Doctor Tom Miller shares some ideas to help make single handed sailing a safer and more comfortable experience

One of the challenges of being a single handed sailor, alone for extended periods is how to replace the exchange of ideas, opinions and experiences that take place on a crewed boat.

One option is to talk to oneself, but that can become boring when you have heard all the stories before.

My approach, which has evolved over 25,000NM of solo sailing, is to use the time to formulate ways to improve the safety, reliability, comfort and convenience of the boat you are fortunate enough to own and be sailing upon.

What follows is a collection of (mostly) DIY modifications carried out on my 9.75m (32ft) kauri sloop Fantasy over the years which should help a single handed sailor.

1. Twin mainsheet system

A twin mainsheet system on a boat designed by a single handed sailor to make it easier to sail alone

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

This system was devised and installed after a nasty head injury was sustained from the block of a single mainsheet system as it swung across the cockpit during an uncontrolled gybe.

The dual system has several advantages for the single handed sailor in that it is more readily kept in a fixed position and is more forgiving if the boat sails off course for any reason including a wind shift, inattention and failure to concentrate on course maintenance.

One additional plus is unobstructed access to the companionway while at anchor.

2. Deck safety

A safety line attached to a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Cabin top-mounted handrails and stanchion-secured lines are the usual deck safety installations.

The addition of a line, attached at shoulder height to the shrouds and leading aft to the pushpit, is an extra handhold that provides an amazing sense of security when moving between the cockpit and mast.

The line can also be an attachment point for the safety harness lanyard.

The lanyard will not prevent a fall overboard, but if the worst happens you’ll still be attached to the boat.

The risk of tripping over the conventional lanyard can be eliminated by replacing it with a self-coiling wire used to secure bicycles.

The coil is attached permanently to the support line described and can be clipped onto the harness at a moment’s notice.

When engaged forward of the mast, the clip is transferred from the line to an attachment point on the mast

3. Folding safety ladder

An emergency ladder on a boat

The folding ladder deployed. Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

So you are in the water, but still attached to the boat by the lanyard and harness.

Getting back on board is likely to be mission impossible without assistance, so port- and starboard-sited folding ladders could be just what is needed.

Undo the Velcro tie cloth and the ladder unfolds to provide the required footholds.

4. Boom bag

Bags handing from a boom on a boat to make it easier for a single handed sailor

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

How would you like to have the reefing line tails, mainsail outhaul surplus, main halyard winch handle and sundry other lines neatly stowed and readily available when needed?

A unit designed and sewn up to meet an individual boat’s needs and suspended under the boom will achieve this end.

5. Cockpit lockers

A cockpit locker on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

In yachts, quarter berths are commonly used for this purpose, but this space is inconvenient and often not readily accessible.

One solution that has worked well on Fantasy has been to seal off and empty the quarter berth and convert the space now available into a cockpit locker.

Construction of the drainage system is the time-consuming part.

The cockpit seat, if cut with care, can be used as the locker lid, but channels will need to be constructed to catch and divert rain and seawater from the seats away from the locker and its contents.

The end result will be a spacious locker, readily accessed by a hinged lid, that can be used to stow wet weather gear, sea boots, oil and fuel, an emergency ladder, a cooler and the day’s lunch and coffee.

6. Staysail system

A staysail on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Coping mechanisms for a single handed sailor dealing with near-gale to gale-force winds vary according to the vessel and how it is equipped to deal with these conditions.

In the case of Fantasy, a traditional long-keel design, a system has been installed allowing a removable inner forestay to be attached and tensioned to a foredeck fitting such as a deck cleat.

Once in place and tensioned a staysail can be hanked on, sheets attached and the sail hoisted and set.

The sheets may require their own winches, but it is also possible to clear the existing sheet winches and use them.

More lightly built boats may need sub-deck support to the deck attachment point.

With a reef or two in the mainsail and the headsail either furled or dropped, a boat can be managed under the conditions described with relative ease.

As the wind strength eases the headsail can be brought back into use to provide a ‘slutter’ rig.

When not in use, the inner forestay is stored back at the mast.

7. Cockpit weather cloth pockets

Cockpit pockets on a boat to make it easier for a single handed sailor on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Look around your cockpit and note the under-utilised area that the weather panels represent.

Pockets stitched to the backs of these, designed to house items such as a VHF radio, binoculars, cordage and sheet ends, will provide useful extra stowage.

8. Throttle guard

A throttle guard on a. boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

This unit will protect the throttle lever from a crew member’s foot in the wrong place, which could alter the approach to the dock from ‘dead slow ahead’ to ‘full ahead’ with dire consequences.

9. Halyard trap

A halyard trap on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

There are few things more capable of disturbing a good night’s sleep than the tap-tap-tap of an uncontrolled halyard on a mast.

Climbing out of a bunk and tying it up usually fixes the problem, but who wants to do that on a cold night?

The solution is a pair of halyard traps attached to the port and starboard spreaders.

This can be achieved with some workshop effort and casting expenditure.

The workshop component involves shaping a unit in wood: the forward-facing edge needs to be shaped to fit neatly against the spreader.

Holes are drilled at each end of the castings which are secured to the spreader with cable ties.

Locate the halyard in the trap and secure.

10. Tide clock and chart

 tide chart on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

When selecting the appropriate depth of water under the keel in which to drop the anchor, complicated tidal state vs depth calculations can be avoided with the aid of three devices – a depth sounder, a tide clock and a chart specifically constructed for an individual boat using the tidal range in local waters.

The chart illustrated is designed for a vessel with a draught of 2m using a tidal range of 3m.

The calculation for the minimum depth required for anchoring is based on the standard ‘rule of twelfths’ that can be found in any book on coastal navigation dealing with the tides.

Note that the change in depth with time is not linear, so each point on the graph requires an individual calculation.

In practice, determine the state of the tide from the tide clock either before or after high water, select the corresponding depth from the pre-calculated chart and motor in with a watchful eye on the sounder recordings.

11. Handheld VHF range extension

A VHF radio extender on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Most VHF communications for the short-handed crew, while under way, are carried out in the cockpit using a handheld instrument.

The handheld unit’s range can be increased considerably by connecting the set to a whip antenna mounted on the pushpit rail.

The antenna on the handset is removed and the cable from the extension unit is installed in its place.

Check to see whether an antenna is available for your VHF radio model.

12. Mainsail stowage

A bungee cord

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

To install, attach ring tabs at 40cm intervals down one side of the boom.

A length of 8mm shock cord somewhat longer than the boom is threaded through the tabs and the ends are knotted.

Clips capable of capturing the shock cord are attached to the opposite side of the boom and located between the ring tabs.

To secure the sail, lower it onto the boom and, starting from the aft end, fold the sail along the boom a metre at a time.

With each fold, grip a section of the shock cord between the tabs and pass the loop over the sail, and engage the clip opposite.

Continue until the sail is fully stowed.

13. Wood-burning heater

A wood burning stove on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

The wood-burning stove pictured has been in use for 25 winters and has enabled some memorable social occasions in quiet anchorages.

The only problem has been getting visitors to move back to their cold boats!

A similar unit can be designed and constructed by a metal fabricator using box steel for the basic unit and ash collection.

The tricky part is designing the through-deck fitting that allows an external removable chimney to be linked in with the internal chimney when in use.

A through hull fitting for a wood burning stove

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

An insulated surround should also be planned for.

Construction and installation will require some thought and experimentation, but it’s worth the effort.

14. Eliminating toilet odour

A diagram showing how toilet works on a boat

The origin of the pungent odour when a boat’s toilet is flushed after lying unused for a while lies within the plumbing system, where microorganisms that thrive in salt water form a biofilm on the internal surfaces of the piping that runs from the seacock to the toilet.

The answer is to fill the system with a biocide that prevents microbial growth when the toilet is left unused for more than a few days.

The modification needed involves inserting a T-piece in the hose close to the seacock.

One of the hoses from the T-piece is connected to a 1,500ml reservoir attached to a bulkhead at a point above the bowl.

The other hose feeds the toilet.

A further in-line valve is fitted below the reservoir. Before leaving the boat the reservoir is filled with a diluted biocide formulated for marine toilet use.

With the seacock closed, the reservoir is filled and the in-line valve below the reservoir is opened.

The contents then flow through the system into the bowl. (Remember to close the in-line valve.)

15. Solar riding lights

lights on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Most boats anchoring overnight are conscientious about showing a riding light.

The majority run off the ship’s battery, but self-regulating solar lights are becoming popular.

Their use does not have the blessing of officialdom, but they are certainly convenient as an install-and-forget item.

Most will show a light until dawn when they switch off. Use two as backup

16. Saloon table

A removeable saloon table on a boat

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Mealtimes apart, the saloon table is an obstacle to moving around down below.

The idea of a removable table and pedestal came from an installation in a camper van: the pedestal, sub table and floor base units are available from motorhome and camper van supply stores.

Readily set up when required, the additional space available when it is stowed will be appreciated.

17. Swinging arm for GPS/chartplotter

An arm for a chartplotter to make it easier for a single handed sailor

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Electronic devices in common use are frequently installed in the navigation console and not readily accessible to the helmsman.

This problem can be overcome if the unit is mounted on a plate attached to a swinging arm.

At rest, the unit is stowed under cover against the cockpit bulkhead.

When required, it is simply swung in an arc and positioned for viewing from the cockpit.

18. Cooling water flow confirmation

water flowing from a pipe

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Failure of the engine water cooling system, either direct or via a heat exchanger, can mean a tow back to base and an expensive repair job.

Fantasy is powered by a 16hp diesel engine cooled by an impeller-driven heat exchanger.

A clever engineer who installed the cooling system has inserted a takeoff point into the outlet from the heat exchanger that diverts some water into a pipe that terminates at the cockpit bulkhead.

Water flowing from the outlet is assurance that the appropriate seacocks have been opened and the impeller is functioning.

19. Kerosene pressure stove

A kerosene stove

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

These cookers are still used by boating Neanderthals like myself.

While these alternatives to gas stoves reduce the chance of an explosion, they can provide some anxious moments during the meths preignition heating stage.

A controlled heat-up can be guaranteed when one of the units used to heat a Tilley lamp is soaked in meths and placed around the burner flukes before lighting.

The heating can be supplemented by adding a few mls of meths to the cup below the burner, but sufficient heat is usually supplied by the meths in the device.

If not, a second application ensures a safe operation

20. Access gate

An access gate on a boat to make life easier for a single handed sailor

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

After a couple of close calls when a foot caught the top safety wire while leaving the boat, some consideration was given as to how boarding and exiting a boat on a marina could be achieved safely.

A drop-down gate, inserted in the lifelines between two stanchions adjacent to the cockpit, has served this intention well.

Pelican clips allow the lines to be reconnected and the gap secured as one of the pre-departure tasks.

This is not a DIY job and a rigger should be consulted. (A gate near a shroud might make for a better position than the site illustrated.)

Note that vibration and movement while under way can allow the pelican clips to work loose: they should be secured with a piece of tape at the outset to prevent this from happening.

21. Engine air supply

Vents for an engine

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Along with clean diesel, a ready supply of clean air is essential to keep the motor running smoothly.

With engines that are enclosed and heavily insulated to reduce noise, this requirement may fall short of being ideal.

A 12V computer fan set into an inspection port insert can provide a steady flow of air.

Even without the fan, the removal of the insert will improve the situation.

22. Marina docking

a line on a finger pontoon

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Docking a vessel in a marina in strong winds can be particularly difficult when short-handed.

Accidents to crew members attempting to jump onto the marina to get a line ashore are not uncommon.

Problems occur when the unsecured end of the boat blows away from the dock while the other end is being attached.

Two installations will help under these circumstances: the first (picture one) is a specifically engineered berthing rod and base firmly bolted down at the end of the finger.

As soon as the docking vessel is stationary in the marina space a boat hook, or preferably a specially constructed device, is used to drop a spliced loop and 3m line over the docking device.

A mooring set up for a single handed sailor

Credit: Doctor Tom Miller

Once the loop has dropped to the base the line is wound onto a cockpit winch and the vessel winched into position.

If the forward mooring line cannot be reached, the second ploy (picture two) comes into play.

This involves a line running along the finger that has been led through several supports so that it is positioned around 10cm above the edge of the finger.

A grapnel tossed from the boat onto the finger is used to haul the vessel alongside once the grapnel has caught the line.

Some practice at tossing the grapnel is advisable.

The mooring line will now be within reach. Secure and boil the kettle.

Continues below…

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