the charts and books. You must be able to find the right solution immediately thanks to your knowledge of the area. Preparing all the route’s waypoints on the GPS or the plotter is very useful. So is a recce of the point of arrival, in a car.
Weather: choose the right window
To sail alone serenely, make sure you choose a good weather window. Sailing a few hours before a forecast gale is to be avoided absolutely. What you need is some good settled weather, a calm to slight sea and a reasonable breeze. As you acquire experience, you can allow yourself to face slightly tougher conditions. Singlehanded, sailing along the Languedoc coasts with a strong Tramontane can be very exciting aboard a fast, well-prepared multihull, but there is no margin for error.
The solo sailor is most in difficulty in the harbour. It is difficult when you are alone to run to the four corners of your boat to fend off, especially with a raised steering position! Basic rule: ask for help from your neighbours on the pontoon, or at the harbourmaster’s office. There is no shame in that. Before leaving your berth, analyse calmly the wind and the possible current, and check that there are no ropes or chains waiting to tangle in your propellers. If the wind is pinning you on to a quay, the technique of ‘springing out’ is very effective to pivot the boat gently. To turn on the spot, leave the rudders fore and aft, and invert the throttle levers, without hurrying. When you arrive, take a wealth of precautions. No last-minute manoeuvres using full throttle. Remain calm, even if things go horribly wrong. All your fenders should be out, except for one big one which you should keep within reach – a loose fender which is better than a few crushed fingers. Avoid entering between two close berths. Try to arrive before the harbourmaster’s office closes; this will allow you to be guided and assisted, as well as avoid having to change places later…
Manoeuvres under sail
Your multihull is out of the harbour. Under autopilot, with the engine slow ahead; this is the moment to hoist the mainsail. Once again AN-TI-CI-PATE! Check that you have plenty of sea room, and opt for a huge sheltered outer harbour rather than being thrown about outside. Use of the windlass is an excellent formula, but beware of its power, which can rip off everything, headboard, sheaves and sliders included… Keep your hand on the control, and don’t take your eyes off the sail’s luff. Most headsails are fitted with furlers, which simplifies the manoeuvres considerably. A staysail on a removable forestay allows you to optimise performance, particularly to windward in heavy weather. But we are not racing. Alone, or with your family, you can be satisfied with your roller genoa. Tacking: advantage to foresails with a small overlap, or even better, to a self-tacking jib. The big genoas are harder to sheet in flat, and mask the visibility to leeward. Gybing: beware of the boom! Remember first of all to centre the traveller and make it fast; sheet in the main before passing it over to the other side, then let the sheet out quickly. The faster the boat is going, the easier it is, as the apparent wind is lighter. Reduce sail. Don’t let yourself be taken by surprise. Night is falling, the storm is rumbling, or the forecast is not too bright? Take in a reef and be ready to roll up the genoa. A good tip if the drum is jammed: get rid of the jib sheets and turn…the boat. Ten turns under engine give ten rolls in the sail. Downwind: spinnaker or no spinnaker? From 32 feet upwards, a snuffer makes the manoeuvres safer, especially as the huge trampolines form a perfect platform for hoisting the asymmetric spinnaker… The ideal downwind sail singlehanded is the gennaker. This sail is rigged rolled up, fixed to a small bowsprit. With its continuous line controlling the furler, the gennaker can be rolled and unrolled in a few seconds. The efficiency of this very flat sail is excellent from close reaching to reaching. It remains good on a broad reach aboard the fastest multihulls, which create a lot of apparent wind. These boats actually sail with a smaller wind angle. Remember to stow your gennaker in the forepeak when in harbour. With no protection strip, the nylon is easily damaged by UV.
A singlehander’s daily life
Nobody is there to give you something to drink, or cover you in sun cream… Prepare and put in a prominent position everything you will need during the day. Cereal bars, water, warmer clothes, hat, telephone (in a waterproof case), sunglasses…everything must be within reach. The ease of access to the interior offered by multihulls considerably improves the life of a singlehander, who will not make a fuss about preparing a little snack. A lot of things to do…and then nothing. Your multihull is sailing on its own, well-trimmed. Take the time to make yourself a real hot meal, read, listen to music, relax, meditate… Singlehanded sailing is also this: taking time for yourself, and yourself alone. So rare, nowadays!
First night at sea
Not for the first trip…wait until you have got the hang of things before trying this. The main difficulty is keeping watch, which is theoretically compulsory, therefore constant. The singlehander must however sleep a bit. Hence it is good to set a course further offshore, where there are fewer boats. Less lobster pots, nets and lumps of wood too… It is essential to size up the density of the traffic around you. In the middle of the ocean, you can allow yourself to sleep for a few hours, especially if the radar is working and has an effective alarm. Close to the coast, sleeping for 10 minutes when the visibility is good is a maximum. And when you are crossing a shipping lane, or a fishing area, keep your eyes open. A good tip if another sailing boat is following the same route as you: ask him to position himself 200m in front of you, on the same heading, at the same speed. He ‘opens’ the route for you and you can sleep with the VHF turned on. You can reverse the roles later in the night. Provide warm clothes and drinks, torches and above all, a head torch – essential in the dark so you can still use both hands.
Why not stop in an anchorage?
Go for simplicity: if mooring buoys are available, take advantage of them. Otherwise, most multihulls are equipped with a windlass, so don’t deny yourself the pleasure, drop the anchor! An operation which is much simpler than tying up to the end of a pontoon. Just avoid dubious seabeds and anchoring in water which is too deep. Don’t forget you are alone if you have to dive and clear the anchor. The same goes for overpopulated calanques and bays which are exposed to the swell: forget them. Check the holding in your anchorage by motoring astern.
The golden rule as a singlehander: wear a lifejacket and attach yourself. Even in good weather and calm seas, don’t become careless. You very quickly get used to this constraint, which is the only way of avoiding the dramatic fall overboard, especially as automatically inflating lifejackets are light, and include a harness. Which implies that your multi must imperatively be equipped with anchor points in the cockpit, and jackstays, so that all your movements are safe. Remember to lower the bathing ladders, to make climbing aboard easier. The most critical moments? Having a pee overboard, the spinnaker rolled round the forestay, and fitting or stowing fenders. The second danger lying in wait for the singlehander is the accident. A slip on the coachroof, fingers trapped between the sheet and the winch: the risks are many. Another reason to break down the manoeuvres, with no rushing. Third risk when sailing singlehanded: collision. Catamarans offer an excellent view forward from the bridgedeck, but we cannot say the same for the steering positions, which are sometimes handicapped by large blind spots. So be careful. Have a look to leeward regularly.
Now you are ready to experience a few days at sea, alone, or with a crew who cannot help you handle the boat. Have a good sail!
Singlehanded in heavy weather
Holding out, not doing anything stupid, and getting the boat and skipper safely back to harbour. Experiencing a gale singlehanded is tiring, but oh so formative!
Gale, cuts and bruises, seasickness… and what if it all goes wrong?
There’s no point in hiding things. A solo sail can very quickly go wrong. Bad weather demands even more anticipation. It’s out of the question to be surprised by a squall at night, under masthead spinnaker. A stupid sprain on the trampoline, getting hit on the head by the boom: there is nobody to take care of you. Hence the need to keep your first-aid kit up to date, and above all to have a reliable means of communication – a portable phone, and a VHF close to the coast. When offshore, an Iridium-type satellite phone is an excellent investment, as is an EPIRB. Damage is much harder to manage singlehanded. A rope in the propeller requires much more caution… You don’t dive under the boat at sea without having carefully prepared the operation. As for seasickness, it often occurs when you are cold, hungry and afraid. But it generally disappears after three days. Certain treatments are effective, but beware of sleepiness, a frequent side effect.