Monday, February 11, 2013

Why singlehand?

I recently received an email from Suzanne Wheeler. She is moderating a blog hop about single hand sailing. She asked me if I had every blogged about it, I replied no but it was a fortuitous time for me to write a post. So here it is.

Why Single Hand?

Like many single hander’s I have met my intent was never to go it alone. I expected to retire and join the cruising community with my wife. We parted company and on 1 August 2009 I set off alone. It was a strange experience, I realized as I departed the yard with a fresh coat of bottom paint that I had never sailed Reboot by myself. My family or my racing crew was always on board.

That first trip, down the KK River to the Milwaukee Yacht Club for a friend’s wedding, was only a few miles and I motored all the way. Still, in its own way it was pretty eye opening, particularly my first attempt at docking an 11 ton sailboat by myself.

I left Milwaukee Wisconsin the next day and so experience two firsts: sunset (which was great) and sunrise (which was a great relief.) The first night on a sailboat alone underway is an experience I think we all remember.

I transited Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Saint Claire, and Lake Erie alone. Those first few days brought some more unpleasant firsts:
1) My first thunderstorms in the middle of the night,
2) My first arrival after dark at my destination. It was special because I could not find a mooring ball. I tied up to a dock, heard a crunch, and had a scar in the side of Reboot. Fortunately it was just a long scratch since repaired.
3) My first major gear failure. Crossing Lake Erie the autopilot failed so I had to hand steer for many hours.

In Lake Erie I picked up a crew member I had met on the Internet and we transited thru the Erie Canal and down to New York City. I stayed in Weehawken, NJ across the river from West 40th street in NYC. During my month stay I had visitors from Wisconsin so I was never really alone. Then a friend of my brother volunteered to help move the boat to Hampton Roads (Norfolk, VA.) and off we went. Upon our arrival we checked into the military marina at Little Creek and he flew home. In Little Creek I met my first fellow cruiser, Maury, who has remained my friend ever since. For the next four years I sailed about 10,000 nautical miles alone: as far north as Newfoundland, as far south as Guatemala, as far east as Cadiz, Spain.

Buddy Boating

I have on occasion done a bit of buddy boating. Maury (and his wife Ginger, who came to Gypsysails a couple of weeks after my arrival) have done several trips together with me. I met another boater in Nova Scotia and we sailed all the way to Mexico together. There are several other boats I have spent anywhere from a week to a month with making trips. I found these relationships to be very causal. More than once I had a buddy boat announce that they were ready to leave and off they sailed. I also found that tastes among buddy boats are very varied. I life visiting historic places and enjoy and evening out in town. Most of my buddy boats were into cruisers midnight (8 PM.) Almost all the time I found myself alone in the evenings. Some buddy boaters want the fleet to “shadow” each other, matching course and speed. Others are “same day, same way, see you in the next port.” They are also short term relationships; it is unlikely that you will meet another boat that is interested in the same itinerary for more than a couple of months.


There is no doubt that long distance cruising is a much coupled up world. In general this does not matter during the daytime. But in the evening couples tend to exclude the single handers and do things with other couples. The evenings can get quite lonely. More than once I tried to solve this problem by hosting people on my boat, I usually got the “sorry, we have other plans” response.

Loneliness & Boredom

I am by my nature a very social person. I have spent a good amount of my sailing time being quite lonely. In addition, long passages (a few days to a couple of months) are by their nature very boring. Day after day at sea (for example crossing the Atlantic solo) are pretty much the same. You can only read so many books, or talk on the high frequency radio before you just want to have the trip over.  After a total of 44 days crossing from Lake Worth Florida via Bermuda and the Azores to Portugal I was almost ready to sell the boat and fly home.

On a different note I find that many times while staying in a marina the other people have a very short list of desired activities. Frequently it consists of drinking either on the boat (the sundowner or 5) or visiting the local bar every night. Many marinas are in small towns, after a couple of days you have seen it all. US towns are also quite similar, McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, T-shirt shops, and one or two local attractions. It is pretty much the same everywhere.

Dock Fever (aka Port Velcro)

There are many who self identify as “cruisers.” Those I identify as cruisers are very few. In every port you find people who spend most of their time in the same marina or mooring field. They might be “snow birders,” taking their boat north in the summer and south in the winter. Or they may have found a port they like and have been Velcroed to the dock – many times for years. The snow birders tend to return to the same place every year. They have established relationships. Breaking in, even for a few weeks, is very hard. Their interest in boating is actually quite limited. They have their routes and places and are not interested in talking about new destinations. The cruisers are a different breed. Whether single hand or couples the conversations are about destinations, equipment, and support services. Relationships are again short lived. But it is great fun when you run into them again in a new port. It is a great temptation, particularly after a long trip, to join the Velcroed.


If you are single solo sailing is one of the worst ways to meet your next someone. I am 66 years old. Most women that would be interested in me still have careers. Frequently they have teenage children. They are difficult to meet, even using online dating services (Hi, I am going to be in town for 5 days. Would you like to have dinner?) It is highly unlikely that they would want to give up their career and land existence to go off on a sailboat at this point in their life and career. My take is that if you are looking for someone you best move on land.

I have two grown sons. They are in their 20’s and starting out in life. They have no real desire to sail. If they did they would have to give up their career aspirations. We keep in touch by telephone, Skype, or radio. Like most men the conversations are very short.  “You good?” “Yes”, “You good?”, “Yes”, “Love you”,”You too”, “bye,” “bye.”.

Couples: I have only met one or two “balanced” couples. By that I mean that their desires are synchronized. Usually one wants to sail. The other is into some sailing, some social life, and a lot of visiting the children and grandchildren. I frequently meet men who are sailing the boat to the next port while the wife visits the children and grandchildren and then flies in for some “sailing.” (Sorry ladies, but I have never met a woman moving a boat for her husband.

Crew (and Guests)

When I reached Tenerife in the Canary Islands I decided I wanted to take on some crew for the transit back across the Atlantic. I used some online crew matching services and ended up having a wonderful time – after I decided I needed to throw one of the people I had invited off the boat as our personalities clashed. The 27 day transit was much easier with a complement of 4 people on board. I also came into contact on the Internet with a biodiversity research team from the US. They are currently on board and we are having a good time. We are visiting a number of islands in the Caribbean. There is little here of interest to a solo sailor, having other people on board makes for a good time.

In many major sailing ports you will find a group of people looking to crew. For some this is a way to build experience for future work on super yachts. Many have been working on a boat and were let go when the boat arrived at its destination. (Most big boats don’t move around much, they take on extra crew for a short relocation trip and then drop them when they arrive at their destination.) Some are looking to build the necessary sea miles to gain the licenses necessary for a permanent job on a super yacht or charter boat (Captain, Engineer, etc.). With the economy as it is there are quite a few people floating around (bad pun, sorry) looking for work. Since crewing on a boat – even for free – is cheaper then living in the crew house on land there are usually some people who offer to crew. I have two such people on board now and it does make life easier, particularly since we are traveling from island to island every couple of days. I would guess this might be a way to find a relationship. Again, my age is a problem. Most “yachties” are in their twenties and early thirties.

A note on crewing: The world, I guess, has changed. There was a time when one went to Gran Canaria in early fall to get a free trip crewing to the Caribbean. This year Captains were asking !,000 euro in payment to crew on their boats. That was possible as there were about 500 extra people looking for boats. (I was amazed by one couple with no experience who were looking for crew positions – to include bringing their dog on board!) Also crewing is seasonal work. During the spring and fall boat relocations there are some berths, once the boats are at their destinations there is not much work for several months.

Support Services

One thing that has made my solo sailing easier is shore based support services. I have a couple of radio friends that I speak to each day. They keep track of the weather, let my family know I am still alive, and do a bunch of research for me. These relationships are going on 5 years now. I am quite aware that I will miss them if I take the boat out of the Caribbean/Atlantic circuit.


One nice thing about solo sailing is forgiveness. When I screw up I forgive myself. I don’t have to deal with other people. It makes it easier. Like when I arrived in Europe only to find out that I would need to travel back to the US to get the necessary visa to stay for more than 3 months.


I do have a cat on board, XO “The Wonder Cat” of “Cats 101” on Animal Planet fame. He has helped keep me sane during many of my solo travels. He came on board after a year of solo sailing. He is very sweet but a mixed blessing. When I want to do land travel I need to find someone to watch over him.


I find one of the hardest parts of solo sailing is getting work done on Reboot. Retired, with no fixed itinerary, tomorrow is always available. Getting out the tools and hitting it requires a bit of motivation that I frequently lack.

Where I am at now

In Statia (St. Eustatius), a small island in the Netherlands Antilles. I intend to continue to support the researchers until hurricane season when Reboot will end up back in the United States. I need some land time to do doctor visits, see my sons, and so forth and then I will plan my next move. I have a strong desire to cross the Pacific. I know that I will not do it alone. There are three legs; each is as long as a single Atlantic transit. If I go I will be looking for crew my guess is that once in Asia the crew will want to stay on. So selection will be key to happiness.

Fair winds and following seas.

Click on the monkey's fist to read others bloggers on this topic.
The Monkey's Fist


  1. I relate to much of what you wrote. I too, find that single-handing is not an invitation to a rich social life. All the the men I am some sort of novelty to the women a kind of threat. Sometimes I just want to be ME...a relatively social person without a mate, with an interesting story.

    Wishing you the best of adventures and short bouts of loneliness followed by moments of wonder.

  2. Most of the cruisers we meet are couples and families, so it's great to read about a different perspective. Looking forward to keeping up with your story.

  3. I enjoyed and agreed with your perspective.