Single-handed Sailing

By Frank Mulville

184pp, pen and ink drawings.


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            In this book the author has not attempted to cover his subject matter in a comprehensive, encyclopedic manner. Instead he has provided us with a solid compilation of sound advice based almost entirely on his considerable personal experience. I like this approach because it avoids the endless repetition of poorly-founded advice that is common in books compiled from multiple sources--books which are then sometimes used as a source for another compilation, etc. I know from doing historical research that the “compilation method” can result in a well-intentioned piece of advice from a single source being magnified in significance, often by a simple turn of phrase, until it is regarded as a proven fact. Such errors of emphasis can be very difficult to undo once they become part of the conventional wisdom.

            Therefore I have come to especially value advice and information that comes straight from the person who came up with it from their own experience. Given the usual nature of long term liveaboards and voyagers, such advice is often offered humbly, with a specific account of the experiences that led to the advice, allowing us to give the advice greater or lesser weight as seems appropriate to us. After all, there is no complete compendium of nautical advice. If we really seek to know as much as we can about our subject, we will have to read many books, and listen to many people, and we will still find that in sailing our own boats we will have ample opportunity to make new contributions to the body of knowledge. It is a relatively small and historically recent way of life, and while those new to the life will always find the learning process to be very immediate and often harsh, the sense that one is a participant in the development of the body of knowledge is part of the charm for most of us. One either develops a thirst for knowledge and a joy in other people’s great ideas, or one becomes overwhelmed by what one doesn’t know and gives up on it.

            While the book contains some excellent specific advice and offers a number of technical solutions to the typical problems of the singlehander, most of the advice is general. Those looking primarily for a catalog of clever devices and hardware will not find it here. Instead the advice centers on attitude, emphasis, problem-solving, seamanship, etc., and the ways those things must all be different for the single-hander.  As desirable as some specialized gear may be, part of the author’s point is that most well-found yachts can be singlehanded voyagers, if and only if the singlehander approaches their outfitting and their use with the right priorities in mind. This book is a great exposition of those priorities.

            There are only two areas in which I would suggest the reader look elsewhere for the best advice. One is the subject of storm tactics. Mulville offers more or less conventional advice about handling storms, most of which seems to be dead on, but in the matter of heaving-to versus lying ahull or running off, I think readers should be sure to consult the book, Storm Tactics Handbook, by Lin and Larry Pardey. In my opinion that book has now become the foremost authority on its subject, and it differs in several important ways with the conventional wisdom prevailing before its publication. Specifically, the Pardey’s book is an utterly convincing argument for heaving-to as opposed to running off, as the ultimate storm defense, aided by a sea anchor and a specific bridle arrangement that I will not take the time to explain here.

            The other thing is the matter of twin boomed-out headsails for running in the trades. The author makes the case for this arrangement, which was in strong favor in the days before the advent of windvane self-steering gears. There is no question but that it is a workable arrangement which has been used successfully by many yachts over the years. However, now that twin running sails no longer need to provide the great benefit of steering the yacht, it has come to be widely believed that they are not worth their notable drawbacks.  Those drawbacks include the fact that boats tend to roll more than usual under these sails, sometimes to an extreme degree, depending on the boat’s hull shape. But to my mind the worst aspect of the arrangement is that it seriously restricts the yacht’s ability to quickly reverse course to pick up a person overboard (or for the single-hander, who will not be picked up in that case, an important object that has fallen overboard—perhaps the ship’s cat). Most yachts today use a single boomed-out headsail and a mainsail with a vang, which can be rigged to be fairly quickly released and will allow the yacht to sail to windward under a balanced rig.

            The author casually mentions the notion of swimming off the boat when becalmed at sea, and points out things to be concerned about when doing that (namely sharks and having the boat sail away without you). I have often read of other singlehanders doing this, and all I can say is that I think it is literally madness or a complete failure of imagination for a singlehander to ever, ever, leave the boat while she is underway, becalmed or not. Every becalmed yacht will at some point no longer be becalmed, and if that moment comes when one is swimming or taking pictures from the dinghy, all is lost. Nobody can swim faster than even a very slow-moving sailboat, so as far as I’m concerned no single-hander should ever do this, despite the many written accounts of people doing so. Perhaps it is too obvious to point out that those who have had to float alone in the middle of the ocean while watching their boat slowly sail away over the horizon, did not get to write about it.

            The book was written before the advent of GPS, when Satellite Navigation or SatNav was the latest in electronics. Since then electronics have improved greatly in both accuracy and reliability, but the author’s basic point that a voyaging yacht must have aboard the non-electrical, traditional instruments (compass, sextant, chronometer, sight reduction tables, distance log, and lead line) and the crew must be in the habit of using them, is just as valid today as it was then. If there is a system on the boat (such as nearly every electrical system) that can be put out of action by a bucketful of water, it is not emergency equipment and may well fail in service under everyday conditions at sea.

            There is a rather large section on avoiding injuries at sea, and some rather grim details about emergency operations that may be necessary if things do not go well. These don’t make pleasant reading but they are a wakeup call well worth heeding.

            The chapter, “Close Work and Anchoring” contains several excellent suggestions that by themselves are clearly worth many times the price of the book. The author recommends performing as many operations under sail as possible, so as to maintain and enhance one’s skills in case one should have to do this when the auxiliary engine is not working. To this I would add that in many instances, even when maneuvering under power having some sail up can make the boat more controllable should one miss the mooring. In a ketch or yawl, having just the mizzen up can prevent the bow from blowing off to one side if, having stopped the boat next to the mooring, one fails to snag it. This can help keep you clear of neighboring vessels or other obstructions while you get moving again. My current boat is very light and has a very small rudder, so she is prone to being blown around when pulling up the anchor, or leaving a mooring, or if one misses a mooring, so if I am in close quarters I usually don’t perform these operations under power without having the mainsail set to provide weather helm if I need it, until the rudder can get a grip on the water as I get underway again. Mulville sensibly recommends having the engine ready to start when performing operations under sail, and correctly points out how much more reliable this plan is with a diesel than with a gas motor.  I would just add that I typically perform my operations under sail but with the engine running. Outside observers might not realize I have made my maneuvers entirely under sail,  but if I make a mistake it is just that much quicker to regain control. Obviously the importance of these matters varies with the amount of searoom one has.

            Among the other topics that are well addressed in Single-Handed Sailing are: the psychological advantages, drawbacks, and hazards of singlehanded sailing; the importance of self-discipline and vigilance; dangers specific to single-handers; safety harnesses and jacklines, including some excellent, specific arrangements; self-steering; navigation;  heavy weather (despite our recommendation above with regard to ultimate storm tactics, Mulville has much else to say about heavy weather which is of great value); good suggestions for improved reefing  and storm sail arrangements.

            The book is also warm, pleasing and enjoyable to read.

            All in all this is a very sensible offering of sound advice based on a lot of personal experience, which can be well recommended to anyone interested in the subject matter.



Dan MacNaughton

Searsmont, Maine




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