Sunday, March 20, 2005

Single-handed Coastal Sailing

Coastal sailing is more demanding of a crew than offshore sailing by virtue of dangers associated with the coast and the prevalence of shipping. Shallow water, sand banks, rocks, headlands, islands and tidal races are some of the natural hazards. Manmade hazards comprise buoys, fishing nets, crab pots, oil and gas rigs, sewer outfalls, piers, jetties, groins and tidal defences like the Thames Barrier.

The coastal sailor needs to regularly listen to weather forecasts so as not to be caught unawares by a strong onshore wind, particularly if there would be a chance his ship could be embayed in such a place as Lyme Bay with no easy way of escape. Running for small harbours like Bridport or Lyme Regis could be suicidal, because waves may become dangerously steep and break as the water shallows.

Having more than one person aboard makes the job of coastal sailing easier and safer, but for some like me there is greater satisfaction in achieving a coastal passage alone. The increased danger is a calculated and acceptable risk, because I have done it before and I am familiar with much of the coastline around southern Britain.

As long as certain rules are adhered to the risk to life is minimal. Safety must be uppermost and the primary concern. To achieve this, every effort must be made to ensure the single-handed crew is well rested before going to sea, and the duration of any passage should be no longer than 24 hours, preferably less, so that all sailing is done during daylight hours. It’s possible to operate effectively for 24 hours, but sound decision making becomes increasingly difficult the longer one is underway without rest and sleep.

The next important rule is to frequently eat and drink so as to have energy for working the boat and keeping the mind alert. Care should be taken to wear the correct clothing for the prevailing conditions so as not to be too hot, too cold or wet for long periods, all of which reduce the crew’s efficiency. The boat should be rigged for easy sail management and she should have a self-steering system. While at sea some loan yachtsmen always wear a lifeline, whereas others only use one while on deck and there are some who prefer unhampered freedom and therefore never use a lifeline. All three options have merit, therefore it’s up to the single-handed sailor to choose. Myself, I always use a lifeline when I believe a job warrants it, and I always wear one at night, because the danger of falling off the boat is increased owing to impaired vision.

Entering a harbour or marina requires good preparation. Knowing what to expect is the secret. Consult a suitable Pilot such as Reads Nautical Almanac or the Cruising Association Handbook. Check where the reception pontoon may be, and use the VHF to contact the Port Control or Marina Office for berthing instructions. Prepare the boat with fenders, warps and springs. Consult the fuel gauge to make sure the engine will work during the critical period of entering the port of refuge. Have sails ready for instant use in the event of an engine failure. A boathook within easy reach may come in handy.

Finally, my advice to prospective single-handed coastal sailors is first try coastal sailing with a competent crew. When you are satisfied you can handle the boat by yourself give it a go. You may be hooked and never look back.

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