Single-handed sailing

A personal reflection on this rather strange way of travelling!

The recent Post about young Jessica Watson sailing alone around the world raised a few comments but also reminded me of my own experiences of solo sailing.

Some years ago, having successfully sold my own IT company, I warmed to the idea of being a full-time yachtie! A second-hand Tradewind 33 was discovered on the Island of Corfu.  (Now here’s a surprise!  I was just browsing the web looking for a picture of a Tradewind and came across my old yacht currently up for sale.  Her name is Songbird of Kent! Picture below.)

Songbird of Kent
Tradewind 33 - Songbird of Kent

Anyway, the deal was done and having sold my house in England I flew out to Corfu to collect Songbird of Kent. Inevitably it was a number of months before the boat was ready to head out into the Mediterranean but in early Spring 1988 it was time to explore the long coastlines of Greece and Turkey.

After a fantastic summer cruising from one idyllic anchorage to another mostly with friends or family on board, it was time to find a winter haven.  Many recommended Larnaca Marina in Cyprus.  Thus it was late in the summer of 1988 that I said goodbye to friends and set out on my own to cross from Antalya in Turkey to Cyprus and for Larnaca, on the SE side of the island.

That sea crossing, only a little over 200 nautical miles, was to become a regular solo experience at the start and end of each summer season. Impossible to do in a single day it was always a night at sea and rarely, if things didn’t go well with the weather, a couple of nights. I hated it! Maybe it was the sudden transition from coastal sailing to a deep water crossing, often going from having friends on board to being alone, but whatever it was I never enjoyed my time on my own and knew that long-distance solo sailing was never going to be my scene.

Anyway, I ended up spending several very happy winters in Larnaca.

One time, there was news of a Frenchman who had come into Larnaca on his way home to France having nearly completed a complete circumnavigation of the world. He was on his own!

I was astounded to hear how someone could do this and made a point of calling round to his berth. The boat was a beautiful, solid steel yacht, the very epitome of a craft that could challenge the oceans. The owner’s name was Pierre (it would be!). Pierre invited me aboard and we went down to his saloon to drink a hot coffee – real French coffee!

Inevitably the conversation turned to the challenges of sailing alone. Pierre said that the big cargo ships out at sea moved quickly relative to the speed of a yacht so at night he set an alarm for every 15 minutes. That was the time that a ship could go from being hull down over the horizon to being close enough to be a hazard. Thus while at sea Pierre had got up briefly every 15 minutes during the night to avoid being run down! It sounded totally exhausting.

Then Pierre asked me about the sailing I had done and whether I had sailed on my own. I declared my trivial journeys back and forth from Cyprus to Turkey and admitted that being on my own made me very, very unhappy. Pierre was surprised to hear that as he admitted that being at sea alone was one of the most tranquil and peaceful experiences ever. Pierre asked how long these solo journeys took. I replied, two or three days.

Ah!”, he said, “That is the problem.” “I, too, hate the three days. It is always a period where you adjust and it is terrible.

My friend, you must find a way to be alone for more than three days. You will see that it is very different.

It was some years before that opportunity came about but, in the end, I did undertake a solo journey of nearly 18 days. Pierre was right. The first three days were hell, the rest was heaven!

Thank you, Songbird of Kent, you gave me some fabulous memories!

at sea

By Paul Handover

6 thoughts on “Single-handed sailing

  1. I have heard the three day rule for seasickness and for getting over the panic of losing sight of land but never before for solitude. However I would not discount it the phrase ‘shake down cruise’ obviously has a myriad of meanings.

    Unfortunately I only had spells of being completely at one with life at sea and never got over the dread of approaching night – dusk was my achilles heel I dreaded the long nights. However, in saying that I could always lay on deck and appreciate the wonderful sight of millions of stars floating above me. And being a person who enjoys silence I did love the comparative silence of the sea with only the swoosh of the sea against the hull and the whine of the wind in the rigging. Guess solitude and sailing moments are subjective.


  2. With enough electronic nannies, as advertized on Jess’ site, would I add perfidiously, things will be different.

    Some of the competition boats have experimental whale and logs detectors. Still some fancy boat collided with an empty (?) container… Solitude ain’t what it used to be.

    It’s not enough to go to the desert, or the oceans, if one wants exclusion, one has to reject technology too!


  3. True Patrice – we WOULD have to reject technology but then if we did that you and I would never have known what each other thinks – so is that really what we want. I think I want exclusion when I want it – selfish attitude maybe but it works for me.


  4. We met a single-handed sailor once who gave us his concerto – a tape recording of the wind in the rigging apparently he played this when he wasn’t at sea!


  5. Gloria, I think the ‘3 days to adjust’ is not a hard-wired aspect of humans just something that resonated between that Frenchman and me all those years ago in Larnaca Marina. And, for me, have found that to be true whenever I am faced with being totally on my own – my own demons take a little bit of facing down!

    Patrice, the problem of containers at sea has been around for far too long. I quote from anecdotal memories but 30 years ago I seem to recall that the number of containers being lost off the decks of ships each year were in their hundreds. Only an insurance issue for the ship owners.

    A laden container frequently floats. But also frequently with only a few inches of freeboard thus at night they are an extreme hazard for small craft.

    Each autumn several hundred yachts used to make the transatlantic journey from Europe to the Caribbean, crossing once the hurricane season had finished. Regularly half-a-dozen or so would disappear, with their crews, in unusual circumstances. Collision with containers was regarded as the most likely cause. I don’t have facts to hand to back this up but remember this being a frequently discussed topic in sailing circles.

    Ho,ho – says 10,000 a year are lost!


  6. Paul all our demons take a bit of facing down – it is a credit to you and us that we do it at all.

    Also rumour rather than fact is that a radio station near Bay of Biscay gave the coordinates of containers sighted in their area.

    Australian naval patrol boat off Cocoas Keeling found a container floating which they managed to open and found ‘tennis racquets’ – for a time the Australian navy was well equipped with these items. Urban myth or true???


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