Short-handed sailing tips

The first step in starting sailing short-handed is to decide for yourself that you are capable of managing the challenge. The decision is relative to your experience and the size and complexity of the yacht involved. For all single-handed sailing, installation of an auto pilot is a tremendous helping devise (almost necessary).

Before deciding sailing single-handed then be sure, that seamanship and safety on board has the highest priority – because, probably you can’t get any help from anybody, so you have to plan for all kind of hazardous situations, even how unlikely they seem to be.


Basically when you can handle and maneuver the yacht itself in the harbor, getting it in and out of the box (berth), then you can also manage the boat outside the harbor, but then the handling of the sails becomes the most important and critical task.

The sail set-up must fit your handling capability of hoisting and taking down the sails, especially when a sudden change in the weather is challenging you. Finding out who you are and what you a capable of, is only done by doing real tests – try and practice many times, until you feel confident. The more tests you do by handling sail maneuvers the more experience and certainty you establish.

Handling the Main sail:

You must be able to reef the mainsail or in worst case pull it totally down/away for storage and have the try-sail ready in an emergency case. Trimming the sheet and pulling the backstay to trim the sail is an obvious and undiscussable task. Generally remember that since you do not have a lot of crew on the railing to improve the stability, then the counteraction is to trim the mainsail flatter to avoid too much heeling (to balance the boat).

Handling the Head sails:

The easiest headsail to handle short-handed is the type of sail fitted on a fixed furling head-stay, where you can reduce the sail area only by furling in, at any time. Knowing the need of your boat, is also done by testing and practicing many times. If you have several headsails you can make a sail selection chart based on your testing. And when the wind-force or wind-angles change, you can then check on the chart what sail is the most efficient in keeping the boat going and performing the best. If you have many sails then you have a lot to do, whereby you more quickly will reach your capability limit. A very modern supplementary headsail is a free flying head sail mounted with the tack on a bowsprit and hoisted in the spinnaker halyard, fitted with an anti-torsion-cable in the luff of the sail. Such a head sail is generally handled similar to a downwind Code-sail and stored in a deckbag and fitted with the spinnaker sheets.

Handling the Downwind sails:

The downwind sails such as Spinnakers and Gennakers are the most challenging sails because they fly free with a center of force positioned much higher over the deck compared to the main and the head sail – these sails will therefore easily heel the boat over, so these sails need constantly proper trimming to keep the balance in the boat (avoiding too much heeling or weather helm) – this in combination with a helmsman keeping the grip of the rudder in the water (staying out of a cavity and stalling zone). Dead downwind the boat will have a  tendency to swing from side to side (pendul), where the kicker on the mainsail and tweekers on the spinnaker sheets can minimize this by pulling them down.

Dropping a free flying sail can be difficult when you are shorthanded and the maneuver needs to be planned carefully. During the drop of the sail the boat must change course and run in a direction where the sail will fly into the lee of the Mainsail and/or the jib and the boat must be heading a course where it stays upright (not heeling) – the ropes (halyards and sheets) must be prepared for a undisturbed free run without twisting – then you are ready. First you let the windward sheet of the sail go and then pull the lee sheet tight, then ease the halyard successively as the sail gets pulled in tight to the lee of the mainsail and the boom - firm and quickly. An alternative way of droppig the sail is to pull the sail down over the boom and still behind the mainsail which gives a nice control over the loose sailcloth. On larger boats additional dropping equipment such as a SpiSock and endless top/down Furling units are essential for a successfully drop of the free flying downwind sails.

3 tips from a single-hand sailor by heart

•    Thorough preparations before going.
•    Safety FIRST - never underestimate the challenge and never overestimate yourself
•    Always stay one level lower than maximum performance/challenge