In mid 1968, nine men set off from Great Britain to attempt to set a new solo sailing record that few people thought possible. Each of the men sailed a vessel of their own choice – which ranged from small modified bilge keelers to sleek racing trimarans of the latest design. The men varied greatly in age and were from vastly different backgrounds, but they were all driven by the same obsession – each of them desperately wanted to become the first person ever to sail nonstop around the world via the five great southern capes.
To make the expedition even more challenging, they were going to do it alone.
The voyage was thought to require between eight months and a year nonstop at sea, far longer than any previous sailors had ever spent without stopping to rest. Nobody knew if the boat could survive such a voyage, and nobody knew if the human mind could survive that kind of isolation and stress for such a long period of time. The general public opinion at the time was that it was a voyage for madmen, but each of the sailors were determined to prove otherwise.
Soon, the media picked up on the story and the sailors became a regular feature on the front page news. The Sunday Times newspaper decided to offer a large sum of money to the first person to complete the voyage nonstop, and a race was born. They called it the Golden Globe, and it became the most infamous yacht race in the history of the world.
In the end, only one man made it back alive.
His name was Robin Knox Johnston, and early on in the race he was the last person anyone expected to win. Knox-Johnston was sailing his slow and heavy 32 foot vessel (named Suhaili) against much larger and faster boats sailed by some of the most accomplished sailors in the world at that time.
One by one, the other boats dropped out of the race, (either due to damage to the vessel, sinking, or in one case, madness and suicide) which ultimately left Knox-Johnston the only sailor to make it back home in one piece. Ten months after setting out to sea, Robin Knox-Johnston returned to Falmouth, England, having sailed all the way around the world without once setting foot on dry land.
Doctors and psychologists were eager to analyze him to determine what kind of crazy person was capable of such a feat. But what they found surprised everyone. After rigorous testing the psychologists found Knox-Johnston to be “distressingly normal”, even a little boring, according to one of the mental health professionals.
The same voyage that had driven one of his competitors to madness and suicide on the high seas didn’t faze Knox-Johnston one bit. In the end, it was his normality in extraordinary circumstances, his ability to sail through a force ten storm without suffering a nervous breakdown or calmly dive over the side to fix his boat mid ocean, that saw him through to the finish line. He was at home on the ocean.
Solo sailing isn’t for everyone, especially sailing around the world for months on end without stopping for rest. But for some people, there is no better way to connect with the ocean and become totally in tune with the environment than to sail alone at sea.
Of course, you don’t have to round the five great capes to enjoy a little bit of solo sailing. A simple passage through the trade winds or even a week-long cruise along a beautiful coastline can be an incredibly rewarding experience for any solo sailor.
If you have ever dreamed of completing a single handed passage at sea, then this guide is for you. Here, I have compiled tips and tricks from some of the most accomplished solo sailors in the world, combined with my own experience from many years of sailing alone all over the world.
In this guide, I will cover everything from picking the best boat for solo sailing, to learning how to sleep while alone at sea and much more. This article will give you the basics you need to get started in the world of solo sailing.
Solo Sailing – One Hand for the Ship, One Hand for Yourself
I completed my first long distance solo sailing voyage at age 18, when I was hired to deliver a Contessa 26 from the Bahamas to the Pacific side of Panama by way of the Panama Canal. The vessel had recently been purchased by a famous solo sailor from Australia, who had set the record for the youngest person to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted around the world about ten years before on his Sparkman and Stephens 34, Lionheart.
Due to unexpected work commitments, the owner was unable to sail the first leg of his journey back to Australia, so he hired me to move the boat through to the Pacific, where he flew in later to continue the voyage.
His new boat, a Contessa 26 named Carmen Sandiego, was the same design that was used by two previous young solo circumnavigators on their round the world voyages. The boat was small enough inside that she only had standing headroom in one small part of the cabin, but she was strong and well proven, so I was confident that the vessel could easily complete the voyage.
I had previously done quite a bit of single handed sailing on my family boat in the Pacific Northwest, including some winter cruises above 50 degrees north, and I had already crewed on a number of trans-pacific voyages with other people. This was the first time I would be completing an offshore passage alone, but I was confident in my abilities. The boat had recently been refitted with solo sailing in mind, so I knew that she should be able to complete the voyage with few problems. All that was left was for me to put my sailing skills to the test. I was excited.
Over the following two months I sailed down through the Bahamas, around the south coast of Cuba, across the Caribbean Sea to Panama, and through the Panama Canal to Colon. I encountered a number of different challenges along the way, including taking on the maze of reefs and shallow waters in the Bahamas against the prevailing winds, running aground on an unmarked sand spit far from land, sailing through a gale south of Jamaica, untangling myself from a bureaucratic nightmare in Cuba, taking on water in the middle of the Panama Canal, and last but not least, a close encounter with armed guerrillas in the jungles of Chiquiri.
It was an excellent time! For pure adventure, there is nothing like your first offshore solo sail.
In the decade since, I have completed many more single handed sailing journeys in various parts of the world, but I will always treasure the memories from that first long solo voyage.
All this solo sailing has given me a pretty good idea of what it takes to navigate a small vessel alone at sea, and I have put together all the most important lessons I have learned right here in this guide. I will begin with the most significant challenge for solo sailors, which is to manage the dangers involved with sailing alone.
How Dangerous Is Solo Sailing? The Greatest Risks
I am often asked if sailing alone really is more dangerous than cruising with a crew, as many people believe. The answer is yes, solo sailing can be very dangerous, but most of the risks can be managed.
We all know that there are certain dangers involved with everyday life that simply can’t be avoided. You or I could be hit by a bus on the way to work or we could die of a heart attack while sitting on the couch and watching TV. Solo sailing means exposing yourself to a different type of risk, and those of us who sail alone would rather take our chances at sea than face a boring life without risk or adventure.
With careful planning and proper preparation, most of the dangers involved with sailing alone can be avoided or significantly reduced. Some people associate my solo voyages with unnecessary risk, but in reality I consider myself a very conservative sailor. I spend countless hours before each voyage contemplating every conceivable danger and planning how I would deal with it at sea. Once at sea, I sail carefully – reefing the sails early to avoid stress on the rig and sailing the extra mile to steer clear of any reefs or floating objects. Thanks to this approach, I have always made it back to port in one piece without relying on outside assistance.
On the other hand, it is incredibly foolish to head to sea hastily in an ill equipped vessel. Not only do you put your own life at risk, but also those of you potential rescuers if disaster strikes and you need to call for help. I have known sailors who need to be rescued practically every time they head out to sea. This goes strongly against my solo sailing philosophy, which is to never get myself into a situation that I am unable to get myself out of.
In this section, I will take a look at the most common dangers faced by solo sailors and some of the best ways to manage those threats, beginning with the most obvious, falling overboard.
Falling Overboard When Solo Sailing
Falling overboard is probably the easiest way to turn a pleasurable cruise into a life or death situation. On a wildly moving vessel, it’s all too easy to fall over the side and never be seen again. Of course, the risk of falling overboard is still an issue on vessels with crew, but the danger becomes much more pronounced while sailing alone.
The reality is, if you fall overboard while sailing offshore on any vessel, crewed or not, the chances of getting rescued are slim. Nobody knows how many sailors have died simply by falling overboard, but it likely explains a large percentage of disappearances at sea.
Fortunately, there are some simple precautions that greatly minimize the chances of falling overboard at sea. The most important one is to always wear a safety harness while on deck. Solo sailors have been using some kind of safety harness to stay attached to their boat for many centuries, and the practice has saved thousands of lives over the years.
A boater’s safety harness is much like those used by mountain climbers, but they are typically worn over your chest rather than looping around the legs. The harness uses a tether with a carabiner on both ends to keep the skipper attached to the vessel – one end clips onto the harness and the other end clips to a secure point on the boat.
There are a variety of commercially available safety harnesses that are both comfortable to wear and strong enough never to break if they are ever put to the test. Some harnesses incorporate an inflatable life jacket into the design, which gives you the safety feature of extra buoyancy once you are in the water. In the event that you are knocked unconscious as you fall overboard, like if you are hit in the head with the boom, the inflatable life jacket is designed to inflate and keep your head out of the water, thus saving you from drowning.
I recommend running a jack line (Usually a long nylon strap with a very high breaking point) from bow to stern on both sides of the boat. Make sure that the jacklines are securely fastened at either end to a strong cleat or pulpit. The line is only as strong as the thing it’s attached to.
Always wear a safety harness while at sea, and when you go up on deck, clip your tether in to the jacklines. It’s a good idea to buy a double tether with two clips, so that you are always attached to a secure point even while moving around the boat.
It’s also important to make sure that the boat has some kind of swim step or boarding ladder that is accessible from the water. It’s often extremely difficult or impossible to climb back aboard a swiftly moving vessel once you have fallen over, even if you are still attached to the boat. Another important safety concern is to make sure the boat has secure lifelines, and to tow a line with a buoy a few boat lengths behind the vessel to grab ahold of if all else fails. It’s always a good idea to have a plan b just in case, especially when your life is at stake.
Another recent innovation that could save your life is a man overboard (MOB) keyfob that you can attach to your harness or lifejacket. These fobs, which are either water activated or set off when you get a certain distance away from the boat, send a distress signal to the authorities. They are then able to track your location via an internal GPS and organize a rescue if it comes to that.
Collision With a Ship
The next greatest danger to solo sailors is the possibility of colliding with a ship that is much bigger than your own. Every year, a ship arrives in port with the mast of a sailboat tangled in their anchor, having had no idea they hit something at sea. It’s rare for a small boat to survive such a collision, and usually there is no time to get into a liferaft before the boat sinks.
The main reason that colliding with a ship is such a great risk for oceangoing sailors is that a small vessel is often impossible to spot from the wheelhouse of a commercial cargo vessel, especially in rough seas. Sometimes a small boat isn’t visible on the radar screen either, even if you keep a radar reflector out at all times.
Of course, colliding with a ship is also a risk for a crewed vessel, but it becomes more of a danger to the single handed sailor because they must eventually sleep, and it’s impossible to keep an eye out for ships while unconscious.
Thankfully, you can go a long way toward eliminating this risk by equipping your boat with an AIS (Automated Identification System). An AIS uses the ship’s VHF radio and GPS to communicate with other nearby vessels, and it alerts you when they get within a certain range of your boat.
Say you are sleeping at night while motoring through fog and a freighter (impossible to spot through the fog) is approaching you from the starboard bow. The AIS alarm will go off once the ship is ten miles away (as long as it’s set to this range), which wakes you up from your sleep. You check the AIS and determine that the ship will cross your bow in twenty minutes at a distance of five miles away. You can then watch the ship pass on the screen and resume your slumber once the ship is a safe distance away. I have avoided countless close calls at sea thanks to this very helpful technology and in many ways it has entirely changed the game for solo sailors.
Of course, an AIS system is not guaranteed to work at all times, and it’s always possible that other vessels may have their unit turned off for some unforeseen reason. (Fishing boats, for example, often turn off their AIS units to keep their favorite fishing grounds secret, even when they are required to broadcast their position by law.) That’s why it’s still important to regularly check the horizon for ships even when your AIS is on, just to be safe.
Storms At Sea
The greatest fear for many sailors is the possibility of encountering a serious storm at sea. After surviving a number of bad storms myself, I can attest to this being a very real danger, but like most hazards that solo sailors have to contend with, the worst of the risk can be managed by taking the proper precautions.
There are two ways that you can deal with the risks involved with storms, first to avoid getting into bad weather in the first place, and secondly to be prepared to deal with storm conditions in case you do get caught out in a bad blow..
Your chances of encountering dangerous weather depend very much on what kind of voyage that you will be embarking on. If you are planning a cruise through the trade wind regions that involves many ports of call and relatively short passages, it’s possible to sail for many years without ever getting stuck in a bad storm. On the other hand, if you plan to sail around the world by way of the five great capes and the southern ocean, you can be pretty much guaranteed to sail through many nasty storms along the way.
Thanks to modern day weather forecasting and recent satellite communication technology, if you have enough patience you can avoid most bad weather by simply waiting in port and planning departures strategically around favorable weather forecasts. If this sounds like your kind of cruising, you will also want to stick to parts of the world with generally pleasant sailing weather. Antarctica and Cape Horn would be best left out of your world cruise itinerary in this case.
I like to use sailor oriented weather forecasting tools like predictwind, windy.com, passageweather, and GRIB files, along with NOAA and government issued weather forecasts to plan my sailing routes. Once at sea, it’s possible to use technology like the Iridium Go satellite messenger to continue to obtain GRIB files and analyze the weather along the way.
The most important thing that you can do while cruising in tropical regions to avoid dangerous weather is to stay outside of the hurricane belt during storm season. Before leaving on your voyage, make sure you have a plan for where you will go to wait out hurricane season, and leave yourself plenty of extra time to get to a safe region in case you encounter delays along the way.
Of course, anyone planning an offshore passage must be ready to deal with bad weather in case it does hit. That’s why it’s imperative to choose a vessel that’s capable of surviving a severe storm and have a plan in place for heavy weather sailing tactics (and practice them during safer conditions).
During sea trials prior to departure, practice heaving to and setting a drogue or sea anchor when the wind picks up. Make sure that the vessel is equipped with storm sails and a safe way to deploy them in strong winds. Ideally, all the sails can be controlled from the cockpit, so that you never need to go forward on the heavily pitching deck in a gale. We will discuss setting up your boat for offshore sailing in further detail later in this article series.
Collision With a Reef or Floating Object
Another serious risk to solo sailors is colliding with a rock, reef or unseen floating object. Here, technology comes to the rescue once again to significantly reduce much of the risk.
99 percent of modern day cruisers use GPS technology linked to a chartplotter to navigate. This makes it much easier to avoid getting too close to an unlit rock or reef – unlike in days past when sailors had to rely on a sextant and unreliable celestial navigation to determine their coordinates. With navigation today so straightforward and most typical sailing routes well charted, nobody on the water has any excuse to take unnecessary risks and sail too close to dangerous areas.
In the high latitudes such as the Arctic or the Southern Ocean, the potential to collide with ice can be a real danger. Icebergs, (which have become much more prevalent in some areas due to climate change) have caused many a ship to visit Davy Jones’ Locker, including famous “unsinkable” vessels like the Titanic.
If your boat is equipped with a radar, you can keep an eye out for the larger pieces of ice, which leaves the small pieces floating at or below the waterline (referred to as growlers) as the greatest threat.
For sailors headed into high latitudes, I would recommend equipping your boat with a “crash box” built into the bow. A crash box is a watertight compartment built below the waterline that is filled with foam and sealed off from the rest of the boat. If the vessel hits ice or another floating object, it’s most likely to be the bow that gets damaged. With a crash box or collision bulkhead, only the small compartment is filled with water, leaving the rest of the vessel intact. The foam should help cushion the effect of the collision, which can limit the amount of damage that you suffer. You can then make repairs at sea and continue with your voyage.
I am always amazed that more vessels today aren’t built with positive buoyancy. Positive buoyancy means that the boat is constructed with enough flotation that it will stay afloat even if it’s totally filled with water. The vessel can then be repaired at sea or even sailed to the nearest port still full of water. After all, we all know that the best lifeboat in an emergency is your primary vessel.
In the 2016 edition of the Vendee Globe race, the winning competitor Francois Gabart had his vessel built with multiple watertight collision bulkheads and filled with enough floatation to give it positive buoyancy. This extra safety feature gave him the confidence to push the boat harder, knowing that even in the worst disaster the boat would stay afloat. Ultimately, this confidence saw him through to the finish line – in first place.
Of course, you should always equip your boat have a backup liferaft and ditch bag along with a well thought out abandon ship plan in case of the worst. But with the proper preparation, the need to abandon ship is extremely unlikely.
Fatigue and Injury at Sea
One of the most underrated but very real dangers of solo sailing is the risk of having some kind of medical emergency at sea, far from the help of doctors or a hospital. It’s easy to accidently hurt yourself alone at sea, in fact many solo sailors have keen killed by something as simple as being hit in the head by the boom. There is also the possibility of developing appendicitis or having a heart attack mid ocean, along with various other health concerns.
The best way to minimize the possibility of having a medical emergency that could prematurely end your voyage is to stay healthy as possible, keep a well stocked first aid kit onboard the boat, and to get some solid training in wilderness survival and first aid. It’s now possible to connect with doctors on shore through satellite technology, and they can talk you through basic medical procedures.
Another underrated danger for solo sailors is fatigue. Too often, a single poor decision, made after days without sleep has led to disaster. I have had more close calls than I would like to admit after four or five days without any rest, and I now take every effort to get decent rest when I can on a solo sailing passage.
Fatigue is going to be a very real factor for any long distance single handed sailor. It’s important to know your limits and understand how you react in such conditions before you leave, so that you can know when it’s time to stop pushing the boat and rest. Sometimes the best course of action is simply to heave to and take a nap, or put out the sea anchor for a while.
On a long passage, dealing with fatigue is unavoidable, but more often than not disasters occur due to pushing unnecessarily when one could simply stop for a while and rest. Sometimes it’s worth it to lose a few miles of progress in order to recharge your personal batteries.
In the end, there are some risks that simply cannot be greatly reduced by preventative measures. Much like alpinists getting swept off a mountainside by an avalanche, the prospect of a small boat being hit by a rogue wave is a real risk that cannot be controlled.
Fortunately, the chance of ever encountering a dangerous rogue wave at sea is very slim. If you end up sailing in areas where rogue waves are more common, like the southern ocean, then your best hope for survival is having a vessel built like a tank.
In the case of being hit by a rogue wave, it’s often better to have a smaller boat as there is less surface area to be damaged. It’s also beneficial to have very small windows, and for them to be built from as close very strong glass or lexan. Rogue waves have been survived by numerous boats throughout history, including the largest waves ever believed to have been observed by human eye, at Lituya Bay, Alaska in 1958.
Loneliness and Mental Health
Last but not least, you should never underestimate the dangers of loneliness as a first time solo sailor. The teenage solo sailor Robin Lee Graham, who famously sailed around the world onboard his 24 foot sloop Dove in the late 1960’s, always said that dealing with loneliness was his greatest challenge at sea.
A tragic example of the dangers posed by loneliness and stress on a solo sailing voyage is Donald Crowhurst, who was driven mad by the isolation while attempting to sail around the world in the Golden Globe yacht race.
Crowhurst attempted to circumnavigate on a vessel that was unprepared for the Southern Ocean and he had acquired almost no blue water experience before leaving. At the start of his voyage, he was disappointed by his boat’s slow progress and realized that he had little chance of completing a successful expedition on his boat.
Instead of returning home defeated, Crowhurst sent fake progress reports supposedly from the Southern Ocean, claiming to break daily speed records while actually drifting slowly in circles in the Atlantic Ocean. (Of course, a deception like this wouldn’t be possible today, with GPS tracking used for all record breaking voyages.)
In the end, Crowhurst gave up his fake circumnavigation attempt and committed suicide, presumably by jumping over the side of his boat. His trimaran was found empty a few months later, and his journal revealed the true story of his ordeal, which had been recovered from the derelict vessel.
These days, mental health concerns are taken much more seriously than they were in 1968, and we are beginning to better understand how to cope with things like isolation and loneliness. The coronavirus pandemic gave millions of people a taste of isolation, although a very different kind than that faced by a lone sailor at sea.
I believe that psychological fitness for a solo voyage comes down to personality and predetermined genetic factors. A voyage that would be extremely pleasurable for one adventurer as a way to connect with their boat and the sea would be another person’s worst nightmare.
It takes a certain type of person to sail alone for weeks or months on end with nobody to talk to and suffer no psychological harm. Of course, modern day communication technology makes it much easier to stay in touch with friends and family back ashore, which can make the psychological toll of a long solo voyage much easier to handle for some sailors. On the other hand, the constant connection with land ruins the peace of an offshore voyage for serious solitude seekers, and more than one solo voyager has thrown their communication equipment overboard after one too many unpleasant calls back home.
But How Do You Sleep At Night? – Catching the Z’s on a Solo Passage
Personally, I find the lack of uninterrupted sleep to be the worst part of solo sailing. Each sailor has their own difficulties that they face at sea, but for me missing out on sleep is much worse to deal with than the isolation or loneliness.
I am often asked questions like “do you take down the sails and stop the boat when you are sleeping?” or, my personal favorite,“do you always anchor at night in the middle of the ocean?”. In this section, I will answer some of those questions and explain the great mystery of how solo sailors sleep at sea.
Single handed sailors rarely stop sailing when it’s time to rest – that would mean that we would no longer make progress toward our destination and often we would end up drifting backwards, an unthinkable horror for sailors determined to make good passage time. The key to sleeping at sea is the use of self steering gear to keep the boat headed in the right direction, along with a strict schedule for waking up to check on things and keep an eye out for danger.
Different solo sailors have approached this issue in different ways. Joshua Slocum, an American sailor who was the first person to sail around the world alone, found ways to keep his boat balanced under sail and claimed that she could hold a steady course for days at a time without ever touching the helm. He often slept for hours at a time, and once claimed that a phantom helmsman came aboard to keep the vessel clear of danger while he was violently ill from food poisoning and unable to manage the boat.
Other sailors have had more difficulty trying to use Slocum’s self steering technique, but most boats will hold a course decently well with the wheel lashed amidships and the wind forward of the beam. The problem is when you are sailing with the wind aft of the beam, most boats tend to round up into the wind.
This issue was tackled in the 1950’s by British sailor Blondie Hastler who designed the first self steering windvane, an invention which has become essential equipment for any modern day solo sailor. A windvane is a piece of equipment that is mounted on the stern of the boat which uses a small sail (usually a piece of plastic or aluminum) and a tiny auxiliary rudder to keep the boat on course based on the wind direction. With the boat sailing properly, the sail, or vane, is set perpendicular to the wind so that it passes on both sides of the vane. If the boat moves off course, the wind hits the side of the vane, which pushes it over, pulling lines which turn the auxiliary rudder and bring the boat back to her original position relative to the wind.
There are many different variations to the design, but the fundamental concept is the same. Of course, if the wind direction changes then the boat will move off course, but for most offshore sailing passages there is a prevailing wind direction that holds relatively steady much of the time. A windvane needs regular adjustments to keep the boat sailing on course, but when everything is working properly it will take care of 95% of your steering under sail.
More recently, solo sailors have added electronic autopilots to the self steering toolkit for offshore sailing, but windvanes remain a favorite because they are generally quite reliable and don’t require any electricity to operate. An autopilot becomes useful while motoring for long distances, or for racing boats that go so fast that the apparent wind direction becomes too different from the true wind direction and a windvane is no longer effective.
With the windvane steering and the sails set, it’s possible for solo sailors to sleep, but only for very short periods of time. It’s still important to constantly check the sails and make adjustments when needed, watch the weather, and to keep an eye out for ships. Most solo sailors end up sleeping in catnaps anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes at a time, punctuated by regular inspections of the vessel. I tend to sleep for about 20 minutes at a time when relatively close to land, and up to an hour when I’m in a really remote part of the world that’s far from hazards like reefs or shipping lanes.
Of course, this catnap style of sleeping means that solo sailors rarely get the chance to get proper REM sleep while on passage, sometimes none at all for months on end. Because of this, single handed sailors have been the subject of many different studies about sleep, especially those who participate long offshore races where they have the added stress of being in an extremely competitive environment.
I use the alarm on my cell phone along with a separate backup alarm to wake me up to check on the ship. This usually works pretty well, although admittedly I have slept through both alarms on different occasions.
During spells of nice weather, I sometimes like to sleep in the cockpit. I lay a sleeping bag and pillow on the leeward cockpit seat, make sure that I am securely clipped in with my safety harness, reef the sails down in case the wind picks up, and stretch out to enjoy the stars. Some of my best memories of offshore sailing are from night watch in the tropics, when I spend hours looking up at the constellations or watching the phosphorescence in our wake.
In the cockpit, I feel more in tune with the boat, and I know I will wake up in an instant if the wind changes or the boat moves off course. Sleeping down below is more secure from the elements, but you don’t get the same feeling of oneness with the ocean. Of course, this isn’t possible when the going gets rough.
I am someone who values a good long sleep every night, eight or even nine hours if I can get it. But on solo passages I can only manage five hours on average per day. On certain occasions, such as during a serious storm or while stuck without wind in the shipping lanes, I have been forced to stay awake for four or five days straight. This is always awful. By the third consecutive day without sleep, it becomes a kind of hell, and by day four or five I know I’ll soon begin to hallucinate if I can’t rest soon. At that point I find myself nodding off at the helm regardless of how much caffeine I drink. Sleep becomes more important than anything else in the world, even avoiding collision with a ship.
It’s in situations like this, when extreme fatigue seriously reduces critical thinking that many accidents happen. That’s why it’s so important to get a good rest when you can and to have a functioning AIS onboard. That way you have more opportunity to rest and let the alarm warn you if a ship gets too close, even close to shipping lanes.
Extreme sleep deprivation aside, few people get excited about the prospect of nothing but catnaps for weeks on end, and for some would be solo sailors it’s a dealbreaker. If you need your beauty sleep, then long distance solo sailing might not be your best choice of hobby.
Of course, the best rest of any voyage is when you drop the anchor at the end of a long passage and can finally sleep like the dead. After completing a long solo sail, the thing that I often look forward to the most, even more than fresh food or a hot shower, is blissful, uninterrupted sleep.
Is Solo Sailing Legal?
Sometimes, the question comes up if solo sailing is actually legal. After all, nobody is watching the vessel while you are sleeping, even if it’s only for 20 minutes at a time.
So does sailing alone across the ocean break any laws with regards to proper watchkeeping? In this section, I’ll discuss the legal aspect of solo sailing.
The “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea or COLREGS (often referred to by boaters as ‘rules of the road’), are an agreement between all 168 UN member nations about what constitutes proper watchkeeping at sea. According to rule #5, “Every vessel must at all times keep a proper look-out by sight, hearing and all available means in order to judge if risk of collision exists.” The COLREGS also state that “these rules shall apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels.”
Due to the fact that it’s impossible to keep watch with “sight, hearing and all available means” while sleeping, and all solo sailors obviously eventually have to sleep, it has been debated by solo sailing critics that completing long passages alone should be considered an illegal activity.
Despite this argument, there are no clear examples of anyone ever taking legal action against solo sailors for not meeting the COLREG requirements. So for now, it’s safe to say that you won’t be arrested for solo passagemaking, but it’s a good idea to always have crew aboard any commercial vessel.
There is also the debate that with AIS, radar, GPS and other technology it’s possible to keep a proper watch purely through technology, but again, this theory has yet to be tested in a court of law.
The legal debate around solo sailing comes up on the international stage every few years when there is a high profile rescue of a solo sailor.One recent example was when Abby Sunderland (a highly inexperienced teenage sailor) was rescued in the Southern Ocean. Sunderland was attempting to break the round the world age record by sailing an ill equipped race boat through the roughest waters on the planet in the middle of the winter. Other southern ocean veterans suggested Abby wait in port for the seasons to change and the weather to become more favorable, but that would mean losing any chance of obtaining the record. She ignored their warnings and sailed on into the Southern Indian Ocean.
As most experienced sailors expected, her vessel capsized about half way across and was dismasted, leaving Abby to be rescued at the expense of Australian taxpayers. Her boat was left to drift and continued to pose a hazard to navigation for almost a decade after the incident. It was finally found washed up on a beach in 2019.
Thankfully, the vast majority of solo sailors are far more competent than Sunderland – using technology and careful watchkeeping to avoid collision or disaster. By playing it safe every time, it’s possible to reduce the likelihood of disaster to near zero, thus keeping the oceans open for everybody, including solo sailors.
How Big of a Boat Can You Sail Alone?
What size of boat can you safely sail alone across the ocean? The answer is anything from 5 to 236 feet in length, which is the size of the smallest and largest vessels ever to be sailed solo across an ocean.
On the small end of the spectrum is the diminutive five foot four inch Father’s Day, the tiny oceangoing microcruiser that Hugo Vilhen sailed alone from Newfoundland to Falmouth in 1993. Vilhen, a Korean war veteran and commercial airline pilot, had previously set the record for the smallest vessel to sail across the Atlantic on his six foot boat April Fool’s in 1968. Some years later, the record was beaten by Tom McNally in a slightly smaller vessel, so Vilhen built a new boat, Father’s Day, and reclaimed the record after 105 days at sea.
As for larger single handed vessels, Alain Colas raced the massive 236 foot, four masted sailing behemoth Club Mediterranee across the Atlantic in the 1976 OSTAR race. The idea was that as long as he could keep the vessel sailing in the right direction, the hull speed of the massive vessel would guarantee him a first place finish. Despite his best efforts he crossed the finish line in second place to Eric Tabarly, who was sailing a much smaller trimaran.
These are examples on the extreme ends of solo sailing limits, but the point they proved was that a lone sailor could cross the ocean on just about any vessel as long as it is properly set up to be managed by one person at sea.
Generally speaking, solo sailors choose boats between 20 and 40 feet for offshore voyaging, and smaller is generally considered better for a variety of reasons. First, a smaller boat is easier to manage, the sails take much less effort to raise and lower, and the surface area for waves to break on the deck and cabin top is much less. Contrary to popular belief, a larger boat is not always safer at sea, and large ships are just as likely to founder as a small vessel in a bad storm.
Large oceangoing vessels have been known to break in half under certain conditions, as has been observed by freighters off the South African coastline. In these instances, the hull spanned two large swells with the middle unsupported, causing the vessel to break in two. A well built small boat is sometimes safer than a larger one because they can bob around at sea through storms much like a corked bottle.
The same storm that may smash a lightly built 60 foot cruiser to pieces causes no damage to a small buoy. In fact, it’s quite possible that tiny Father’s Day may be capable of surviving a storm that could cause Club Mediterranee to break apart and sink.
That said, a small vessel will certainly be much less comfortable in rough conditions than a larger vessel, and if she is not properly sealed, more likely to swamp with water. A good compromise for solo sailors is to choose a well built and seaworthy 20 to 30-something foot boat for offshore voyaging. This size vessel should have enough room for one person to live comfortably down below, but still be small enough for a solo captain to handle in all conditions. But remember, more important than the size of the boat is a seaworthy design and construction.
If you are looking for the right boat to take on a single handed cruise, make sure to read the next article in our series “How to Choose a Boat for Solo Sailing – A Guide”.
Solo Sailing Essentials for the Modern Day Yachtsman
Contemporary boaters love to debate the pros and cons of sailing gear until the cows come home. That said, there are a few pieces of kit that are considered necessary for every modern day solo sailor. Below, I have put together a list of items that I never leave home without.
- Life raft, EPIRB and Ditch Bag.
- Delorme InReach Satellite messenger.
- Good set of foul weather gear.
- Fishing Gear.
- AIS System:
- Handheld GPS and Paper Charts.
- A journal
- Books, movies, musical instruments and other entertainment
Singlehanded Sailing – Is It Right for Me?
Solo sailing certainly isn’t for everyone, but for the right person there is no experience more rewarding than to captain their own vessel across the seas, relying purely on their own skill and endurance.
Solo sailing can drive some people to madness, but for others it offers a mid-ocean paradise. What is the difference between those who love solo sailing and those who have it? More than a century after Slocum completed the first solo circumnavigation, experience has shown that the people who can sail alone for long distances and remain sane throughout the voyage are those who can make themselves feel at home on the ocean.
How do you know if solo sailing is the right challenge for you? I would give the same advice as Robin Lee Graham, the famous teenage solo sailor from California.
If you have never spent long periods of time in isolation before, start small. Pack up your gear and go out camping for a weekend away from other people. See how you like being in your own head for a few days, and if you enjoy it then go back out for a week. It doesn’t have to necessarily be on the ocean, just somewhere where you are guaranteed not to encounter anyone.
Being alone in a house or camping near other people but not talking to them doesn’t count. It’s a very different experience of isolation when there is nobody nearby at all than to simply not interact with people. If you can take a full week of being alone and return home in good spirits, then solo sailing might be your thing.
I didn’t always enjoy every minute of my solo sailing voyages, and more than a handful of times it almost made me question my sanity. But I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.
I can remember sunsets at sea that looked more vivid than a Picasso painting, days spent sailing through a sparkling sea with nothing but puffy trade wind clouds from horizon to horizon. I remember the feeling of freedom when I was hundreds of miles from the nearest person and my only companions were the birds, the dolphins and the whales. It’s times like this that make solo sailing worth it.
The voyage may only last for a few months, but the memories will last a lifetime.
For anyone planning on embarking on a solo sailing voyage, you need a reliable source of high quality, up to date information on all aspects of the boating world. Thankfully, SailAndProp.com is there. SailAndProp.com is the best place online to learn about all things boating, from getting your vessel ready for a solo sailing voyage to learning about sailing routes across the Pacific Ocean, and everything in between. The easiest way to keep up to date is to subscribe to our newsletter and get all the best news and content sent right to your inbox!
And don’t forget to read the next article in our solo sailing series, “How to Pick a Boat For Solo Sailing – A Guide”.
There are few challenges as great or as rewarding as attempting to complete a solo sailing voyage across the oceans. Our article “The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sailing” gives anyone who is preparing to embark on a single handed sailing adventure everything they need to get started. If you have ever dreamed about sailing alone across the bay or across the hemisphere, this is the guide for you!