Shorthanded sailing has increased in popularity over recent years. What is shorthanded sailing? Well it's the term used to describe singlehanded sailing or doublehanded sailing, although many of the principals involved are very handy if sailing with a smaller crew than usual, or particularly for families with young children.

Why has is grown in popularity? With time in short demand, large crews are often hard to come by and can be costly, modern sail handling systems have made shorthanded sailing more achievable for more people, plus many people are buying larger boats than they once did, but without wanting to always sail with a full crew. As well as shorthanded cruising, there are plenty of professional and amateur shorthanded racing events, ranging from the famous Vendee Globe (a singlehanded non-stop dash around the globe) to local shorthanded one-off races or series.

Even if you normally sail with a full crew it makes sense to set your boat in a way that’s easy for one person to handle and to practice key manoeuvres on your own. While many people choose to sail shorthanded, many others are forced into it as the result of a change of plans – for instance crew having to return from a cruise early due to a family emergency, or simply succumbing to sea sickness. What are the major considerations and how can you go about making the change from fully crewed to shorthanded sailing?

Shorthanded sailing

Even if your initial plans are not to sail shorthanded there’s every chance you will find yourself doing so at some point.

Shorthanded sailing: a quick guide

  1. Optimise your sail controls

  2. Keep your head out of the boat

  3. Be cautious

  4. Reduce sail early

  5. A good autopilot is key

  6. Fit efficient mainsail reefing systems

  7. Ensure you are well rested and fed

  8. Use training to boost your skills

  9. Set the boat up so that you can navigate on deck

One of the biggest challenges in short handed sailing is in combining the tasks of skipper and crew. It’s important to be aware of the compromises inherent this, particularly that it’s easy to become absorbed in a task of deck work and in doing so lose awareness of both other vessels and your own navigation or pilotage. If necessary make time, possibly by heaving to, to make sure you can stay tuned into the big picture of everything that’s going on, both on board and around your vessel. This is particularly important when dealing with unexpected problems as a lot of time can pass without you realising this.

Sail controls

Reducing the amount of time each sail handling task takes is a big help in being able to maintain situational awareness. Most solo and double-handed race boats are arranged so all the key sail controls can be worked from the forward part of the cockpit. There’s good reason for doing the same for a cruising boat – the more the effort needed to tweak sail trim or to reef is reduced the easier these operations become. An ideal arrangement is to have all controls, plus the pilot keypad, within arm’s reach when standing at the front of the cockpit.

Yachts of over 60-70ft tend to be set up somewhat differently, so they can be sailed predominately by a professional crew of two, with all key controls led to the back of the cockpit, just aft of the twin wheels. This is also a good arrangement, although there may be additional friction created in bringing lines so far aft, and is now being seen in increasingly small yachts.

If you’re choosing a boat for shorthanded sailing it’s worth remembering a common misconception is that performance oriented yachts are more difficult to handle than a cruising model of a similar length. While the faster boat may have a more powerful rig, and will weigh less, it’s also likely to have deck gear that’s designed to efficiently tame the extra power, making sail handling easier overall. The performance oriented design is also likely to have a larger, more powerful, rudder and a hull shape that will be more forgiving if the boat is overpowered in gusts.

shorthanded sailing J/112

A performance oriented design such as this J/112 is likely to have far superior deck gear to mainstream cruising boats, which makes sail handling and manoeuvres much easier.


It makes sense to be able to reduce sail easily if you’re sailing short-handed, yet few boats are configured to do so. On any well set up boat of around 40ft one person should be able to tuck each reef into the mainsail within 90 seconds. Single line reefing systems help considerably, although many owners prefer to lead pennants from the reef cringles on the luff of the sail back to the cockpit as this significantly reduces friction, albeit with the downside that additional lines are needed. In any case, single line reefing can only be used on the first two reefs, so the third reef will need separate luff and leech pennants.

The alternative is to have the main halyard, reefing pennants, topping lift and kicking strap all handled at the mast in a more traditional arrangement. This has the drawback of losing the security of working in the cockpit, but has the benefit of minimising friction and therefore reducing the physical effort needed.

If your mainsail only has two reefs have a third one retrofitted, even if you consider yourself a fair weather sailor. You may find it’s only used very rarely, but like the airbags and seatbelts in your car, on those rare occasions you will be very glad of the investment. Similarly, don’t be afraid to take some rolls in the headsail at an early stage to make it easier to sheet in after a tack and ensure the boat is not unnecessarily over powered.


These are a key to easy short handed sailing, so buy the best you can afford and make sure you can generate enough electricity to run it for extended periods if necessary. Below-deck systems with a gyro/rate-sensing compass or a built-in nine-axis sensor should be able to steer as accurately as all but the best human drivers and never get fatigued. They are enormously better in this respect than stand-alone tillerpilots and (on-deck) wheel pilots that have only a basic fluxgate compass and will often struggle in breezier conditions, especially when sailing downwind.

Find out more here: How autopilots work

Close quarters manoeuvring

Sailing with several nimble crew members can mask a lack of manoeuvring skill when coming alongside. However, when sailing shorthanded accurate with the positioning of the boat when you are mooring up makes life much easier. If you feel your boat can be a challenge in this respect a day or two of focused tuition from a professional instructor can make a huge difference for a very modest cost. It’s also worth remembering that festooning the boat with lots of fenders ultimately looks more competent than a mad scramble to stop your toerail scraping your neighbour’s topsides.

Using a midships spring to initially attach the centre of the boat to the dock is much easier than having one person attempting to jump off with both bow and stern lines. This can be led from a midships cleat or fairlead and made off on the dock just abaft the cleat on the boat, surging any way off the vessel as you do so to prevent the line suddenly jarring taught.

See 10 tips for perfect marina berthing to make manoeuvring as stress free as possible and using a mid ships spring to simplify berthing when short handed.

Shorthanded navigation

A small MFD at the front of the cockpit is ideal for keeping track of navigation while you are on deck.

Navigate on deck

Being able to navigate on deck helps with maintaining situational awareness, especially in complex pilotage situations. This is now significantly easier than in the past thanks to the wide availability of MFDs and tablets that will run charting applications. It’s important to give careful consideration to where an MFD is sited, as the default position on the wheel pedestal doesn’t work if the boat is predominately steered using the pilot and the sail controls are further forward in the cockpit.

If using a tablet or iPad as the primary navigation tool it’s important that these are adequately protected against water ingress and impact damage. I use a splash proof silicon case rated to protect against a drop onto concrete from a height of two metres, plus a drybag when conditions dictate.

See our guide to chartplotters.

Sustenance and rest

If you’re short handed you can't afford to lose a crew member to tiredness or exhaustion. That means getting both adequate nutrition and, on a longer sail, carefully planning rest periods, even if they are only 20 minute power naps.

While one of the joys of cruising for many is eating great food, but it’s also worth having easy back up snacks and meals in case there’s too much happening on deck to be able to prepare your first choice of food. Vacuum mugs and flasks are good for tea, coffee and soup, while a small reserve of freeze dried expedition food will enable you to have hot meals even in the most uncomfortable or stressed circumstances.

Be cautious

We all know that situations can escalate very quickly at sea, but when short-handed you have limited resources to solve unexpected problems. It’s therefore even more important to ensure you are always on the look out for potential trouble, to reduce sail in good time in a rising breeze, and to get rest and food when easy opportunities present themselves.

In a similar vein, when sailing with the wind aft of the beam it’s worth rigging a preventer at an earlier stage than you would if sailing with a crew full of skilled helms.

Read our guide to choosing a boat for shorthanded sailing.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.