What you need to know to head out to sea alone

Yachting World

Professional solo racer, Pip Hare, brings us this guide to solo sailing, providing top hints and tips for your first big passage alone

Solo sailing may seem daunting at first, but if you regularly sail with a novice crew, you’re probably already going through the motions of a solo sailor without even knowing it.

The toughest part of managing a boat alone is being able to understand the components of each task that need to be carried out and what order to do them in. If you explain this regularly to a crew, then you’re halfway there. Break the task down in the same way, but do all the stages in order yourself.

That said, heading out on your own for the first time should not be taken lightly, so here are my tips for how to prepare your boat and your confidence to ensure you have a positive experience solo sailing.

Play it safe

Choose a passage that plays to your strengths. You are already testing yourself by being alone so there is no point in adding extra stress by trying things that are challenging even when fully crewed. Choose an area you know well to avoid tricky navigation, if sailing overnight avoid making landfall till the dawn, keep manoeuvres simple – reduce sail early and try not to make too many tacks or gybes.

Being prepared: Damien Guillou training solo under spinnaker with a snuffer on his Rustler 36 PRB ahead of the 2022 Golden Globe Race. Photo: Yann Riou/polaRYSE/PRB

If using a spinnaker solo for the first time set a wind limit, under which you know you can wrestle the thing down and, unless you have practised it solo already, snuff or furl your kite to gybe. Believe me, trying to unwrap a spinnaker alone is a horrifying experience and one for later on in your solo career.

Use sails in a configuration you are confident with sailing double-handed or fully crewed, don’t push laylines to the limit and, regardless of rules of the road, steer clear of close-quarters encounters with other vessels.

When leaving or entering marinas, ask the marina staff to come and help catch or let go lines – it’s in their interest too for you to arrive and leave safely. Set yourself realistic time frames to get in and out of the harbour at each end, and don’t put yourself under any unnecessary time pressures.

Do nothing?

One of the most common mistakes I see in novice short-handed sailors is the need to always be actively doing something. Giving yourself time to think and plan is crucial to managing situations well and one thing you need to develop is your spatial awareness and sense of time and distance. For this, I cannot recommend enough letting the boat sail itself under pilot and sitting with your head outside, connecting with your environment, observing wind, traffic, the speed at which you are moving and thinking ahead.

Make sure you’re always positioned to give maximum room to leeward even when motoring. Learn how to heave-to in your boat; this is not always easy to achieve with more modern hull shapes, but at the very least you should be able to tack and get into a configuration which considerably slows your rate of travel and where, with the correct amount of helm, the boat will remain stable. This is a great go-to position if you don’t want to cover a lot of ground while finding time to think, or make a cup of tea while below.

Think about how lines can be led to the helm position for easier sail-handling. Photo: Pip Hare

When preparing to enter a harbour, once the sails are down it’s fine to let your boat lie ahull with the engine in neutral while you fix lines and fenders if you have sufficient leeward room. This is a lot less stressful than motoring into a river or harbour, having to watch your course and setting up mooring tackle at the same time.

Put the bow down

You’ll very quickly learn that the best way to take the heat out of a situation is to turn downwind, reducing the apparent wind across the deck, your boat speed and your heel angle. Situations that seem quite punchy will be a lot more manageable when heading downwind at a true wind angle of 150°-160°. This again highlights the importance of leaving room to leeward whenever possible.

To further reduce speed downwind for more thinking time, over-sheet the main – but if you choose to do this, make sure your pilot is able to steer a steady low course, without risk of gybing or rounding up. Any manoeuvres with spinnakers must be done at a low true wind angle or the sails will simply be ripped out of your hands.

Use your solo sailing tech

It has never been easier to get set up for solo sailing. There is a lot of technology out there to support and give confidence to those sailing alone. Before taking your first solo steps, make sure you have got to grips with what you have and are able to use it to the fullest advantage.

Whil hand-steering is necessary sometimes, you should also buy a remote control for the autopilot to make life easier for yourself.

Your autopilot should be set up to steer a smooth course and make sure you know which mode to match conditions. Most modern instruments, as well as navigation software, have built-in alarms which can alert you to changing conditions. These include: depth, wind speed, wind direction, cross track error, waypoint arrival, as well as AIS and radar proximity alarms.

The latest displays include conditional formatting, which changes the colour of a display once it reaches certain parameters. When your attention is pulled in a million different directions it’s important to make sure your tech will alert you before a situation becomes difficult to manage. Any time reading manuals is time well spent. If using different devices make sure you know what each different alarm sounds like and that the volume can be heard from the cockpit. You may need to consider investing in a cockpit speaker for additional volume.

Set up before leaving

While your boat is tied up and secure there is a great opportunity to get ahead of the curve by setting everything up that the wind will allow. If you are leaving the dock unassisted look carefully at tide and wind, work out which dock lines can be completely removed and how many fenders you can take off comfortably. Then give yourself time to put these things away in their proper places.

If conditions allow, set up sails on the dock, plug in headsails, well furled Code 0s can be hoisted, sheets properly run, lines loaded onto winches and, in lighter airs, the head of the main can be hoisted to clear lazy jacks if it will not affect handling under power adversely. Test both the engine gears and the autopilot while you’re on the dock.

To check the pilot engage first in compass mode to hear the clutch engage and see if the helm stays in the middle. Then check port and starboard commands which is best done in rudder angle or NFU mode.

Make sure screens are set to show the data that you’ll need to see and at a size which can be viewed from the helming position. Think about how zoomed in you want your chartplotter to be, make sure you have a depth display large for leaving harbour, AIS alarms should be set to a suitable sensitivity to avoid the stressful constant flow of collision alarms that can ensue when passagemaking in busy waters.

You can even practice solo reefing, furling and unfurling sails on calm days while in your berth. The benefit of this – particularly with reefing – is understanding how you need to move around the cockpit to get to lines in the correct order, and how quickly you can get forward and back to hook on reefing points.


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