Going it Alone

There’s thems that do and thems that don’t!  Sail single handed that is.  It seems that there are those who will sail single handed without batting an eye and those who will never leave the dock alone.  I belong to the former group.  I sail alone—often.

In my mind, I’m like Kevin Costner in “Water World”, swinging from the halyards and just generally being studly.   I am both captain and crew.  I am the ancient mariner.  I am the Master and Commander.  Then again, sometimes I may be more like Gilligan.

Why do I sail alone?  Well mostly I sail alone so that I can sail.  The Lovely and Gracious Mrs. St. John works every other weekend.  If I want to sail—and usually I want to sail—I have to wait until she’s home, find some other sailor to join me, or, I go by myself.

I enjoy sailing alone, but I also like to sail with others.  In fact, the biggest downside to going out alone is that I get lonely.  But sailing with others requires, well,  “scheduling” and “advanced planning”.  These are not my fortes.  I need spontaneity!  It’s a Saturday, my chores are done, the sun is shining (or not) and there’s a touch of wind.  I want to go sailing, and I want to go now.  So I do! No time arranging a “play date” with friends.  I just go to the marina and go.

But hey, I’m not selfish.  I give my friends a chance.  I post something on Facebook such as “Beautiful day, chores are done, I think I’ll go for a sail.”  That’s the secret signal that you have about an hour to invite yourself along.  Instead of self-invitations I usually get half a dozen “likes” and a few comments such as “Have fun, maybe when it’s warmer” or “Brave man!” (Meaning “Too windy”) or “Gee, I would but I just put a roast in the oven.”

So I go it alone.

Single handed sailing requires some creativity.  Thank goodness Naughty has roller furling.  Sirena Gorda with her hanked on sails required a trip to the bow for  hoisting and lowering.  Sometimes when the wind really kicked up that trip was made on all fours and my legs were wrapped around the stanchion as I lowered the jib and lashed it to the rail.  If I was lucky, “ropey the auto-rope” (a dock line wrapped around the tiller) would hold my course.  Ropey was not too reliable.

Truthfully, Naughty By Nature, our Catalina 38 is easier to handle than Sirena, the 27 foot Cal we owned previously.  Still, sometimes even the most basic of tasks require creativity.  While I have a second set of primary winches just forward of the helm, if the wind is strong, I don’t have enough leverage to fully trim the jib from behind the wheel.  So; I stand in front of the wheel.  This makes it so that I can reach the mainsheet and traveler which are on the cabin top.  This also means that I spend a lot of time facing aft.

Sometimes, facing aft, I miss a few tacks.  I’m sure that the people on shore, looking out their living room window with binoculars. sometimes wonder what the heck I’m doing as I go around in a circle or just plain don’t make it around.  Often I wonder what I’m doing as well.

Last summer I installed an autopilot.  That has helped a lot but frankly “Gertie” has more trouble tacking by herself than I do.

Fortunately, out on the open water there’s usually plenty of room for missing a tack or doing a “chicken-gybe”.

And then there is THE DOCK.

THE DOCK is the biggest single challenge to single handing.  There may be room for mistakes out in the openness of the bay, but inside the marina it’s a whole other story.

More than once I’ve left the marina only to realize that there’s a lot more wind than I thought.  I can handle big wind alone.  Winds approaching 40 knots makes things tougher and challenge that creativity that comes with single handing, but when it’s time to go into the marina, when it’s time to return to THE DOCK, that’s when I’m really forced to become creative.

Bad things happen in the marina.  Bad things like getting sideways to the wind and watching all of that chrome on the super trawler’s bow get closer and closer.  I have learned to simultaneously pray, consider the size of my insurance policy and try to figure my way out of this mess all it once.

But I’ve never hit anyone.  And I have learned.  I have learned that sometimes I don’t go in.  Sometimes the boat and I pace back and forth waiting for a break in the wind or I brainstorm on how to get out of the wind.

One place that a 38 foot, eight ton boat does not have an advantage over a 27 foot, three ton boat is trying to get her into her slip.  And actually, what’s so important about “her slip” anyway?  What’s that old saying?  “Any port in a storm.”  I’m pretty sure that is about docking a boat.  Well docking anyway.  All I know is, when the going gets tough—any slip will do, even if that slip is the potty dock!

While I enjoy single handing, there are times that I really miss having others on board and that’s not only for the company.  For one thing, there are occasions when you must go below.  Especially if you have a peanut sized bladder.  You can’t always go over the rail!

It’s good to have companions when I sail.  It’s good to have crew.  Nothing makes sailing better than sharing the experience with others.

But if there is no one to go with me, I’ll be going it alone.  And if there’s wind, I’ll be sailing.  If you see me, wave “hi” and remember, “While I don’t always sail pretty, I pretty much always sail”.

 Ken St. John

S/V Naughty By Nature

Originally published in the Corinthian Yacht Club of Seattle Mainsheet


About Ken St. John

My name is Ken St. John and along with my wife Julie (the Lovely and Gracious Mrs. St. John), I sail a 1982 Catalina 38, Naughty By Nature. Together we've been sailing about five years. We began with an El Toro, then a Cal 21, followed by a Cal 2-27 and now our Catalina. The Catalina is supposed to be our last boat. We'll see. Our boat is moored in Commencement Bay, just around the corner from our house in Dash Point. This allows us to sail often and to be active in the Corinthian Yacht Club of Tacoma.
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2 Responses to Going it Alone

  1. Bruce Bateau says:

    Ken- I feel the same way you do about sailing alone. It’s a joy, though I’ve seldom felt lonely on a day sail. Sailing with other people would be so much more fun if I sailed alone more! And yes, the dreaded dock. My boat isn’t that big, but everything seems to move so mach faster near the shore!


    • Ken St. John says:

      You know Bruce, I love the solitude and especially the creativity that it takes to manage everything. Sailing alone also forces me to be more careful and more precise.
      And the dock – for me it’s the effect of the wind and sometimes current. Our old boat was 6700 pounds – much easier to man-handle that 16,000 or more. It’s amazing how the darned wind can play havoc close to hard surfaces and other boats.

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