It's often thought that some boats lend themselves particularly well to shorthanded sailing, but often the reality is that the systems on a particular vessel have more impact on its suitability than the design of the boat itself.

Key features include easily operated sail controls, with the ability for one person to tuck a reef in quickly, and to able to easily adjust the sheets and mainsheet traveller. If you’re looking for a boat with a view towards short handed sailing, then check out the reefing and sail handling systems first, along with the specification of the pilot. For day sailing it’s great to be able to reach both mainsheet and the primary winches from the helm. However when sailing longer distances the pilot is likely to be steering for almost 100 per cent of the time, so this becomes less important.

Many people suggest it’s best to stick to smaller boats for shorthanded sailing. There’s much merit in this argument in that loads are smaller, the boats are easier to manoeuvre in a tight space, you’re not depending on complex systems and smaller boats can be great fun to sail. However, there are equally many large yachts of 70ft and above that are set up to be run with only one or two people on deck, although they need to be skilled sailors and be able to fix systems when they break down.

Designs from the early 1990s onwards that have more form stability than their forebears, plus deep draught low centre of gravity keels often make the best choices for short handing. The addition stability translates into a reduced need to reef – or shake reefs out – which makes life easier for a skeleton crew.

If properly set up there are therefore many mid-size yachts that can be easily handled by only one or two appropriately skilled and experienced people. Nevertheless, the following boats, and similar models in each respective range, are all good choices for shorthanded sailing. All offer easy short-handed sailing for a wide variety of owners, from those wanting a sedate experience to those seeking a fast and responsive, but ultimately safe, vessel.

Hanse 371

Self-tacking jibs certainly take much of the strain out of sailing – something that’s not lost on the many owners of Hanse models that specify them. In particular when tacking all that needs to happen is to spin the wheel – or if sailing on the autopilot – press a few buttons. Sail area when reaching in light airs can be supplemented with a Code 0 or asymmetric spinnaker.

Self-tacking jib – Hanse 371

A furling, self-tacking jib, such as that specified as standard on the Hanse 371, is an immediate aid to short-handed sailing.

While in general I’d advise those looking for an easily handled boat to invest in a higher-quality smaller one that has first rate deck systems and an efficient well mannered hull shape, the Hanse range is well worth considering if you need to maximise the amount of space you get for a given budget.

The 371 was built from 1999 until the mid 2000s and offered a choice of deep or shallow low centre of gravity fin keels allied to a hull with a long waterline for its era. Below decks there’s a choice of spacious two or three cabin layout with a commendably large galley.

Jeanneau Sunfast 3200

This is very much a purist’s sailing boat – one with few vices, but small and light enough to be easy to handle. At the same time it has the strength and stability to cope with long passages – it was originally designed with the TransQuadra trans-Atlantic race in mind. Downwind and broad reaching speeds in double figures are easily attained, even when the boat is steered on autopilot, and the deck gear is sufficiently light for weaker sailors to handle.

Offshore short-handed sailing – Jeanneau Sunfast 3200

Designed from the outset with offshore short-handed sailing in mind.


The arrangement below decks works well, with two double aft cabins, a saloon with two settees, galley and proper chart table. Forward of the main bulkhead is a heads compartment, plus sail stowage. However, two aspects mark the boat out in this respect from more conventional cruisers – restricted maximum headroom of around 1.75m and a lack of headlining in the saloon.

Sadler Starlight 35 and 39

In the mid 1990s, when Sadler was one of the UK’s largest boat builders, the company turned to Stephen Jones to create a range of bang-up-to-date top quality performance cruisers. They quickly gained a reputation for fulfilling exactly that design brief and would surely have sold in much larger numbers had a combination of recession and high prices not restricted the designs’ market.

Sadler Starlight 39 – short-handed sailing

Sadler Starlight 39: Spacious accommodation and a generous fit-out sets all the Starlight models in a class apart.

They are still held in high regard as solid, well mannered and rewarding boats to sail that benefit from a high standard of fit out. The 35 and 39 were by far the most popular models in the range, although a handful of Starlight 46s were also built at a later stage.

No attempt was made to squeeze two quarter cabins into the back of the 35, which benefits from a spacious cabin on one side, and a well executed heads compartment on the other. There’s also a second spacious cabin in the forepeak. As well as extra beam adding to the space in the saloon of the 39, there was also the option for a three cabin layout with two heads compartments.

Hunter Channel 31

This British boat builder gradually moved from the racing scene to efficient but easily handled small cruisers from the mid-1980s onwards. The result is a series of boats that offer the potential for near effortless sailing, without sacrificing handling characteristics.

Hunter Channel 31 – short-handed sailing

The Hunter Channel 31 offers much better accommodation than the earlier Channel 30 and the hull and keel design make her easy to sail short-handed.

This model, launched in 2001, was a higher quality, yet more performance oriented design than the majority of Hunter’s other cruising models. It was also one of the company’s last all-new designs and therefore benefitted from the latest in design thinking at the time. This was particularly evident in the well balanced hull shape that also offered good form stability. Allied with high ballast ratios and low centre of gravity keels this produced a boat that doesn’t need constant trimming to keep up high average speeds or avoid repeated broaching in gusts.

There was also an efficient deck layout as standard, including an optional self-tacking jib and single line mainsail reefing. Tiller steering was fitted as standard, which also helps short-handed crews as you can steer with your legs while trimming sails. Below decks the accommodation is well planned and offers significantly more space than the earlier Horizon 30 model.


In many ways this is the archetypal short-handed performance boat. It’s just as much a favourite among long-distance single and double handed sailors as it is among fully crewed inshore racing teams. The boat’s offshore credibility has certainly been well proven, including a number of crossings of the North Atlantic.

J/109 – short-handed sailing

An excellent short-handed offshore yacht that still goes for good prices on the second-hand market.

Although often perceived as a planing boat, in reality this 19-year old model is a too heavy to be considered as such. Instead, by today’s standards it’s a moderate all-rounder that offers good all round performance with the ability for extended, yet controlled, surfing when offshore.

In light airs the distinctive big asymmetric spinnakers can be easily gybed from the cockpit, while in a true wind of more than 20 knots a poled out jib will still provide quick downwind speeds with an enviable degree of control. Almost everyone sailing J/109s short handed, at least in Europe, has eschewed the boat’s original overlapping genoas for easily handled blade jibs set on roller furling gear.

So what are the drawbacks? The boat is relatively expensive for one of this size on the second-hand market, although that generally reflects the quality of construction and the high standard of equipment most examples have. Also, the interior fit out is more sparse than that of an out and out cruiser and there’s a little less interior space, although it’s still a well planned and effective two-cabin layout. The boat was also available in a shoal draught form, as the J/108, although this sold in much smaller numbers.

Recent launches ideal for short-handed sailing

Notable recent launches for those looking for a fast but easily managed short handed boat include Jeanneau’s Sun Fast 3600, the J/11S, RM970 and Pogo 36. For those looking for a more comfortable cruising yacht the Tofinou 10, Grand Soleil 46LC, Dehler 34 and X-Yachts Xc45 are all set up to be run by a skeleton crew.

Read our guide to shorthanded sailing. For more help with boat-buying, see: Choosing a boat: which boat is right for me?

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.