February 2, 2012

How big a boat?

Beginning sailors have  often asked me:  "How big a boat can I safely sail singlehanded?"

It's not an easy question to answer, unfortunately, because it all depends.  It depends on the person's physical fitness, strength, experience, nautical cunning, and determination.

Nevertheless, there are two definite limiting factors that can help a person decide how big a boat he or she might be able to handle with safety and confidence.

The first factor is the anchor. Ask yourself if you can raise the heaviest anchor on board without the help of a winch and manhandle it onto the foredeck.  In ordinary circumstances, you wouldn't have to do this, of course, but it's still a good indication of your strength and ability.

The second factor is whether you can reef, hand, smother and get gaskets around the largest sail on board in all kinds of weather. That sail will probably be the mainsail because it's safe to presume that most large headsails will be roller furlers these days.

If you feel confident in your ability to manage these two things, you're probably physically able to singlehand that particular boat. There are many other factors to take into account, of course, not the least of which is your mental ability to withstand solitude on long ocean passages and the ever-present prospect of having nobody but yourself to relay on, even if you break a leg or have a heart attack.

Exceptionally skilled sailors are racing around the world singlehanded these days in boats of 50 feet and more, but the average sailor would be wise to build up experience in boats of no more than 40 feet overall, and preferably quite a lot less.  There is some truth in the fact that a bigger boat provides a steadier working platform in heavy seas, so that dousing sails in squalls might well be easier for a singlehander on a 40-footer than one on a 30-footer, but I have to say that as I get older I set my sights lower.

I have always loved sailing dinghies, and they're probably the only vessels I've really felt totally confident about handling in all conditions.  The sails are small enough, and the forces on sheets and helms low enough, that my limited muscle power can cope adequately.  So what it boils down to increasingly for my singlehanded aspirations is a dinghy with a lid on and a fixed ballast keel.  There's no comfort in a boat like that, of course, but there is a great safety factor in its smallness when one person has to provide all the operating power.

Today's Thought
I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
— Thoreau, Walden: Solitude

There's many a young go-getter, who, later, is sorry he go-gotter.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

No comments: