What Is Shorthanded Sailing?

What Is Shorthanded Sailing? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Are you singlehanded or short on crew members? Well, shorthanded sailing involves much more than a lack of crew. It not only demands a new mindset but also a different approach. The fact that the crew is limited physically should be compensated with more attention to detail. But what exactly is shorthanded sailing?

Shorthanded sailing has become more popular in recent years thanks to its practicality. Whether by chance or choice, it's most likely that sailors will, at some point, find themselves sailing shorthanded. Generally, we all love and feel comfortable sailing with fellow sailors or a group of loyal friends. But what happens when you find yourself sailing alone? Well, you'll be in a better place if you learn shorthanded seamanship. But what is shorthanded sailing? Well, let's find out.

Shorthanded sailing essentially revolves around sailing with a smaller crew than usual. While single-handed sailing refers to solo sailing, shorthanded sailing generally sidesteps the problem of finding or keeping a large crew together. You may have a lot of people on board but in terms of sailing, you're shorthanded. As a skipper, you may have a greater workload given that you're short on the crew or sometimes no one at all. This means that you'll not only have crewmembers to help you out but you'll also have nobody to consult during decision-making processes.

In this guide, let's look at shorthanded sailing, how to set your sailboat up, and how to sail without crew.


Table of contents

Why is Shorthanded Sailing Important?

In today's world, we're becoming short on time. Add this to the fact that finding a large crew is almost impossible and costly, and the only remaining option is shorthanded sailing. Again, modern sail handling systems have made shorthanded sailing more possible for sailors. That's not all; many sailors no longer want to sail with a larger crew like they once did and prefer sailing with a handful of people.

There are also several professional and amateur shorthanded racing events such as the famous Vendee Globe, as well as the numerous local shorthanded series and one-off races. Learning shorthanded sailing can give you the chance of getting involved in these shorthanded sailing events.

Even if you've always sailed with a full crew, it's appropriate to learn shorthanded seamanship and how to handle and practice important maneuvers on your own. In most cases, many sailors can choose to sail shorthanded just to experience what it takes. However, there are times when you can be forced to sail shorthanded. For example, you may be shorthanded if a crew member returns from a cruise earlier than expected as a result of seas sickness or family emergency.

What Can You Do if you're Sailing Shorthanded?

The most important thing when sailing shorthanded is to have the ability to perfectly combine both the tasks of a skipper and crew. While it's easy to get absorbed in certain tasks especially on the deck, it's of great importance to find compromises between deck work and other tasks in the vessel.

For instance, you should know how to balance between navigation and pilotage. You should also know when to reef, how to make time by heaving to while also staying in tune with everything that's happening onboard, at sea, and around the vessel. In essence, you should know how to deal with unexpected issues just in case you find yourself sailing shorthanded.

A Quick Guide to Shorthanded Sailing

The first step to shorthanded sailing is to decide how to manage the challenges that come with shorthanded sailing. This may, however, depend on various factors such as the size and complication of your sailboat, as well as your experience. Here are some of the things to do.

Safety should be a Priority

One of the most important things before sailing shorthanded is safety and seamanship of the vessel. In other words, safety should be of priority given that you'll probably not get any help from someone else. You should, therefore, plan for any hazardous scenarios even when there's none.

It's a known fact that situations can quickly escalate when you're sailing shorthanded given that you're limited when it comes to solving problems. It's, therefore, essential that you stay alert and on the lookout for potential problems.

Here are some of the things to do to ensure that you stay safe.

  • Make sure that the boat is seaworthy
  • File a float plan with the local Coast Guard or let friends know where and when you're sailing shorthand.
  • Have flashlights
  • Have the current weather report
  • Install and use jack lines
  • Use PFDs and tethers
  • Have EPIRBs and PLBs to make calls
  • Have items that can keep you comfortable
  • Have a good knife and necessary tools in the cockpit

The Importance of Timing

When it comes to shorthanded sailing, timing is everything. While you don't have to do anything in a hurry, the most important thing is to do the right things at the right time. Take a deep breath, lower your expectations, and enjoy the feeling as you cruise away from the harbor and set your sails.

Get Ahead of the Weather

Whether you're young, old, experienced, or novice, there's no doubt that weather can cause anxiety in all sailors. It's of great importance that you know the weather before setting the sail. By knowing the weather, you'll be well prepared to throw whatever it throws at you.

Learn How to Handle the Sails

One of the most important things when sailing shorthanded is to know how to properly handle the sails. While handling the sails requires some big help, you should be able to handle them alone while properly maintaining situational awareness. In other words, you must be able to reef the mainsail or pull it down even in worst-case scenarios. You should be able to trim the sheet and pull the backstay to trim the sail.

You have to remember that you do not have a crew to offer stability. To counteract this, you should trim the mainsail flatter so that you can balance the boat and avoid excessive heeling.

When it comes to handling the headsail when shorthanded, you should have a headsail that's fitted on a fixed furling head stay. This is to enable you to reduce the sail area by simply furling in. You should, however, know the exact needs of your boat. Keep in mind that you'll have a lot to do if your boat has many sails. You can also choose a modern supplementary headsail that's hoisted in the spinnaker halyard, mounted with the tack on a bowsprit, and fitted with an anti-torsion-cable in the luff. Make sure that you do real tests and lots of practice until you feel confident.


Many modern sailboats come with autopilot driving that makes it a lot easier to navigate the boats. It's, therefore, important to have a perfect autopilot that can help you navigate the boat for extended periods. In addition to autopilot, the boat should have below-deck systems such as rate-sensing compass and a built-in nine-axis sensor to enable you to steer the boat more accurately.


If you think about reefing, you should already have reefed. This is a common saying among sailors and it can be of great help if you're sailing shorthanded. Forget about the 5-minute rule as it will cause anxiety, more work, and, of course, more problems. A single line reefing system can help greatly, though you can choose to lead pennants from the reef cringes on the luff back to the cockpit. This can help in reducing friction but you'll need additional lines.

You can also use the main halyard, topping lift, reefing pennants, and kicking strap. You should handle all these at the mast, even though this may look so traditional. This can perfectly reduce friction, as well as the physical effort needed but may mean that you lose the benefit of working in the cockpit.

Navigating the Deck

The ability to perfectly and easily navigate the deck is essential, particularly in difficult situations. Modern boats have MFDs and tablets that run charting applications, thereby making navigation a lot easier. Be careful when it comes to where MFD is sited given that the default position may sometimes not work if the boat is largely steered using autopilot.

If you're using any gadget such as an iPad or a tablet, make sure that they are sufficiently protected against spillage or anything that may cause malfunction. You do not want to find yourself in a situation where one of your most important gadgets isn't working.

Sustenance and Rest

When you're sailing shorthanded, you can't afford to lose a crew member as a result of tiredness and exhaustion. For this reason, you should do everything in your capacity to ensure that that you're healthy, well-rested, and eat perfectly. In addition to naps here and there, you should also have back up snacks and meals just in case you feel drained. You should also have a flask of coffee and tea, as well as soup just in case you need to stay hot.

Maneuvering in Close Quarters when Docking

Maybe you've never paid close attention to this, but sailing with a crew can be a nice way of masking your deficiencies or lack of maneuvering skills. But when sailing shorthanded, it's crucial to position the boat accurately and learn how to maneuver the boat in close quarters.

In most cases, docking can be a tricky situation if you are sailing shorthanded. Generally, docking revolves around the skills you employ when maneuvering in close quarters. While you should be proud of your handling skills at sea, it's nothing compared to the ability to maneuver in close quarters. The first step is to be comfortable and have the confidence to dock the boat without relying on the lines.

On the other hand, you can rely on a breast line, which is set amidships and is within reach of the helm. Bring the boat to the dock gently and hold the boat in place with the breast line. It can allow you to easily move around the boat and secure the most important corners first. You can then undo the breast line, reset it, and leave it as the last line to go. In essence, just use the breast line as the crew member for holding and stabilizing the boat. Docking shouldn't happen quickly; just relax and have fun.

Bottom Line

Whether by chance or choice, shorthanded sailing is going to happen at one point and you should be well prepared for such a scenario. It would, of course, make no sense to fail to have fun out there on the water just because you're shorthanded or have no crew. The best thing to do is to prepare for shorthanded sailing by getting ahead of the game and getting some valuable experience.

If anything, shorthanded sailing is a lot easier than you think. Time is everything when it comes to shorthanded sailing. Learn how and when to reduce sails, stay ahead of the weather, and get some good rest and refuel yourself whenever possible. You should also know how to maneuver the boat in close quarters and more importantly, make sure that safety is your priority.

What Is Shorthanded Sailing?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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