Seamanship and Navigation Newsletter, January 2022

Setting up gear ahead of time is a key practice in effective shorthanded sailing.
Setting up gear ahead of time is a key practice in effective shorthanded sailing.

Smart techniques for shorthand sailing
By Will Sofrin

Shorthanded sailing means thinking ahead. When you’re the only one available for sailhandling, for example, you need to be ready for the next task or maneuver. I’ve had just about everything go wrong over the years, and I’ve been able to work my way through several bad situations. I’ve dismasted in the middle of the ocean, sailed through Force-12 conditions, and have had to rescue a man overboard.

I first learned the need to think ahead when I was 23 years old and spent the winter working as a mate on a large sailing yacht in the Caribbean. There were many times on those sails when the guests would inundate the other crew members with requests for topping off their beverages, often leaving me shorthanded when it came to setting, striking, and trimming the sails. It didn’t take long for me to get smart about setting myself up to maneuver the large sails without much help. I got into the habit of not wasting time by always preparing the gear for the next tack or jibe. It was like planning my next move in a good game of chess.

It’s been more than a decade since I last sailed in the Caribbean. These days, I sail only for recreation, mostly cruising out of Santa Monica Bay with my family and friends on our Pearson 33-2. My wife and I were careful not to buy a boat too large for us to handle. We knew there would be moments while cruising that would require me to manage the boat solo so she could attend to the needs of our young daughter. Last year, I started participating in a series of doublehanded races organized by the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Association. I enjoy the challenge of sailing shorthanded. It helps me when it comes to being more prepared for the unexpected.

My days of working on boats instilled a desire to run the deck efficiently and with a plan. I am a big fan of the fundamentals contained in an old British Army adage, “the 7 Ps” – “Prior Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” I also feel that repetition is a critical element of success because it can make a process more intuitive.

A day of sailing starts with studying the weather reports relating to where I am and where I want to go. I know the forecast before I set foot on the boat, so I have a plan for how to rig the boat up and what sails I will be reefing. It’s always easier to put in a reef at the dock. I set myself up so that anything I may need is stowed within arm’s reach or near the companionway. My essentials include winch handles, a knife, food, beverages, sunscreen, a jacket, an extra handheld VHF radio, my cell phone, and a few extra sail ties.

If I am going out for more than a close coastal cruise, I conduct a thorough inspection of the rigging, engine, batteries, and electronics. There are many moving parts on a boat, and mechanical elements tend to break down or seize up mainly when not used regularly. I set up jacklines running the length of the deck on both sides of the boat, so I can safely walk the deck while being clipped in with a carabiner attached to the lanyard on a self-inflatable life vest. I am also a big fan of inflating my dinghy and strapping it to my foredeck. The sail to Catalina from Marina del Rey, for example, is 30 miles, and I don’t have an emergency life raft. Having the dinghy inflated means it is ready to deploy immediately.

I’m honest about my physical limits. I’m not 23 years old, not fit as a top, and my rotator cuffs are not as intact as they used to be. For those reasons, my boat has a roller furling jib, lazy jacks, and a sock for the asymmetrical spinnaker. These modern amenities make it much easier and safer for me when sailing shorthanded or with my young daughter. I’ve learned my limits when it comes to setting the right amount of sail area and am willing to sacrifice speed even if it means setting less sail area to avoid the risk of a dangerous situation.

I break my operation priorities into three categories: steering, sail trim, everything else. For me, the most critical variable is the heading of the boat. Whether I am steering, using autopilot, or teaching a novice companion how to steer, I always stay aware of the course being sailed relative to the rhumb line.

I always encourage my guests to take the helm and steer the boat for a while. Getting guests on the helm as soon as possible helps build their esteem and confidence. It also creates an opportunity for me to teach them the routines practiced on the boat. Sharing the wheel in good weather can mean having an extra set of capable hands when the unexpected happens. What happens when a storm comes on quickly, and you need to put a reef in the mainsail or jib, and your guest has never steered the boat? Do they know how to reef a sail?

Being free from the helm lets me run around the deck to inspect the lines and sails, ensuring everything is in good working order. My experience has shown me that most things that break on a boat are usually not in the cockpit.

Planning on how to dock a boat shorthanded is just as important as sailing shorthanded. I never break down my sheets or halyards until my boat is tied up to the dock. I don’t think many operators think about how to dock their boat if their engine fails before reaching the dock. I’ve had engines fail, and for that reason, I never approach a dock faster than I am willing to hit it. I’ve learned through practice to put my boat in neutral about 50 yards away from the slip. Nine times out of 10, I will not need to put the engine back into gear.

Will Sofrin lives in Los Angeles with his wife and six-year-old daughter. He is a graduate of IYRS School of Technology & Trades, where he apprenticed in the wooden boat restoration program. After completing the program, he spent a decade working as a professional sailor, earning his 100-ton master’s license, and using his specialized wood-working skillset to secure positions on yachts and ships sailing through Europe, New England, the Caribbean, Central America, and the California coast. In 2014 he launched a design firm specializing in managing the restoration of historic homes and developing ground-up architectural packages for luxury residential homes. He still sails actively on his Pearson 33-2, participating in races in Santa Monica Bay as well as a number of double-handed near coastal races.