Two hands on deck


A sailor transitioning from racing to cruising or from coastal hopping to offshore passages has a lot of questions, not the least of which will be how many crew to have aboard. Racers are accustomed to the big crews required for fast sail changes and concentration at the helm, and so they may be inclined toward large crews for passagemaking. For coastal cruising couples used to anchoring each night, the idea of making a month-long ocean passage, or even crossing the Gulf Stream, may seem daunting and thus they might also decide on additional crewmembers. 

There’s nothing wrong in this decision, but it’s worth considering the advantages of two-handed bluewater sailing. 

Pros and cons
The positive aspects of a larger complement are undeniable: more sleep, more people to help with chores and sailing, and potentially even splitting expenses. You can divide up night watches so that everyone gets lots of sleep, or you can stand two-person watches to have more hands and eyes to sail the boat, navigate and look out for hazards. Once in port, sharing the expenses of cruising permits, marina slips, fuel and the like helps lower costs. And if an anchorage has questionable holding or exposure, you can alternate looking after the boat and going ashore.

Seth and Ellen are the double-handed crew of Celeste.

This sounds ideal, but it only succeeds if the whole ship’s complement is competent, considerate, hard working and compatible. Everyone has to be a good communicator and has to share the same underlying philosophy of what the voyage is about. Some sailors do find this: Pioneering voyagers Miles and Beryl Smeeton invited friends aboard for many happy and successful trips, even crossing the Southern Ocean. But sadly this compatibility doesn’t always happen. Friends with whom you enjoy a pint at the pub might not always make the best house guests, particularly if the “house” is around 40 feet long and incorporates cooking, bathing, socializing, sleeping and even working all in one cabin.

Privacy: A sailboat is a small space. Even with extremely considerate crew, you cannot help knowing the intimate details of everyone’s existence, and it’s impossible to avoid feeling — at some point — as if you’re in someone’s way or they’re in your way. Sailing with just one other person reduces this feeling; sailing with your life partner pretty much solves it. As one friend of ours said when his crew left, “Now my girlfriend and I can go back to naked sailing!”

Safety: “Safety in numbers” can be a misleading phrase. Having more people aboard is not safer if they are poor communicators or bad listeners, or — worst of all — believe they know a lot more than they really do. With only two people aboard, communication becomes swifter and simpler, and it’s easier to gauge whether both of you fully understand procedures and objectives. 

Expectations: Even thoughtful and communicative crewmembers are likely to have different expectations from each other and from the boat’s owner. Everyone goes to sea for slightly different reasons and understands crewing differently. The worst manifestations I’ve seen of this were: 1) people who felt they were doing the boat’s owner a favor simply by being there and consequently didn’t lift a finger to help, even with routine chores like dish washing, and 2) owners whose anger at their crew’s mistakes was out of proportion. Of course, both these problems can arise in a voyaging couple, but it’s less likely since couples usually already have good communication and division of labor.  

Like many cruising boats, the interior of Celeste is limited and favors the double-handed crew.

Enjoyment: No matter how compatible you and your crew are, it’s likely that at some point you’ll have different ideas about enjoyment. You might want to spend a trade wind afternoon in mid-Pacific quietly reading; they might want to listen to music. You may want to invite recent acquaintances to dinner in a new port; they may wish to catch up on sleep. Perhaps you’d like to take the dinghy on a morning snorkel trip, but one of your crew wants the dinghy for a foray into town and another wants it to visit a friend on another boat. While these might be trivial frustrations, they can build resentment when they’re constantly repeated. With fewer people aboard, fewer of these conflicts arise and they’re easier to resolve.  

Flexibility: Taking on crew restricts your itinerary. Embarking and disembarking requires calling at a pre-arranged port or at least one with a major airport. Molding your route around airline schedules adds a new level of stress. Sailing as a couple usually eliminates this worry and allows you to visit places far removed from the hustle and bustle of major ports. This is, of course, one of the reasons you set sail in the first place!

Despite its advantages, two-handed sailing is challenging. It requires long single-handed watches, complete trust in your partner and a high degree of seamanship. It’s not safe to allow just one person to be the skipper. Both crewmembers must be fully capable of handling the yacht alone. This does not mean merely competent to reef, steer, navigate and make repairs, but also to make decisions about course, sail plan, weather, other maritime traffic, even route and destination. Assuming this kind of responsibility can be intimidating, but it’s also liberating and rewarding. 

While some task specialization is acceptable, both crewmembers should be adept at sailing the boat.

While experience is the only true teacher of these abilities, the more concrete details of short-handed passagemaking are simpler. First and foremost, you must have a reliable self-steering system. It’s very difficult for two people to hand-steer for a month. Not only will you be exhausted by day five, you won’t be free to deal with sails, look at the chart or make a meal. Many cruisers rely on electric autopilots, which are great, but you have to be competent to repair them should something go wrong. 

Although I often use an autopilot, it’s really a backup to my wind vane. There are a number of manufacturers of wind vanes: Aries, CapeHorn, Monitor and Hydrovane, for example. The servo-pendulum types, which work well in my experience, use a paddle pointed into the apparent wind to steer a rudder that in turn steers your tiller or wheel. They take practice to use and they sometimes swerve off course, particularly downwind, but balancing your boat with the optimum sail plan helps to correct this. And it’s a small price to pay to not touch the helm for weeks without using an amp of electricity. Seth and I used a secondhand Aries for 30,000 nautical miles and our maintenance was limited to re-bedding it once and replacing the lines that led to our wheel about a dozen times. We joke that we didn’t sail around the world, our wind vane did. 

Just as important as self-steering is the size of the boat. The larger the boat, the more difficult two-handed sailing becomes. Although some people manage bigger yachts, 45 feet would be about my upper limit. A large boat means big heavy sails, usually a tougher helm in heavy seas and more boat to maneuver in confined areas. Most sailors I know who own yachts larger than 50 feet say that a four- or five-person crew is ideal and three people are essential. On the other hand, if you go to sea in a very small boat, you’ll compromise your comfort and, to some degree, your safety if you encounter extreme weather. In my experience the best range for the double-handed crew is between 34 and 43 feet. 

Watch rotation
The biggest concern on a two-handed passage is how to organize watches so that each person is rested enough to take on their responsibilities safely. At first Seth and I adopted the old-fashioned four hours on, four hours off routine. This worked well for about 10 days, after which we got very tired. The reality is that you don’t get your full four hours of sleep. You have to brief the new watch on course, weather, sail plan and any nearby vessels; you might not fall asleep instantly, and a few minutes before your watch you have to wake and dress. 

A wind vane self-steerer, like this Aries unit on a boat in Maine, eases the burden of staying at the helm, freeing up crew for other tasks, and uses no battery power.

Every crew is different and will adopt what suits them, but Seth and I found that a four- and six-hour watch routine alleviated our fatigue and worked indefinitely (our longest passage was 27 days). I took the hours between midnight and 0400; Seth took the watch from 0400 to 1000. We would then share the watch and have “together time” from 1000 to 1400, which is when Seth would go below for his six-hour sleep until 2000. He’d take the deck again from 2000 to midnight. That way we each had a six-hour watch in (more or less) daylight and a four-hour watch at night. 

Our “together time” was when we attended to the things beyond sailing: stitching torn sails, downloading GRIB weather files, writing in the log and baking bread. It was also important to have those hours with each other. One surprising issue with two-handed sailing is that you don’t see much of your partner. It’s the opposite of the problem most people presume you’d experience of having too much time together in a confined space. 

If you spend a lot of time sailing offshore, you’ll probably notice that most voyaging boats are sailed by couples. There’s nothing wrong with taking on extra crew — it can even be a lot of fun! But there are plenty of arguments in favor of going two-handed. With the right precautions — a sensible watch routine, reliable self-steering, adequate safety equipment, a small enough yacht and the ability and confidence to handle her alone — the experience can be so rewarding that you might extend your cruise from a Gulf Stream crossing to a Pacific crossing. And don’t forget the advantages of naked on-deck showers in the trades! 

Ellen Massey Leonard and her husband Seth circumnavigated in 2010 aboard their 38-foot cutter Heretic. 

By Ocean Navigator