Doublehanding for the Distance


Shorthanded sailing presents both benefits and difficulties. Most of the difficulties can be overcome with a little forethought. Establishing a good watch system lays the foundation for problem avoidance as well as problem solving.  (published April 2016)

Consensus thinking often leads one to believe that fewer crew implies fewer logistical problems, fewer commitments sought, fewer expenses incurred, and more space available for the smaller number of people onboard. Perhaps. But fewer crewmembers also incur more responsibilities delegated to fewer people. Time management becomes critical.

Watchkeeping while doublehanding often assumes a fairly straightforward watch system.  Aboard Great American II when Rich Wilson and I did the San Francisco to Boston and New York to Melbourne, Australia speed records, we had typical watch schedules.  Four hours on, four hours off.  With some doublehanded projects, I’ve done three hours on and three hours off so the watches aren’t as long.  Of course, that also implies that the sleep periods are also shorter. When problems arise, schedules may need to be shifted. In order to make sound decisions, people need to be adequately rested and nourished. If two hours on and two hours off is necessary, then that system may be required in order to provide rest to the most fatigued person.

Several years ago, as Lia Ditton and I doublehanded a Gunboat 48 catamaran from Antigua to Virginia, we ran into a series of problems. First the rod cap shroud failed. After a jury rig was put in place, the autopilot failed. Later we ran low on fuel due to increased motoring and the reduced time spent under sail. With complementary skills we were able to rise to the situation and get the boat safely to its destination with a minimum of drama. In order to hand steer through the night, we went to a two hours on, two hours off system. Meals had been prepared well in advance, and prior to the watch change, the oncoming watch would quickly eat. After the change, the off-going watch would eat and sleep for about an hour and a half—enough to get a deep sleep cycle completed in most cases. One person was always on watch, and in that situation they were always at the helm. Happily enough, doublehanding isn’t often that demanding.

While I still sail in quite a few races and deliveries with full crews, I’m now sailing with an increasing number of people who would like to improve their own shorthanded and solo sailing skills. Some are successfully retired business people, living a dream that kept them going while working and raising a family. Some are couples putting in an effort to polish their skills so they can better help each other.  And some are friends on their own adventure. At one time or another, each of them will find themselves alone on deck. I’m lucky to know and sail with them all— whether we’re sailing offshore on their C&C 35 or something a bit larger.

What does it mean, though, to be alone on deck, totally self-reliant or relying on only one other person?  In reality, we can enlist support prior to departure and even have shoreside support while we’re underway, so it’s not really necessary to be totally sequestered any longer. Help can be a satellite phone call away.  And yet, that’s still only “words of wisdom” that’s being offered.  The shorthanded sailor still needs to be a jack of all trades at times. Meals, maintenance and repairs, sail selection, navigation and communications schedules all still need to be attended to, and it falls on the one or two people on board to do all of that.

Singlehanders have a somewhat more difficult situation when it comes to watchkeeping. As singlehanders we are still responsible for the safe navigation of our vessels. It can certainly be argued that if the only person aboard is asleep, it is an irresponsible way of maintaining a watch. It can also be argued that with radar detectors (which have their own limitations), proper sleep management and regular visual observations, a good watch can be maintained by one person.

When I did my first singlehanded passage, I ate a modified macrobiotic diet in order to reduce the amount of sleep that I required. I only needed to sleep between four and six hours per day, and those times were generally in mid-morning and early evening. At night, I would meditate, reducing my own energy consumption while remaining aware of my surroundings. There are more sophisticated approaches, and Dr. Claudio Stampi has pioneered sleep awareness training for many single-handers.  His method of short naps has enabled Ellen MacArthur, Giovanni Soldini, J.P. Mouligne and many others to safely and successfully race singlehandedly around the world.

When I am doublehanding with someone, I always request that if they have a question or a problem while I’m off watch, they should wake me up early to help with the situation. I find that it’s quite a bit easier to avoid a problem rather than fix a problem or equipment failure. Whether encountering oncoming vessels in the middle of the night or deciding about a sail change, it’s usually better to have a couple of sets of eyes and ideas than only one. And if fatigue is an issue, doublehanders are often only four hours away from the next nap. It’s usually better to sacrifice a little sleep rather than the safety of the vessel, equipment or the other person on board.

Sail changes are usually easier and more efficient when done early, whether sailing alone or with one other person. Of course, a hasty sail change may need to be reconsidered, but with roller furling headsails, changing down can often be relatively easy. If we’re going into the nighttime with unsettled conditions, I’ll often suggest reefing the main while daylight is still present. If less sail area is required later that night, rolling up a headsail can be quickly and easily executed—usually from the cockpit.  And of course, clipping one’s harness to jacklines or a hard point can prevent a personal disaster when going out of the cockpit in unsuitable conditions.

Storm sails should be set early. The first things we practice when I’m sailing with people who are new to shorthanded sailing is setting the storm trysail and storm jib. While sailing in 10 to 15 knots of wind, we’ll actually put the storm trysail up in order to make sure that the gate on the main sail track works properly and is located in a convenient position.  If there is a separate trysail track on the mast, having the gate a couple of feet above the bottom of the track will allow the trysail’s sliders to be put on the track from above. The sliders can be stacked without the need to hold them up while “loading the track” with the sail’s sliders. If you’ve only got one hand for the task and you’re trying to hold on to the boat for your own safety, you will appreciate making the task as easy as possible.

Often, if there isn’t a separate trysail track on the mast, having the gate located well above the stack of mainsail sliders is a good place to have access for the storm trysail. If the only way to get the mainsail track open for the trysail is to insert the sliders from the bottom of the track, that implies that before the trysail is put up, the main needs to be completely taken down off the track. In storm conditions it can be problematic to have the luff of the main detached from the track. Figure out how you’re going to set the storm trysail quickly and easily while you’re in comfortable conditions. When you need to do it in anger, you’ll be glad to know that the difficulties have been resolved early.

Heavy weather can always present a challenge. Practice setting heavy weather sails, deploying warps and think through emergency procedures while sailing in good weather.  You will have enough on your agenda when the weather turns bad, and there’s no need to be running through heavy weather tactics for the first time when storm conditions actually occur. Preparation will help avoid emergencies and turn them instead into “adventures”.

When doing long passages, I’ll often go aloft prior to the trip or during benign conditions to inspect the rig. Hopefully, that will save me a trip aloft during storm conditions to fix a problem that could have been avoided in the first place. Singlehanders of course can still get aloft using self-ascending units such as ATN’s Top Climber.

Landfall is an occasion that we all look forward to. We know it’s coming. And we all know there can be some questions that will need to be addressed. What kind of sea state will we encounter as we get into shallower water? Will there be fishing boats or other traffic in the area? Will it be a daylight or nighttime approach? Will the weather be good or bad?  We will be able to best deal with these questions and the situations they imply if we’re well rested and fed prior to making landfall.  Rest up, charge batteries, and make sure quick and easy meals are readily available as you make your approach for the final day or two at sea.

When you’re single or shorthanded sailing, you still have assets you can draw upon.  You—and your crew—are still the most valuable assets aboard your boat. Sharpen your skills early, and take care to protect your most valuable assets: you, your crew, and your boat.

Bill Biewenga’s websites are and He can be contacted at

Author: Bill Biewenga