Book Review: Thoughts, Tips, Techniques & Tactics for Singlehanded Sailing

I’ve mentioned here several times in passing that I sail primarily single-handed. That doesn’t mean that I always sail alone. Usually, the first mate is with me but she’s the hands-off type. Oh, she’ll take the tiller if I ask her to in light winds while I attend to something outside the cockpit but she’s no threat to my skippership and that’s okay with me.

As a result, I’m often looking for ways to improve my single-handing skills to, as I like to encourage others: sail hard, sail well, sail safe. That’s a goal that will take a lifetime to perfect and it’s a particular challenge singe-handed. So I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the ebook Thoughts, Tips, Techniques, and Tactics for Singlehanded Sailing third edition by Andrew Evans. It’s available for free download as well as many other useful resources, thanks to the Singlehanded Sailing Society.

The author is a highly-experienced, single-handed, offshore racer who hails from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. His reason for writing the book was, in his words, to “impart these many, many lessons [learned from things that went wrong] to the reader.” Although he also races regularly with his local club, Andrew’s forte is long distance races like the TransPac to Hawaii in which skippers race 24/7 for two weeks or more, something I’m sure I’ll never do.

Look again at the cover picture and notice what he’s doing. In wind and seas at the upper limit of what most of us would be comfortable sailing with a full crew; by himself, he’s got the mainsail reefed, a full headsail, and a poled out spinnaker flying while he works the tiller of a 30′ sailboat with his foot. He’s so confident that he won’t broach that he has the companionway hatch completely open. My hat’s off to him.

The book’s 180 pages are a deep dive into every facet of what it takes to not just finish such a race, but to stand on the podium after the finish. As such, it’s basic premise is overkill for the recreational cruiser but I learned a lot of tricks to add to my singlehanding skill set.

For example, the first part of chapter 2, “The Mental Challenge” can help a skipper understand the responsibilities as well as the challenges of single-handed cruising.

The singlehanded sailor must understand that he is completely, 100% self reliant.  It is up to him alone to solve every situation that he faces, whether it be a simple knotted line or a life threatening danger.

I especially like his theory about emotional inertia.

The result of the inertia is that the singlehander continues to actively sail on his present course and hope for the best, even though the course will lead to certain doom, rather than take the potentially dangerous action required to resolve the situation

On first thought, that sounds ridiculous. We’re not lemmings. But he could well be on to something.

A friend recently told me the story of how, as a teen during his first sailing experience, an unexpected storm blew in and he and his skipper friend were too scared to tack through the wind to save themselves from running aground. Instead, they let the wind push them toward certain doom. Fortunately for them, the older brother saw what was happening and motored out to take over the helm and bring the boat about just in time. You can dismiss the incident as youthful inexperience but I think it’s a good example of what too often happens to experienced sailors in more complicated crises.

Chapter 3, “Boat Design, Selection and Setup” lists six key features that the Catalina 22 meets, although barely. I wouldn’t call it a good choice for long distance, single-handed racing, though. But it’s nice to know that it’s generally well suited to single-handing in the opinion of an expert. Heaven knows I won’t be buying a Figaro Bénéteau II like he describes in my lifetime. It’s the One Design sailboat that is the heart of the Figaro racing series where skippers learn their chops before going on to the big leagues like the recently completed Volvo Ocean Race around the world.

I was also intrigued by the benefits he describes of having a single, continuous jib sheet. I might have to try that sometime.

A very easy method to reduce the length of loose line in the cockpit is to use a single, continuous sheet.  This is rarely seen on boats but is incredibly practical.  It will eliminate virtually the entire sheet piled in the cockpit.

You gotta love self-published books. A third of the way through describing all this serious stuff, Andrew inserts a printable, folded paper boat, complete with sails, lifelines, and all the gear stowed inside.

A toy inside like Cracker Jacks
A surprise toy inside like Cracker Jacks

In chapter 4, “Power Systems” he presents an easy to use electrical power budget worksheet that would be useful to any skipper wanting to install a self-sustainable electrical system on his boat. He pairs it with a generous discussion of power generation methods and system optimization tips.

I have a tiller lock and an autopilot on Summer Dance, but I’m curious to try out his techniques for rigging self-steering that are described in chapter 5, “Self Steering Systems.” He describes several systems, including one using a storm jib, another with a poled out jib, and a third that uses a sheet tied to the tiller. Learning one of these that works well would be a great backup if (when) the autopilot fails.

Self steering system using a storm jib and surgical tubing
Self steering system using a storm jib and surgical tubing

Chapter 7, “Sailing Techniques” is an excellent discussion of sail trim that’s applicable to all types of sailing. This chapter contains detailed, step-by-step instructions with clear illustrations for all the basic sail handling maneuvers so that you can try them out yourself on the water.

If you succumb someday to the temptation to start racing, chapter 8, “Racing — Get into it” contains winning strategies for the single-handed or short-handed skipper.

It has been said that one year of racing is worth ten years of cruising.  I believe that the difference is even greater.  The reason is that in racing, the boats are forced to take a route that is often uncomfortable and in worse weather than they would cruise.

Chapter 8b contains the entire text of his rather academic study titled “Maintaining a Winning Attitude for the Duration of a Long Distance Singlehanded Race.” It can be dry reading at times but it makes a strong point about the importance of our mental attitude as it relates to sailing performance.

Maybe the most intriguing parts of the book are the many sections where Andrew injects stories and quotes from other skippers who sailed up against the limits of either their boats or their own selves and survived to tell about it. I was especially moved by the story of Skip Allen in chapter 10, “Managing Bad Weather.”

While returning from winning the 2008 TransPac race, he ran into a multi-day gale and chose to voluntarily sink his beloved Wildflower and be rescued by a passing cargo ship rather than tempt death and destruction by continuing on.

I spent the next hour, sitting on the cabin sole on my life raft, debating whether to ask for assistance in leaving my beloved Wildflower. “Fleur” was my home, consort, and magic carpet that I had built 34 years ago. I cried, pounded my fist, looked out through the hatch numerous times at the passing wave mountains, remembered all the good times I had shared with Wildflower. And came to a decision.

I couldn’t help seeing parallels with the movie All Is Lost. Maybe the screenwriter was familiar with Skip’s story when he wrote the script.

Overall, the book lacks the consistency and polish that a professionally edited and published book would have but don’t let that dissuade you. It’s the quirks that make it all the more engaging. It reads more like a letter from a good friend and you get a clear sense of Andrew’s passion for this sport.

I enjoyed reading it and, for the price, you can’t afford to pass up so much hard won, practical information. Get a copy while you still can, read it, and put it into practice to become a better sailor.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris115 says:

    Good job Stingy. I always enjoy reading your posts!

  2. capnrehab says:

    Great review. Thanks for telling us about the book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  3. Andrew Evans says:

    Thanks for your review of my book. I found that the best way to learn is to write about something, and I certainly learned a lot with this one. (You should also take a look for my Sextant Users Guide)

    A couple of things, there is a slightly newer version of the free edition at this link:
    http://sfbaysss.org/resource/doc/SinglehandedTipsThirdEdition2.pdf
    As well, last fall the folks at International Marine published a printed version on real paper. It’s got another 30,000 words, so covers several topics that were not in the free version. it it was even professionally edited (to solve your complaint.) You can find it on Amazon or other booksellers.

    Have fun!
    Andy Evans

    1. Thanks for the update, Andy!

  4. Thanks for the links and great post!!

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