Setting off on a solo sailing voyage without crew doesn’t mean the end of your cruising dreams – quite the opposite, as James Frederick reports
I awoke to the violent motion that comes with an angry squall in the night. Jumping out of my passage berth I rushed into the darkness and pulled on my harness, which was already tethered to the jackline. The portside rail was completely awash, forcing me to reach into the sea to find the winch and release the jib sheet to shorten the headsail. Next I fought to tie in the second reef, as the squall didn’t seem to be in a hurry to pass on. After shortening all sail, I collapsed in the cockpit, soaking wet and exhausted. I was alone, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and had to remind myself that I’d chosen this solo sailing life.
The next morning, Triteia sailed fast and smooth across a comfortable sea, the sun warmed my skin and the sky was packed with fluffy tradewind clouds backed by a brilliant blue sky. That same solitude was joyful.
There’s no place on earth where you’ll feel more alone than at sea. To some this is what dreams are made of, for others it’s the stuff of nightmares. Often, it can be both at once. From shortening sail to watch-keeping to repairs at sea, the practicalities of cruising alone means it’s not a choice for the faint of heart.
When you’re sailing solo, there’s no one to catch your mistakes, and you must have confidence in your decision-making as there’s nobody else to discuss how you might best handle a situation. But much like the challenges, the rewards a solo sailor receives are beyond measure.
Solo sailors are a different breed, enjoying solitude for days or weeks at a time. They generally have a different relationship with fear and anxiety than those who’d rather not face the risks of the sea alone. When solo, you must approach all aspects of sailing with extra caution.
Injury is of great concern to anyone who cruises alone, there’s no one else to run the ship if you get hurt, seasick or worse still, fall overboard. So why do we do it? I asked some of my fellow solo sailors to explain the allure of such a life.
There are many reasons why sailors decide to cruise alone. For some, it is simply not having someone to share the adventure with at the same time, for others it’s a conscious choice. Holly Martin, now 33, has been sailing since birth, having been born in New Zealand while her parents were completing a circumnavigation. Martin started her solo cruising life in 2018, setting off from Maine on her Grinde 27 double-ender.
“I bought a 27ft boat because I was on an extremely tight budget,” she explains. “My parents circumnavigated on a Cal 25 so I wasn’t afraid to go small. Instead of spending years saving up for a bigger boat, I bought one that I could afford. Cruising on a small boat is more a mindset than an inconvenience.”
“I’d worked professionally on boats for five years by the time I bought my boat, but I knew I still had a lot to figure out as far as being the captain was concerned. I wanted to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge on my own for two reasons. One was that I didn’t want my mistakes to potentially affect the safety of crew. The other was that I didn’t want to be influenced by someone else’s opinions.
I’d spent years as a deckhand and mate being told what to do and how to do it and I was excited to make 100% of those calls on my own. I was also excited to spend weeks alone at sea and dig into myself to see what I found. I only intended to sail solo for a few months, but I quickly found that I loved it and didn’t want it any other way.”
For any solo or short-handed sailor the size of your vessel is always a key consideration. It needs to be small enough to be easily handled alone, not just at sea but also in port. The larger the yacht gets, the more comfortable in a seaway they become, and the faster the passage – which will in turn increase the safety factor due to being able to complete an ocean passage in a shorter time and navigate weather systems with more ease.
But with an increase in size comes greater challenges of handling the boat alone, from reducing sail during a squall to attempting to dock solo in strong winds or currents. The loads become much greater – reefing a mainsail solo on a 40ft boat is considerably more difficult than reefing a mainsail on a 30ft boat.
Many larger yachts these days are adorned with electric winches for ease of handling, but what happens if they fail while at sea? Could you still manage the boat solo without their assistance? You’ll have to find a balance between what you can handle safely and what you can afford to maintain.
When it comes to comfort, this should also be seen as an element of safety, because there’s little more dangerous to a solo sailor than fatigue.
Bigger is not always better, especially when you consider the fact that many new yachts have wide open cabins that look more like condos – space that becomes unwanted and dangerous for the solo sailor.
All this is not to say that solo cruising is limited to 30-footers or smaller. David Haigh chose his steel 40ft Van de Stadt cutter, Sahula, for extended cruising both solo and with crew. “I first chose a well reputed cruising yacht designer. The outside shape of the yacht is critical to its being a capable sailing boat. I wanted shallow draught (for rivers and canals) and a rudder on a skeg. I wanted over 6ft headroom in the living quarters.
“I wanted both an aft cabin and a forward cabin so the skipper and crew could have maximum private space, and I wanted ‘stretch out’ space in the cockpit. Sahula provided these assets and more.”
Haigh, now 76, decided to adopt a ‘hybrid’ model of cruising during an 11-year circumnavigation that he began in his 60s, taking on various crew for longer passages while enjoying stretches of coastal cruising solo. “On ocean passages I always took on a crew. It was not fair to my family to risk a solo ocean passage. Also, I was aware of how trying storm conditions would be and maybe more so when aged over 60 or 70 years old.
“I enjoyed the company of crew. I undertook to teach them sailing and they quickly became competent. For them it was a lifetime adventure. They were educated youths – a physicist, a specialist carpenter etc, on a pre-university year out.”
Kiana Weltzien is another solo sailor who has enjoyed ocean passages with friends as crew but prefers her solitude. Weltzien started her solo sailing adventures in 2018 at the age of 22, and has since made five Atlantic crossings aboard her 1971 Wharram Narai MkI multihull, Mara Noka.
Weltzien explains: “There is something about being alone that allows me to be completely and absolutely myself, and when other people are around, even the best of friends, I feel as though I must suppress that a bit.
“Decision-making is a big factor too, as not having to explain or justify my decisions brings me a lot less stress when I am in riskier situations.
“I suppose though, what I prefer the most about being solo is not having the added responsibility of people’s lives. Because that’s intense.”
Personally, I find the easiest times to be alone on the boat are when things are at their most challenging due to sea state or heavy weather. I’m very comfortable being uncomfortable, but if I had someone else on board my small boat in big mean seas I would be concerned about their discomfort.
Worse still, if I had crew on board who were complaining. For me, misery loves solitude.
There’s no getting around the fact that solo sailing is far more demanding physically and mentally than sailing with others. From ship handling to watch keeping, all tasks fall on the sole crewmember. Never getting more than a few hours of sleep at a time, for weeks on end, also taxes you mentally and leads to one of the most dangerous obstacles to overcome; extreme fatigue.
Sam Holmes started his solo ocean sailing career on a 23ft Ranger, Swedish Fish, that he sailed from Los Angeles to Hawaii. He later traded up for his current boat, Pickled Herring, a Cape Dory 28 which he has been cruising on in the Atlantic since 2020. Holmes recalls: “Sailing overnight in the English Channel and trying to keep a watch for ships, wind farms and oil platforms with limited opportunities for sleep, I definitely would have liked to have someone to trade off watches on those passages!”
I believe fatigue is the greatest threat to safety for a solo sailor. When you’re exhausted you make poor decisions, become forgetful and your reaction times are slower.
At sea, alone, that combination can result in serious injury or death. The more you sail the more you become aware of this and learn how to mitigate it. I try to rest as much as possible, day or night. Even if sleep is impossible, to just ‘power down’ and lay in your bunk with your eyes covered, resting your body and mind, is as important as keeping your ship in order.
On my solo passage from Los Angeles to Hawaii my older brother, David Frederick, sent me a message on my Iridium GO! asking me to write down a list of all the things that needed to be done daily and tape it up in the navstation. He could see that as my fatigue increased, I’d find it harder and harder remembering what I needed to do. Being ex-military, he’d been trained to make physical lists during challenging situations in the field.
I found this process very helpful and have repeated it on all my ocean passages since (it’s a trick the pro racers also use, during The Ocean Race, Team Malizia did the same, with playbook instructions for manoeuvres pinned up in the cockpit).
One of my most challenging moments as a solo sailor was making landfall in New Zealand. I sailed into the Bay of Islands at first light in a building gale, having not slept all night due to ship traffic and nervousness about approaching land. I passed Nine Pin Rock with a third reef tied in the main and less than 90% of my headsail out. Still Triteia was making between 7-8 knots with big following seas that were stacking up as the depths became shallower.
In the dark of the morning I could see rocky shores to starboard and scattered islands to port. I had no working engine and the storm was forecasted to build throughout the day. By the time I tied up to the quarantine dock at Opua I’d been awake for 36 hours. Everything felt like it was in a semi-dream state and I was operating at the very edge of what was possible for me.
When it comes to solo sailing, sometimes this scenario is unavoidable. I find the best course of action at getting through these situations successfully is to consciously dial back your movements to half the speed you normally operate at. Move slow and think each action and reaction through before you do them. This will greatly reduce your risk of injury or worse.
However, there is a peace that falls upon the solo sailor once land and its associated dangers are out of sight. Once you’re settled into the routine of passagemaking, being alone often leaves you more attuned to your environment. The sound of the sea rushing past the hull, the distant call of seabirds, the small creaks and rattles in the cabin underway create a soundtrack that accompanies you for the days or weeks ahead.
Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude’. This sentiment rings true for all sailors who have found they prefer to explore the world in their own company.
Without the distractions of crew, your senses heighten, alert to not only the dangers but also the beauty of the world around you. You find silence while being surrounded by sound, stillness while in constant motion. Visits from wildlife make your heart swell and you know all that you are seeing and feeling belong only to you.
“A memory I’ll never forget is my first sight of land after 41 days alone at sea from Panama to the Marquesas,” recalls Holly Martin.
“The final sunset before my arrival day had a peculiar tang to it. Part of me wanted to stay at sea forever. I’d sunk into a deep meditative state. I could lie in the cockpit for hours listening to music and staring at the clouds. I could examine my life, my past, my problems and trepidations with no emotional attachment. It was like being my own therapist. I wrote pages in my journal every day.
“Life was simple and sweet. Going back to land meant giving that up. But it also meant colour and movement and joy. When the sun rose over the green mountains of Nuku Hiva, I felt a wild elation.
“Thousands of miles of wind and waves had pushed me towards this giant rock sticking out of the ocean. The smell of flowers and soil rushed into my nostrils and overwhelmed my senses. It was heady, overwhelming, and completely perfect.”
Alone, or lonely?
A common question solo sailors get is: ‘Don’t you get lonely?’. For me, I prefer doing ocean passages solo and love having friends visit me in port to explore the islands and countries I’m cruising. I rarely find myself lonely at sea but often when coastal cruising I long for a familiar face to share the beauty of a place. This sentiment was shared by many other solo sailors I spoke to.
“I have the unfair advantage of being extremely antisocial and loving my solitude more than any other person I know!” says Kiana Weltzien.
“Out there I have my boat, the birds, fish, and myself to talk to so that isn’t much of an issue. And I have books and podcasts to talk back to me.
“One of my favourite parts of going out to sea solo is knowing that I don’t have to hang out with anyone, and I don’t even have to make an excuse for it.”
Holly Martin adds; “I don’t get lonely at sea. This is my ‘me time’ when I slow down and tune my brain to a lower frequency. Being at sea alone is a joy. The times I experience loneliness is when I’m on anchor with no friends around. I love to share the pleasure of exploring a new port. But this is usually easily remedied because sailors are friendly everywhere in the world and always open to making new friends.”
While cruising sailors are, for the most part, a very friendly bunch, sometimes it can be hard to meet people when sailing solo. One of the easiest ways I’ve made friends in various ports and anchorages was by being a part of the Ocean Cruising Club and flying my yellow and blue club burgee, as well as simply striking up a conversation when you see anyone in their cockpit.
Sam Holmes noted: “I enjoy having someone along for some of the coastal cruising bits. You see places in different ways when you’re solo versus with company.
“I’ve seen and snorkelled at so many amazing places that sometimes I get a little jaded. When I get to take someone else to an awesome spot and see their excitement, though, it really makes me excited about exploring more places again.”
Like Holmes, I too enjoy sharing the experience of an amazing place with others. Recently I was invited by Andy Schell of 59º North Sailing to join the crew on board their 65ft Farr Falken for a sail from Newfoundland to Greenland and Iceland with a total of 11 crew. Sailing on a yacht that is more than double the size of my 30ft sloop, with 10 other sailors, was so incredibly different to my experiences of cruising solo.
I stood on deck while Falken transited Prince Christian Sound in Southern Greenland, staring up at the most remarkable mountains I’d ever seen as we sailed past iceberg after iceberg. Glancing around at the crew I saw nothing but amazement on everyone’s faces. This incredible experience was made all the more beautiful by sharing it in the company of fellow sailors.
Solo sailing certainly isn’t for everyone. But those of us who have held communion alone with the great oceans of the world have an experience that cannot be understood until you’ve done it.
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