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One of Those Days -- a cruising anecdote Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me -- a cruising anecdote


The six worst things about singlehanding (in no particular order):

1. Steering. Being stuck at the helm is the maritime version of wearing a ball and chain. It limits your ability to attend to other things that need to be done and can turn what would otherwise be a relaxing and enjoyable sail into a chore that is physically and mentally draining. Triple redundancy in self-steering -- autopilot, windvane, and a sheet-to-tiller system -- is not too much. When hand steering is necessary, make sure everything that might be needed for the duration is within easy reach of the helm before starting out. On boats with a tiller, adding an extension or running control lines forward will increase your range of movement. Unless circumstances prohibit it, take a short break periodically and move around, even if it means having to heave-to or temporarily alter course to a point the boat can sail itself with the tiller/wheel locked. You never know when a situation may arise that will prevent you from leaving the helm and you want to be as fresh and alert as possible if it does.

2. Docking and locking. Hitting another boat or an immovable object (such as a concrete seawall) can put a dent in your plans and pocketbook (not to mention bruise your ego). Holding a boat against the turbulence of a filling lock with a bow line in one hand and a stern line in the other provides an inkling of what it was like to be drawn and quartered. Maneuvering in close quarters is usually no problem in calm conditions. But as congestion, wind, and current increases, so does the level of anxiety and the need for skill, planning, and precautionary measures. Get lines, fenders, and a boathook ready and positioned while there is ample sea room and know when and how spring lines can be used to advantage.

3. Eating. When meal preparation is shared (or done by someone else), it is easier to tolerate a galley which is smaller, less convenient, and moves more (except maybe in California) than your kitchen at home. But any tendency not to cook for yourself on shore will be magnified when singlehanding. If fast, frozen, takeout, junk, and beer are your five food groups, meal planning and a well designed galley will help ensure you eat well and as often as needed, especially while underway.

4. Fatigue. There is less time to relax when singlehanding. The good news is you will rarely be bored. The bad news is the demands will occasionally push you to your physical and mental limits. Fatigue reduces motivation and efficiency, impairs judgment and reaction time, and, in extreme cases, induces hallucinations. According to a recent study, tired automobile drivers are as dangerous as drunk drivers. When gunkholing or harbor hopping, lack of sleep is rarely a problem. However, hand steering for extended periods, especially in conditions requiring concentration, can take its toll. Researchers have developed techniques for maximizing sleep efficiency on long solo voyages. They have not, however, come up with any new solutions to the problem of sleeping alone.

5. Lack of companionship. Humans are social animals. They enjoy being in the company of others and sharing experiences, sights, and thoughts. But alone does not necessarily mean lonely. It is possible to feel lonely in a crowd and content when alone. Except for the most unusual voyages, periods of physical isolation rarely exceed 30 days and during that time singlehanders normally have at least some opportunity to interact with others by radio. When coastal cruising, the desire for companionship is easily met in ports and anchorages. Boaters are a hospitable group of people and seem especially welcoming to singlehanders. And inviting a new acquaintance to go for a sail is an offer that is rarely refused.

6. Lack of an extra set of hands, eyes, ears, and mind. This can be a matter of safety, but is usually just an inconvenience. It is possible to accomplish most tasks alone (although it may take more time) and avoid most risks with the proper training, equipment, and planning. Arguably, outfitting a boat for, and the experience gained by, singlehanding will improve safety when sailing with crew. The skills, caution, and senses you develop carry over. That means off-watch crew will have more opportunity to rest and you will have the ability and confidence to continue sailing if crew is indisposed or injured. Of course, when singlehanding no one is present to help if you get into trouble. But unless you are are clueless as the British sailor who was trying to navigate with a road map, you probably put yourself at greater risk of death or serious injury when you drive your car alone.

The six best things about singlehanding (again, in no particular order):

1. Bill Gates insists on it. Harried mothers plead for it. Throughout history, individuals have endured privation and hardship in search of it. And singlehanded sailors have found it. Well, that too. But I'm talking about solitude; a momentary respite from the distractions and demands that occur when other people are around. It's a time of peace and quiet, a chance to think and reflect, which refreshes the body, revitalizes the mind, and restores the spirit.

2. Whether you call it "communing with nature" or "feeling at one with the world," there are times singlehanding can only be described as a spiritual experience -- days when you marvel at the sea and sky and are awed and humbled by the majesty of nature, days when you savor the interaction of the boat with wind and waves and say to yourself "It just doesn't get any better than this." According to an unpublished study by Dewey, Kahn, Yu, and Howe, these moments are covered by the inverse square rule -- the intensity of the experience decreases by the square of the number of people aboard.

3. Always sailing with a crew is like taking your relatives along on your honeymoon and having them move in with you afterwards. Getting away by yourselves provides an unparalleled opportunity to become intimately familiar with your boat. You discover its likes and dislikes, its strengths and weaknesses, and its quirks and limits. You come to appreciate the good, change what you can for the better, and accept and adjust to the inevitable. Over time, your initial apprehension fades and is replaced by a feeling of comfort and trust. Your ability to handle your boat improves until it becomes an extension of yourself; your senses become so attuned that you pick up on everything and react properly without thinking.

4. Ask a sailor to identify the allure of sailing and a common answer is "freedom and independence." If you buy into this, singlehanding will give you the most for your money. With no responsibility for and no need to accommodate others on board, you can indulge yourself. Take the provisions you want and nothing you don't. Use all the stowage space for your stuff. Always sleep in the best berth. Go where you want when you want or go nowhere or nowhen at all. Do things your way when (if ever) you are inclined to do so. Be messy or neat, noisy or quiet, lead a spartan or decadent existence. It's your toy and, for a while at least, you don't have to share it with anyone.

5. Singlehanding is unlikely to kill you. But it offers plenty of challenges that can make you stronger and better. Not just a better sailor, but a better person. Having to do everything yourself necessitates learning which in turn increases self-sufficiency. Self-interest will motivate you to anticipate what might happen and plan for contingencies. When (not if) the unexpected occurs, necessity will stimulate the resourcefulness and creativity needed to deal with the situation (and, occasionally, prompt a few prayers and promises to change). Your ability to both endure discomfort and appreciate the little things in life will increase. Facing your fears and pushing your limits will boost your self-confidence; while the reality you experience will keep you humble. And, ironically, what you learn about yourself while singlehanding will make you a better companion.

6. The vast majority of singlehanders are not hermits or misanthropes. To the contrary, they are very sociable and enjoy meeting new of people. I think part of it is that, after being alone for awhile, they are more inclined to reach out to others for companionship and conversation. But it also seems others are more inclined to reach out to them. Maybe one person is perceived as less of a threat or burden than a group. Maybe it's curiosity, the mothering instinct, empathy, or pity. Whatever the reason, the willingness of others to extend a helping hand and offer unstinting hospitality to a singlehander is a commonplace, yet unique and priceless, gift.

Copyright 2000/2004
David Guenther

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