Single Handed Sailing – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Bruce Amlicke

How Did I Get into This Mess –

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think I became a single handed sailor/cruiser in much the same way as many. It was at five AM, on a summer morning in Manteo, North Carolina, that I made the decision. My crew had decided, for reasons too complicated to mention that rather than continuing on to Ocracoke as we had planned, the beach here was just as nice and why go on for another day or two to get to another beach furth

er down the coast. The night before he took a motel room on the beach and assumed that I would stay where I was. I did not sleep much that night and in the morning I got up and said a few choice words (f*** him was one) to the rising sun. Tacked a note to the piling (before cell phones), cast off

my lines, and sailed south to Ocracoke. I arrived at 2 AM the next morning, dead tired, but with a realization that I had done it by myself.

The choice came down to, do I stay here or go on by myself. Being a very stubborn person the answer has been easy. Press on. So when the opportunity came to go cruising, I looked around and asked by partner at the time if she would give up her job and her security and take the jump with me. While the timing was good for me, it was not for her. I could stay and wait for her to get free of the shore side entanglements or I could go it alone. I wonder what my life would be like if I stayed, but I did not stay. Many years later and with thousands of miles under my keel, I know I would make the same decision again.

The vast majority of cruisers are couples or families. Only, I would guess, about 1 or 2% are single handed. Most of those are male. The few female single handed cruisers I know fall into the same mold as me. They chose to continue on rather than stop when a spouse died or when they lost interest or decided to go when there was no obvious person to go with them.

So Tell Me – What is it really like?

Are we like the lost boy105-0535_IMGs in Peter Pan, running wild without a woman to control us? Are we like Daniel Crowhurst, in “The Strange Last Voyage of Daniel Crowhurst” by Nicholas Tomalin, going slowly mad? Or, are we so slovenly, lazy and pig-headed that no women in her right mind would put up with us. If we look carefully in the mirror we may have to admit to some truth, but only a bit.

One of my favorite books is by Tristan Jones, “The Improbable Voyage”. In it he tells the tale of an idyllic cruise through the canals of France, interrupted by the arrival of a staunch proper English woman to join his crew. It is a touching story in the end. I enjoy reading. There are some days, I stretch out with a book and wile away the entire day reading. While, I have had crew that were happy to allow me to do just that, often there is the nagging though that we ought to be doing something together. Major boat projects are the same way. On the boat by myself, I can work on a project to the exclusion of all else. If it is not finished by the end of the day, it can be left to be done on the morrow. With crew, there is always the concern that an errant foot will kick a needed part over the side and you really do need to move those tools to make room for us to sit and have dinner.

Is It Safe?

IMG_8655I often get asked if it is safe to make a passage single handed. The best answer is No, but … No insurance company that I know of will insure a boat for a single handed passage. The various ARC’s will not take us; the Coast Guard regards us as a hazard. But, sailors make long passages single handed and most live to tell the tale. The single most important piece of gear, in my opinion, for a single hander is a good self steering gear or auto pilot. The ability to set the boat on a course and be free to do some other chore is critical. I feel radar is second. The ability to see out 6, 12 or 24 miles and see a ship a half hour or more before it becomes a factor. At 24 knots (his 18 and my 6) of closure it takes 30 minutes to go from 12 miles to collision. AIS lets the target see you and you know who you need to call.

The third element is attitude. When I am by myself, I reef earlier and plan my approaches better then when I have crew. I walk myself through the steps of a task before I do it. Do I have all the gear at hand? Can I get that reef in before we reach the edge of the island and so on?

I take fewer risks. If I slip and fall I will need to get myself up, there is no one else to do it for me.

The Social Scene

IMG_6970I have sometimes felt that the cruising couples regard single sailors as slightly off fish. They are something to be tolerated if necessary, but best keep down wind. The fact of life is in cruising communities is most of the planning for social events is made by the women of the crew, single sailors are a bit of a problem. Can we be asked to bring a dish? Can we even cook? Are our table manners best viewed by the pigs? And so on. Yes, most of us can cook. I learned as the only child of a working mother. If I wanted to eat, I learned to cook. Actually I enjoy it. But, we remain an odd number in any group. If we are invited, we make a three-some. Then the wife fears the men will talk of engines and she will be bored. So then perhaps five is a better number or perhaps 7, 9, or more. Then we get lost in the crowd. I find that when I have a crew with me, get many more invites than when I am alone. But this is nothing different than the single ashore. The problem is there are much fewer single sailors than singles ashore. In an anchorage I am most often the only single sailor. If there are two of us, we tend to band together. The question is then are we gay?

Crew and Dating

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe often invite crew to join us. It is nice to have another person aboard to tell your stories to, help with the chores and to share an otherwise cold bunk. Most of us if we are honest to ourselves look at each of these as a potential mate. We are the eternal optimist. We believe there is that one person out there to share the adventure. We are poor mate material, however. We have lived wild for too long to be tamed. We are often too old to be worth the effort. I have made all my own decisions for so long it is difficult to let someone else make them. A good friend would often chide me for not allowing her to select a spot to anchor. The truth was I had selected a spot an hour ago and had planned the approach and even prepared the anchor, before she even was allowed to have a say. It was not that I did not trust her, but that I was so used to doing it by myself that I had forgotten the process of working together.

So what sort of crew do we look for? Forget the – 25, blond with big assets – What we want is someone to share the work, but we have forgotten how to share. The best bet is someone who has been around this beast and is willing to accept them – fleas and all. The worst is someone from a dating site who believes that they can change them. Particularly those ones who don’t quite understand that often we are shaken about and are soaking wet.

The female of the species is the eternal match maker. Not to be trusted with an honest appraisal of compatibility. It is sort of the adult version of the blind date. Then there are the dating and crew finder web sites. I think here is where the politicians hone their skills of hiding the truth. On most sites, the few real active women are so overwhelmed with male suitors that they can pick someone else that is wealthy, has a big boat, or in a choice location or all of the above. Worn out, older sailors, having spent most of their hard earned money on the boat have little chance.

Final Thoughts

DSCN1054-Edit-EditSo I sit with my feet up watching the sun slowly set on another perfect day with a rum and tonic in my hand and ponder what I have left behind by taking off single handed and where I am now. I would not trade if for all the tea in China.

So to Janet who got me started, Amy who moved me aboard and headed me south to warmer places, Chris who sent me off cruising and to Carol who joins me from time to time. Thank you all for letting me go.

3 thoughts on “Single Handed Sailing – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Mary Ella

    Hi Bruce
    My daughter and I met you in early march at a harbourside restuarant in il de saints while we were ashore from the seabourn legend. I enjoyed listening to the details of your adventure and just had a chance to read your blog from the card you gave us. Safe travels and good luck as you head across the Atlantic in April. Freezing cold and snowy in Boston.

    Reply
  2. Carol

    Bruce, your writing is as good as your photography. I’m so glad to be able to share a small part of your life and your lifestyle!

    Reply
  3. merrieb bergmann

    Thank you, Bruce, for telling me about your blog! I’m rolling on the deck laughing. Love this installation! I’ve chosen to go on after divorce from my cruising partner and discovering that most men I was meeting — sailors, mind you, I wasn’t interested in landlubbers — were not interested in being fulltime liveaboards and cruising to exotic places. Merrie, aka BuonVento 🙂

    Reply

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