The beauty of a singlehanded sailing dinghy is total freedom, with no one to answer to but yourself and the wind, whether it’s sailing for fun or tactical decision-making on the race track.
Whatever your age or skill set there will be singlehander which provides exactly the right level challenge for your first or next boat, with a plethora of boats available ranging from single-sail simplicity to exhilarating skiffs.
If you’ve just completed an RYA entry-level course, check out our best beginner sailing dinghies feature, and whatever your starting point, always aim to “try before you buy” - hire a club boat or borrow one, contact the class association for a test sail and look out for demo days.
Ben Lulham, Sailing School Manager and Principal at Rutland Sailing Club, says the decision will usually come down to the sailor’s size, flexibility, technical ability and what they want to achieve. While it’s tempting to make an impulse purchase, his key advice is in fact: “Don’t buy a boat!” - at least not until you have considered the following:
Buying a singlehanded dinghy: top tips
- Complete a course if you are a beginner or want to extend your skills
- Set a budget: try to stick to it; if you are prepared to travel you may find a cheaper boat but be prepared to not buy if you get there and it’s in poor condition.
- Doublehander vs singlehander: if you can’t get someone to sail with regularly, buy a singlehander and hire/borrow/crew a doublehander.
- Cruising vs racing? If racing, look towards a class sailed at your local club.
- Buying new: Beware the “salesman” – they are there to sell boats, not always give the best advice; likewise boat show offers/end-of-the-month deals are not always the best or may not result in the right boat for you.
- Buying second-hand: check online for comparisons of boats/ages/prices.
- Get video or pictures before you make a long trip to look at a boat.
- Take a friend to look at the boat with you.
- Always sleep on every purchase.
- Ask for advice - check with a more knowledgeable sailor whether it’s potentially a good buy.
This 70-year-old design is the world’s largest junior class, with big fleets and the kind of close racing which has been the springboard for the career of countless professional and Olympic sailors. The Optimist is an odd-shaped little boat, with a flat front rather than a traditional bow and a sprit for the sail, but it’s easy to de-power for even the smallest of sailors while demanding and tactical enough for up and coming talent.
Likewise ubiquitous, it can be put on the top of a car for easy transporting, hence the name, and with its distinctive red hull and red, white and blue sail, is a familiar sight at most clubs. Large numbers again make for great racing for younger sailors, while its robustness also makes it ideal for playing and beach fun. Like the RS Tera, another popular singlehanded junior class, the Topper has two rig options catering for a broad range of sailor weights. See our best dinghies for kids guide.
This has a smaller 4.7 rig, a Radial rig for women and lighter helms and the Standard rig for men and heavier helms, catering for crew weights from around 45-85kg. The Laser and Laser Radial are Olympic classes and it’s one of the most popular singlehanded dinghies in the world, making it affordable thanks to a vibrant second-hand market and ideal for anyone wanting to make friends and develop their racing skills, since most clubs will have a fleet. There is also a growing Masters scene for older sailors.
Modern and more comfortable counterpart of the Laser, also with three rigs, the RS Aero caters for an even wider range of crew weights, appealing to men, women and all ages. This performance race boat was launched in 2014 and with its ultra-lightweight hull quickly took off, as befitting its name, with good numbers at regional and national events and a supportive training network. See RS Aero video: quick tour.
Although less well known than long-established classes such as the Laser and hugely popular Solo - both of which often have great local club fleets with correspondingly big regional and national racing circuits - the Supernova class has seen an explosion in numbers in recent years; in 2016 the Supernova had a record 120 boats for its 20th anniversary national championship! The Mk2 Supernova from class builder Hartley modernised the design while astayed mast and 8 sq m fully battened main makes for a powerful but easily adjusted rig for a variety of crew weights which can be de-powered as the wind increases.
A unique hull shape with hidden gunwhales provides an ergonomic deck perfect for hiking. Its controls have scope in the rules to add or remove purchases, while the rig with 8.1 m sq sail was developed to work across a broad range of wind speeds and helm weights, with a smaller 'blue' rig option for lighter sailors. Class chair Paul Jefferies says: “The boat is forgiving enough for the less experienced sailor and it lets you know if you are doing something wrong and encourages you to do the right thing. It is also challenging enough for the experienced sailor who wants a thrill ride when the breeze is on.” The D-Zero class continues to grow at a good rate, with used boats often selling before they make the open market as people trade up.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2017, the light and fast OK was designed for heavier helms as a preparation class for the Olympic Finn,following its technical evolution ever since, including the introduction of a carbon mast. It has stood the test of time, maintaining a solid base despite the emergence and subsequent popularity of the Laser, and following a resurgence continues to be one of the biggest singlehanded racing dinghies internationally, with hugely competitive European and world championships. Other hiking dinghies for the heavier helm would include the Phantom.
This singlehander has adjustable sitting-out racks for added leverage and three rig sizes following the introduction of the larger Blaze Halo and smaller Blaze Fire to broaden the crew weight range. A fine entry hull flares into wide planing sections and an open transom for maximum stability and blistering off-wind performance. The Blaze has a 10.4 metre square round-head semi-soft sail design with tapered battens blends handling and power, the refined rig negating the brute force required with many fully-battened single-sail boats. The RS300, which has ‘wings’ rather than racks, would be another option, likewise with great racing.
An unusual singlehander, the International Canoe has a narrow hull to slice through the water and a sliding seat allowing a larger sail area with maximum helm leverage from up to 2m out from the boat centreline. The Asymmetric Canoe version has a spinnaker to add to the fun, allowing helms to more than double the sail area.
A trapeze enables the helm to counterbalance a 10.8sq m sail area for extra speed, with a corresponding increase the level of agility and expertise required to master this high-performance racing dinghy. The Contender is an international class and among the most popular singlehanded trapeze dinghies in the world. Its rig and controls allow for easy de-powering, with past champions ranging in weight from 60-90kg. The RS600 is another trapeze boat, offering affordable second-hand options for those looking to get into this style of singlehanded sailing, with the class recently seeing a renewed interest.
Of course there’s always the real adrenaline junkies out there for whom singlehanded sailing from a trapeze is simply not enough – enter the Musto Performance Skiff, which also has racks and a huge spinnaker. The Musto Skiff is one of the biggest classes in this category nationally and internationally - with 20+ nations at world events - and in recognition of the challenge provided by this kind of sailing (it has a 27 sq m sail area!) there is an active and supportive class association to help sailors progress as quickly as possible from the swimming-and-learning stages to fully fledged racers. An alternative in this category would be the RS700, while for those wanting skiff sailing with the exhilaration of a kite but without the demands of a trapeze, there is the stylish RS100.
Not to be confused with the hiking British Moth, for those inspired by the cutting-edge foiling machines of the America’s Cup, the International Moth likewise represents the future of sailing for the top end of the sport. As a radical development class, it’s not the cheapest sailing, but depending how seriously you want to race, or whether you just want to be uber-cool at your local club, it’s getting ever-easier to now to access foiling, with big numbers and some of the biggest names in sailing competing at national and international championships Read Boats we love: International Moth.