Many sailors sail shorthanded much of the time, and it can prove a challenge. Rupert Holmes has some tips and techniques to help inspire confidence

Whether you sail as a couple, cruise with a friend or take your children sailing, the likelihood is that you will be shorthanded sailing.

A crew of two is probably the most common set-up for coastal cruising, but as many boats would ideally be sailed with many more people, what can be done to make shorthanded sailing easier and safer?

Technology has some of the answers.

Autopilots provide an extra ‘pair of hands’; chart plotters minimise time spent below poring over navigation; electric winches and roller furling systems simplify sail handling, and powered windlasses take the strain out of weighing anchor.

A small boat with a blue hull sailing at sea

A small boat is much easier to handle with a small crew, so if you expect to be short-handed most of the time, be practical when choosing a boat. Credit: David Harding

But even if your boat is fully equipped and you’ve done your utmost to position your sail controls to be handled by minimum crew, there is still the most important and inconsistent factor to consider – the crew.

Although manoeuvring, mooring and close-quarters boat handling present a host of potential difficulties for small crews, it’s also wise to address problems that might crop up when the boat is under way.

Shorthanded sailing with two

Even if you’re a confident single-hander, the biggest benefit of a second crew member is having an extra pair of eyes to keep watch while you carry out chartwork or other tasks that may take your attention off the horizon for a short time.

It shouldn’t end there, though – one of the most common mistakes when sailing two-handed is to rigidly allocate roles.

We’ve all seen the classic set-up of the cruising couple with the husband on the helm and the wife poised with fenders, but there’s no reason it should be that way.

A couple on a sailing boat shorthanded sailing

Many cruising couples use the autopilot most of the time when sailing. Credit: Sarah Norbury

There’s nothing wrong with playing to your strengths – for example, giving more physical tasks to the stronger person, or navigation to the person who’s least likely to suffer from seasickness – but it’s important with a small crew that all members become proficient at all tasks in case someone becomes incapacitated.

Crew training is vital if you plan more challenging trips such as overnight passages or sailing offshore.

It’s only when you become confident in all aspects of sailing that you fully understand how they are interrelated, which allows you each to become even better in your favoured roles.

A greater sense of understanding also helps to dispel anxiety and worry, increasing the fun and satisfaction gained from sailing two-handed.

Skippering shorthanded

At Coastal Skipper and Yachtmaster level the focus is often on the requirement of skippers to ‘…take charge of a yacht and direct the crew.’

Skippers should have a complete and constant awareness of everything that is happening with the boat – sail trim, navigation, other vessels, potential breakages, changes of weather, crew welfare and so on – and the best way to do this on the fully-crewed boats on which these courses are taught is to stand back and delegate the tasks of actually sailing the boat to others.

If you’re shorthanded sailing,  you need to combine the tasks of skipper and crew – another reason why it’s easier if those people on board have enough skills to each handle the boat in their own right.

The key is to plan ahead. With a small crew, I prepare for manoeuvres earlier than when sailing with a full crew.

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I also mentally run through operations in advance, visualising all the steps in sequence.

This process speeds up sail handling and often highlights potential snags before they happen.

Even then, I’m conscious that I need to stop what I’m doing every couple of minutes to look around and check nothing has changed.

It’s easy to become engrossed in a small task and miss the bigger picture, which could result in failing to notice something vital – such as an increase in wind requiring a reef, a ship on a potential collision course or a wind shift that puts the boat at risk of a gybe.

This is even more of a risk if there’s a snag with the task you are performing: then it’s really hard not to get absorbed by what you’re doing with your hands.

Shorthanded sailing: Navigation


Controlling a boat in restricted waters that you don’t know well –or even in familiar waters at night– can test many a skipper, even with suitably practised and experienced the benefit of GPS, chart plotters etc.

When short-handed, the key is again not to rush things. In particular, it’s critical to recognise times at which the boat is travelling faster than you can navigate.

Slowing down will certainly help here – reducing speed from 5 knots to 4 knots gives 20% more thinking time.

There may even be occasions in which it’s helpful to stop for a while so you can catch up with events and get ahead.

A boat with red hull and white sails

Heaving to is a useful skill which can give you time to look at a chart, cook or simply take a break. Credit: Ocean Images

A classic example of this is entering a large harbour such as Portsmouth at night for the first time.

Initially, you’ll be searching for the lights that show the small boat channel, then feeling your way through the narrow entrance with its strong tides.

Then, suddenly, the harbour opens up with dozens of new lights to identify, each marking different channels.

You therefore have to make an instant switch to solving entirely new problems.

It’s at this stage that identifying somewhere safe to pause, such as stemming the tide next to a buoy, can buy the time needed to become acquainted with the new situation.

Passage making

On a long day sail it may be worth each person getting some rest during the day.

Even if your passage plan gets you into harbour at a sensible time, unforeseen problems which delay your arrival can be exhausting for a small crew and result in poor decisions when you reach the tricky stage of entering harbour.

This is particularly important if, for instance, there’s a possibility of missing a tidal gate.

On longer passages with a watch system, it’s equally important to get rest early.

A woman sleeping on a boat

When setting out on a long passage, considerations for getting enough sleep will be different to those for a fully-crewed boat. Credit: Nina Norden

At night there needs to be a balance between a watch that’s sufficiently long to get some sleep, yet doesn’t result in the person on watch becoming exhausted.

Humans tend to sleep in roughly 90-minute cycles, so two hours off watch is enough for one cycle (allowing time for toilet visits, undressing etc).

However, three-hour watches may involve waking the off-watch crew mid-cycle, when they’ll be groggy and tired.

Sleep can be difficult on the first night at sea so I’m quite flexible about the length of watches getting up earlier if I can’t sleep and the person on deck is really tired, or vice versa.

On subsequent nights at sea, it’s easier to sleep and watches can accordingly be longer.

Shorthanded sailing: Sail Handling


On a well-set-up boat of up to around 45ft (14m), one person – suitably practised and experienced – should not find it difficult to reef the mainsail.

Single-line reefing helps here, and if this is difficult to retrofit it’s also possible to lead pennants from the reef cringles on the lift of the sail back to the cockpit.

Which to go for depends on the boat: single-line reefing inevitably incurs friction when compared to separate pennants for the luff and leach, but the latter requires a lot of coachroof space if the lines are led aft.

For this reason, the traditional layout of lines handled at the mast can be an attractive proposition, but whichever you choose, make sure the pennants are all in the same place – there’s nothing worse than having to do half the job at the mast and the other in the cockpit.

Two men shorthanded sailing on a boat with a red hull and white sails

set up your reefing system to suit your regular crew – here, the crew can hook the tack cringles and tension the clew pennants while the helmsman handles the halyard. Credit: Ocean Images

Racing crews mark settings on their halyards and other controls so they instantly know where to cleat the line in manoeuvres.

We can borrow this idea to make life easy when reefing a cruising boat set up with single-line reefing.

Simply drop the halyard to your pre-set mark, then wind in the reefing pennant – the luff tension should automatically be set correctly.

Use different colour markers that match the colour of the reefing pennants for each reef.

Stack-pack and lazyjack systems help to control the mainsail when hoisting and lowering, becoming progressively more useful as boats get larger.

On my boats – 24 and 30ft (7.3m and 9m) – the mainsails are easy to tame: however, on a boat closer to 40ft (12m) I would consider lazyjacks desirable for shorthanded sailing.

In-mast furling takes the effort out of mainsail reefing, with the advantage that when setting sail you don’t have to haul the weight of the sail up the rig or rely on an electric winch to do so on a larger boat.

However, sail shape is inevitably compromised compared to a slab-reefed sail.

Although this may not affect reaching and downwind speed dramatically, it will certainly be apparent on a windward passage, when the boat can also be expected to make more leeway and tack through a greater angle.

Helpful headsails

Choosing a boat with a relatively small jib, rather than an unwieldy genoa, will take all the hassle out of tacking and furling the sail – there’s a good reason why both race boats and cruisers have adopted this configuration.

Of course, a self-tacking jib is even better in this respect, although the relatively small size of the sail means light weather and downwind performance will generally suffer.

A boat with white sails at sea

Although self-tacking headsails will decrease windward sail area, a roller- furling Code 0 sail flown from a short bowsprit is easily handled and will greatly improve light weather performance when reaching. Credit: David Harding

The modern, easy solution to this problem is to use a roller-furling Code 0 and/or asymmetric spinnaker that can be set from a stubby bowsprit or retractable pole.

This will boost your light-wind reaching performance and fill the gap left by having a small headsail.

An older boat with a large genoa can be modified to gain some of these benefits by opting for a slightly smaller headsail than standard – say 125% instead of 140%, and adding the Code 0 and/or asymmetric spinnaker/cruising chute.

Flying a spinnaker or cruising chute

With adequate preparation, sailing short-handed is no obstacle to using a spinnaker or cruising chute.

In light to moderate winds, I frequently fly a conventional spinnaker short-handed, simplifying the process compared to a fully-crewed race boat where eight people may have an active role.

I tend to both hoist and drop the spinnaker without the headsail set, bearing away onto a dead run so that the sail is blanketed by the mainsail, rather than the jib, having first rigged a preventer.

If hoisting without a sock, the guy and clew of the sail can be sneaked round the forestay towards the pole end in advance.

At this stage on a larger boat, it may help to have a couple of wool stops around the clew of the sail to prevent it from being caught by the wind.

A man walking along the deck of a boat

It’s quite possible to fly a spinnaker or cruising chute short-handed if you rig the boat with a small crew. Credit: David Harding

As the crew hoists the halyard, the helm can then pull the guy further back. In this way, the pole can be set at the correct angle when the sail is fully hoisted, and the crew can then sheet in.

Gybing will vary from boat to boat.

On some boats, the helmsman can steer with the tiller between his or her legs while handling the main, sheet and guy, while on others the crew will need to gybe the main before going forward.

Whatever your approach, give yourself space and time to do it.

To drop, I again bear away onto a run, then as the sail collapses let the guy run through the end of the pole.

Next, the halyard is released and the sail bundled down the main companionway to be tidied later.

A man handling a red and white sail on a boat

A sock is a great help when using a spinnaker or cruising chute when shorthanded sailing. Credit: David Harding

I use a similar strategy for cruising chutes and assymetrics, but they need more of a broad reach.

As they are tacked down near the forestay, there’s more chance of a wrap around the forestay if you attempt to set on a run.

As this risks the sail powering up, many people choose to use a sock for cruising chutes.

Whether you’re dropping a spinnaker or a cruising chute, a useful trick is to trail the halyard in the water astern.

This provides enough friction to prevent the sail from dropping faster than it can be gathered in.


This can be one of the most useful pieces of equipment when sailing short-handed as it reliably steers the boat while you carry out work on deck.

Some electronic pilots even have a remote control, so you can alter course while at the mast or foredeck.

No self-steering will keep a lookout or figure out the ‘big picture’ of what’s going on around the boat, nor will it help with manoeuvring and mooring.

However, when on passage a decent self-steering system can be as useful as two crew members – such systems don’t need to sleep or take meal breaks, and allow you to eat, cook, navigate or simply give your arms a rest from the helm.

Shorthanded sailing: Boat handling or mooring

When setting up lines and fenders, allowing sufficient time and space is important.

In a strong tidal stream, stemming the tide – pointing the boat into the flow and adjusting speed so that you’re stationary over the ground – is easier and less disorientating than going round in circles.

Alternatively, in a wider space with no tide, turning the boat stern to the wind and just engaging idling speed astern may keep you in much the same place for a couple of minutes at a time.

If the rudder is stalled, the wind will tend to blow the bows downwind so the boat is semi-balanced in this orientation, although different wind strengths and different boats may need differing amounts of throttle.

A woman on a boat tying up rope

There’s no harm in getting ready for berthing early, while there’s plenty of space around the boat. Credit: David Harding

When manoeuvring with only one person to take lines ashore, you have to be more accurate with positioning the boat than with a talented full crew who can cover up for some less-than-perfect parking.

If there’s no one to stuff a roving fender in the right place should the manoeuvre not go according to plan, I’m happy to festoon the boat with more fenders than I expect to need, which looks more competent than a mad scramble to stop the toerail graunching the gleaming topsides of another boat.

Before starting a manoeuvre, I also double-check I’ve read the wind and tide right to save embarrassment.

In wind against tide conditions, if you’re not sure which element has the most influence, position the boat broadside across the channel, going slowly ahead, and see which way you move.

If you’re pushed downstream the tide is dominant and vice versa, although in borderline cases you may need to actively slow the boat down with a little reverse power to stop the wind driving you forward too fast.

Midships springs

Having one person stepping off the boat while trying to juggle bow and stern lines can be tricky. However, there’s an easy alternative to this – a midships spring.

The spring can lead from a midships cleat to a point on the dock and made off on the dock just abaft the cleat on the boat, surging any way off the vessel as you do so to prevent the line suddenly jarring taut.

With a little application of forward engine power, the boat will stay in position, although the direction of the helm may need to be tweaked to keep the vessel lying comfortably alongside.

An aerial view of a boat

A midships spring and a little power can hold the boat neatly alongside while you rig the rest of the mooring lines

You now have all day to rig the rest of the lines without drama. If it’s your home berth, this line can be kept on a post so it can be easily grabbed without even stepping off the boat.

The only real exception to this technique is when a very strong wind is blowing off the dock and there’s only a short space in which to position the boat.

In these conditions, it’s often difficult to judge a perfect approach, so it can be better to edge in bows first, secure a bowline, and then warp the stern into position.

Shorthanded sailing is easy when you know how

Many experienced skippers will recognise that they already do much of what’s suggested here.

As such there’s no great mystery to shorthanded sailing, especially if both people are competent in handling the boat.

Even if you usually sail with a larger crew, it’s worth practising the skills needed for shorthanded sailing.

For instance, try setting sails, reefing the mainsail or berthing using a midships spring with just two people taking part in the activity.

If you’re familiar with manoeuvres in clement conditions, they won’t be quite so challenging when the going gets tough.

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