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Solo sailing tips and tactics

For a novice sailor, having an experienced pair of hands on board to give help and reassurance can be invaluable. But as you develop your skills and grow in confidence, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll be drawn to the idea of singlehanded sailing.

Before you consider taking the next step and sail without backup on board, here’s what you should pay attention to…

Know your boat

For solo sailing, absolute familiarity with your craft is essential. This includes knowing what it’s capable of and what it’s not, how it steers and what it takes to carry out manoeuvres successfully in different conditions.

Prepare for the type of situation where you are required to carry out a series of tasks in quick succession without backup and without falling into a panic. This means mastering your handling of winches, sail trim and anchor so you can act with confidence and without hesitation.

Test your readiness with a dummy run

So you think you’re ready for a solo trip but you’re not quite sure? Consider testing your self-sufficiency by going out for a few hours’ sail with an inactive, ‘silent’ crew member.

The aim is to see whether you can handle commonly-encountered scenarios and decisions you’ll have to take without assistance. If you find yourself compelled to ask for help and advice, it’s a sign that you’re not quite there yet.

Plan your sail

This involves studying the route via your chart or plotter to eliminate any surprises. Sailing guides are invaluable; as is asking for pointers from experienced sailors who know the area. Pay particular attention to the harbour entrance and exit, and if it’s not a round trip, take a car journey out to the point of arrival so you know what to expect on approach and when berthing. Your aim is to reduce the chances of having to scramble around for books and charts should an emergency situation arise.

When it comes to the actual route selected, try and avoid high-traffic areas. For a solo sailor, a high level of vigilance is a must, but choosing a less crowded route can help ease matters by reducing the number of hazards to factor in.

Start small

In terms of sail times, think of short journeys when first going solo. Even where a trip is pleasingly uneventful, maintaining a high level of vigilance can in itself be taxing - and you’ll need to keep some mental energy in reserve for berthing.

Don’t take any risks with weather

Once again, it’s about eliminating possible hardships so you can get on with enjoying the sail. Settled weather coupled with calm to slight waters, no more than a reasonable breeze and a forecast of more of the same: these are the ingredients for a hassle-free trip. During the sail, stay tuned in via your radio for weather reports.

Avoid carelessness

Even if there’s a non-sailor aboard, at least it’s someone who can help you dust yourself down if you slip on deck - or shout if you’ve failed to spot a hazard in your blindspot. When you’re completely alone, it’s more important than ever to try and avoid the type of situation where careless errors can arise – and it’s important to have a boat insurance policy in place to safeguard your vessel and have an expert on hand to guide you through obtaining repair or replacement estimates.   

Planning ahead and allowing yourself double the amount of time it takes for routine tasks reduces the likelihood of trapped fingers and other haste-induced injuries. Keep decks clear of tripping hazards – and always wear your lifejacket and stay tethered. Have a portable phone and VHF on board in case you run into difficulty, and make sure both are in good working order.

Experience, confidence and forward planning: with these three essential ingredients, solo sailing can be a rewarding and hassle-free way to make the most of your boat.