Why should you singlehand your boat if you plan to always sail with a partner?
Frankly, it’s a question I never asked myself.
I looked forward to cruising because I thought it would be a fun skill to learn and a lifestyle I could enjoy with my husband. As an extrovert (albeit one who struggles with social anxiety), thoughts of traveling alone by boat invoked the same feelings of horror as those movies where someone finds herself floating freely in a spacesuit.
But I recently delivered the boat to a boatyard over three days. And while I had company (thank goodness my sister agreed to join me for the trip) I was exclusively in charge of the boat.
I gained a lot from my first experience singlehanding. And I look forward to doing it again.
You should singlehand your boat too.[Note: I know the internet trolls will crawl out from under their bridge to tell me that I’m not singlehanding if I had crew on board. And it’s true that I was able to get away from the helm long enough to use the head and had someone to hand off lines if needed. But since I believe it’s important to take baby steps when learning new things, I’m going to consider it singlehanding to be exclusively in charge of the boat with only a passenger on board.
And if you don’t like it, start your own blog.]
My First Time Singlehanding
My husband and I learned to sail on 18-foot boats on Cayuga Lake. We’d go out most weekends to practice.
As we improved, we’d take turns playing “princess.” One person would take the helm and captain the boat while the other would relax and enjoy the breezes from the cockpit.
It was a low-stress way to gain experience managing the helm and lines solo with a partner nearby.
I have to admit, I did it less than my husband did. He even went out alone a few times and singlehanded. I never did.
I’m not sure I even docked the boat under sail alone more than once.
Chicken? Yeah, that’s me.
Once we moved on board Meander and started cruising full time, neither of us ever took the boat out alone. Not once in four years.
So when I decided to deliver the boat to Deltaville for a much-needed refit while my husband remained behind to work, it was a big deal.
But I learned some valuable things delivering the boat without experienced crew on board. And those benefits are why I believe you should singlehand your boat too.
Benefits I Gained Singlehanding My Boat
When I set out, I knew I could manage the boat by myself. But I can’t say I was looking forward to it.
When I thought I’d have to go entirely alone with just my dog for company, I even dreaded it a little.
By the time I landed the boat at the last marina, I realized that I not only hadn’t dreaded the experience, I had also gotten tremendous benefits from it.
Like what, you wonder?
Putting theory into practice
Whenever we arrive at or leave a dock, my husband and I make a docking plan. Even if conditions are calm, we verbally rehearse how we’ll manage the boat and who will do what.
It generally works well.
But our collaborative decision-making means I don’t always get to test ideas that I think will work.
On our first day of my delivery trip, I was docked bow-in. Both the wind and the prop walk would push the boat to port, toward our neighbor’s boat.
With my husband on the helm, I would normally use lines on the starboard side to keep our boat from getting too close to another one. But this time I would be on the helm. And I thought my inexperienced sister would find it too stressful to be entirely in charge of managing lines while I gave her instructions from the cockpit.
So I tried something I thought would work in theory but had never tried.
I put the boat in reverse. As I noticed the stern moving to port under the influence of the slight breeze and prop walk, I shifted into neutral and then into forward for just a moment or two to straighten the boat in the slip.
Once I felt the boat was in a good position, I went into reverse again. I repeated as needed.
As we left the slip, we were very nearly straight. There was no drama with other boats. And my sister only had to keep a lookout for other boats in the fairway.
I always wondered if those small moves with the transmission would help the boat back out straighter. Now I know.
When you cruise with a partner, it’s easy to fall into habits.
My husband is so good at navigating, it’s easy to just let him do it. (Until recently, we exclusively plotted our courses on paper charts. So it actually takes some skill that boaters who only use electronic charts may not have.)
I was probably most apprehensive about this aspect of our trip.
Although we had traveled many times between Deltaville, Virginia and Cambridge, Maryland I worried about losing track of where I was and finding myself on top of fish netting or on the wrong side of a mark warning of a shoal.
Being forced to navigate on my own was good practice.
Although I’m happy to turn the navigation chores back over to my husband the next time we travel together, it’s good to gain experience on something I do less often.
Practice communicating with strangers
In four years cruising together we’ve learned that if a task requires deep focus, you want my husband to do it. It if requires multi-tasking, you want me on the job.
Unfortunately, docking can start as a deep focus task that requires multi-tasking skills as you have to communicate with “helpful” strangers, fishermen on the dock, and dockhands.
With two of us on board, my husband can focus on maneuvering the boat while I communicate with people yelling to us from shore.
But even I got some good communicating practice while singlehanding.
When a dockhand turned up at a different dock than the one I planned to land at, I had to shout instructions from the helm so he knew what to expect. I had to give calm instructions to my sister about how to manage lines. And I had to follow up when the first instructions didn’t work.
I’m most proud of finding I do have the ability to give calm guidance on the boat without yelling. I’ve heard so much yelling on boats (both mine and others), it’s nice to know that calm communication isn’t an anomaly onboard.
Hopefully the practice I got singlehanding will help my communication going forward.
As an extrovert, I’m incapable of solving a problem without talking it through. So how would I solve a problem without a knowledgeable person to bounce ideas off?
The first test of my problem-solving skills came when we arrived at our second night’s dock off the Great Wicomico River in winds gusting over 25 mph.
I knew docking solo would be challenging in those conditions. There would be no dock hands standing by to grab our lines.
I rehearsed how I would manage docking while knowing that I wouldn’t make a final plan until I got close enough to the dock to see how local conditions affected the wind strength.
Luckily we arrived to see that we had several options for slips. I was able to choose one that would have me docking into the wind. I’d just have to match my speed to the wind and get the boat far enough into the slip so I could hop off at the gate with a line in hand and secure it before losing control.
It happened just the way I planned it. After slipping the boat into neutral, I had to move quickly to get the boat tied off. But I did it. Without drama.
To this day, I don’t think my sister who watched from the deck knows that was a damn good landing in those conditions for someone who has never done it before.
In fact, knowing I could make the trip relaxing and fun for a nervous passenger became one of my favorite benefits of singlehanding.
As Meander’s captain, I joke that my main job is morale officer. I feel a lot of responsibility for the emotional tenor of life on board.
But no matter how hard I try, I can’t make my husband love cruising as much as I do.
Singlehanding, however, I have a lot more control over how things feel on board. And I enjoyed the challenge of creating a positive experience for my passenger.
It meant that I made choices for them that I might not make for myself (like opting for a tow when our fuel pump failed instead of trying to sail into a challenging channel). But it felt good to know that I could cultivate a calm experience on board.
For any person whose experiences on board have been fraught with tension and conflict with a mate or other crew, this alone makes singlehanding something worth trying.
I suspected I could handle our 34-foot boat alone. But now I know I can do many things I had never tried before.
I suspect I can do many more things with Meander on my own or with an inexperienced passenger. And I look forward to trying.
My first attempt at singlehanding Meander has opened up new possibilities.
Shortly after we started cruising, it became obvious that my husband didn’t enjoy it very much.
He just found it hard. While for me, the effort was part of the enjoyment.
We’ve compromised over the years—traveling less, spending more time in marinas, taking long breaks off the boat to work.
But my recent experience delivering the boat on my own has me thinking about different patterns of cruising that might work for both of us.
Maybe I could take on most of the travel responsibilities and let my husband fly or drive down to meet me on the boat for part of the time. I could pick up passengers or crew who would like to do legs of the trip with me.
I don’t have to force my husband to come along all the time after all.
What if your partner can’t cruise with you?
And of course, the most important reason everyone sailing with a partner should try singlehanding—what if your partner becomes ill or dies? Do you want to give up the life you love? And if it happened suddenly, are you confident you can get your boat home?
I’ve lost count of how many women (and yes, so far they’ve all been women) who could not handle their boat if something happened to their partner.
Thinking of those women being stuck out on the open water not even knowing how to work the radio when their husband has a heart attack makes me shudder.
You may not care about problem-solving by yourself. Or growing your skills. Or even gaining confidence.
But you should damn well care that you can get your boat to safety if something happens to your partner underway.
And just think of the kick-ass story you can tell in a marina laundry room when you singlehanded your boat home from the Bahamas when your husband becomes seriously ill (true story; this woman is my hero.)
My Second Time Singlehanding
Did the entire delivery trip go well?
I think so.
We faced some rough conditions the second day. Sailors familiar with the Chesapeake Bay will know that uncomfortable feeling when you have a short period and high, choppy waves.
Our third day, after adding fuel to the tank, I discovered the engine would not start. I called the boatyard I was delivering the boat to. Staff there helped me talk through my options for diagnosing and fixing the problem. (It’s an extrovert thing; I find it nearly impossible to decide something without talking about it out loud.)
In the end, I was glad I decided not to mess with the engine in a remote location with the closest diesel technician and source of parts being over 60 miles away. Especially after discovering the fuel pump needed replacing.
We got towed into Deltaville and had the further joy of landing the boat under tow.
The towboat captain was not even a little sexist. He appreciated that I had the lines ready to tow when he arrived and we left within fifteen minutes of his arrival. And did not overly explain anything we had to do to get the boat into a narrow channel with shoals on both sides.
Having a positive experience with a male, marine professional? I guess that was another benefit of singlehanding.
I can’t say there was a single bad thing about taking the boat myself for three days.
Take The Next Step To Singlehanding
As I argued with the straw troll above, my experience is not what most people think of as singlehanding. Because I was not totally alone.
If my sister had been unable to join me, I would have had to approach our first dock much more closely without someone there to toss lines.
And I would have had to make some really uncomfortable choices about relieving myself underway.
Taking Meander on a three-day trip with an inexperienced passenger was my first step toward true singlehanding.
Because I find being alone for days at a time very lonely, I may never want to singlehand my boat for long. But I could see a future where I take other passengers, experienced and not, and feel perfectly confident in control of my own boat.
If you’re like to singlehand your boat, figure out what your next step is. Is asking your normal crew member to sit back and let you try things on your own? Is it getting help with docking but doing everything else alone? Or is it taking your boat for a solo trip to a new destination?
I believe it’s important to ease in slowly when you’re trying new things. So find the edge of your comfort level and push against it ever so much. Prepare ahead so you have everything you’ll need to safely singlehand your boat.
I guarantee you won’t regret it. At least if you have as much fun as I did (and remember, I ended up with rough seas and a broken fuel tank so it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows).
Your turn: Have you ever done something alone you didn’t think you could have done yourself? How did it go?