The basics of shorthanded sailing

28th May 2021 Jessica Watson

The basics of shorthanded sailing

I probably don’t have to tell you that I’m a fan of solo sailing, but I’m also a fan of shorthanded or doublehanded sailing. Sharing experiences with a full crew or a boatload of mates is fantastic, but I think there’s something about shorthanded sailing that gives you a closer connection to the ocean and a different appreciation for sailing.

Here are a few pointers for those keen to leave their full crew behind:

Leave the heroics at home

Heroics are best avoided when you’re sailing shorthanded as they add unnecessary risk. If at all possible, shorthanded sailing (and all sailing for that matter) should look easy, with yelling and screaming kept to a minimum. I know this approach isn’t going to give you as many dramatic stories to tell in the yacht club bar, but you will gain the respect of experienced sailors. It’s also advice that I believe is particularly important for those who sail with their significant other – sailing with your partner is tricky enough without the added stress of hairy, near-disaster situations.   


It’s all in the planning

Firstly, the design and setup of the yacht are going to make a world of difference. A yacht that was built to be raced around the cans with a full crew may struggle to convert to a good shorthanded boat. Think about deck layout – a smaller cockpit often ensures that everything is within easy reach and that halyards leading back to the cockpit are handy.

Then at a micro level, every tack, gybe and manoeuvre should be thought through before turning the helm.

Talking of helms, I’m sure it goes without saying that you should have a reliable autopilot. Nonstop hand-steering with a shorthanded crew falls in the previously mentioned heroics category. For longer shorthanded sailing, I’d recommend that you consider a windvane – these clever devices will become like a third crew member.

Both crew should have at least a basic (and preferably a good) understanding of all major systems on-board. More importantly, both crew should have a handle on navigation – position, AIS and radar monitoring. Talk about and plan how you’ll manage man overboard and other emergencies without the manpower of a full crew. 

Sleep is your friend bank it whenever possible 

Many sailors treat sleep and time off watch as a liability and put it off for as long as possible, particularly on the first night of a passage. But sleep should be seen as an asset and should be topped up whenever possible.

When you’re at sea, it’s good practice to keep your satellite phone batteries fully charged so if you ever had to do anything drastic like abandon ship (bearing in mind that you should only step up to a life raft), you’d have as much battery life as possible.

When shorthanded sailing, you need to think of yourself and your crew mate in the same way. If you’ve pulled a huge all-nighter and then the weather takes an unexpected turn for the worse, you’re going to be in pretty bad shape, possibly leading to exhausted silly mistakes and a dangerous situation. If at all possible, never let your energy levels drop to extra low – always keep something in the bank for whatever the ocean throws at you next.  

If there is one crew member who is the stronger sailor, it becomes even more important that this sailor is well-rested whenever possible. It’s a natural tendency for the better sailor to take longer watches, but it’s this sailor who you’ll rely on in sticky situations, so keep their batteries from dropping to dangerously low levels.

And one other thing – when your fellow crew is sleeping, make sure you have a way of waking them on hand. If everything’s rosy, you’ll be able to quickly duck downstairs to wake them. But if you’re dealing with a situation on deck, it might be a good idea to have a powerful horn within arm’s reach.  


I hope I haven’t make shorthanded sailing sound too intimidating. By leaving the heroics at home, planning for every possibility and keeping the sleep batteries topped up, you’ll fast come to enjoy the solitude of leaving the full crew behind.