The extreme sport of short-handed sailing

What exactly is this sport and why is it considered extreme?

In sailing, a ‘hand’ is a member of a ship’s crew so Shorthanded sailing (or Single Handed) is  solo sailing (“Elementary my dear Watson”) … whether on a short or long voyage. Double Handed (two on board) sailing comes within the same catagory.

“Today sailing is one of the last fields of endeavor where an individual can make his or her preparations and is largely obliged to bear the consequences of these decisions once at sea,” says Joe Cooper, President of the Shorthanded Sailing Association. “My personal goal would be to have many more sailors be better prepared and more confident to make the voyages we all read about and dream of by participating in the kinds of events that an association such as the one we are about to establish can produce and promote.”

This is not a new sport and modern sailors have certainly been inspired by the adventures of earlier ones. Although probably stretching back to early Polynesian sailors who were inspired navigators, the sport gathered impetus  in the mid-19th century when the first authenticated single-handed ocean crossing was made by 30-year-old fisherman, Alfred “Centennial” Johnson who sailed out of Gloucester, Massachusetts in an open dory called Centennial and crossed the Atlantic making landfall 3000 nautical miles later at Abercastle, Wales on 12th August, 1876.

The sport was firmly established with the famous voyage of Joshua Slocum who circumnavigated the world between 1895 and 1898 – a feat that was considered impossible at that stage bearing in mind that the Panama Canal had not yet been built. His book ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’ is still considered a classic adventure, and has inspired many others to take to the seas.

Worth noting here are the adventures of Argentine sailor Vito Dumas who set sail in 1942 whilst the world was in the throes of the Second World War and singlehandedly circumnavigated the Southern Hemisphere in a 31-foot (9 m) ketch. His voyage of 20,000 miles (32,000 km), although not a true circumnavigation as it was contained within the southern hemisphere, was the first single-handed passage of the three great capes, and indeed the first successful single-handed passage of Cape Horn. With only three landfalls, the legs of his trip were the longest that had been made by a single-hander, and is even more commendable in that he had successfully negotiated the most ferocious oceans on the Earth without even a radio. Why no radio? For fear of being intercepted and taken for a spy!

It was only a matter of time until this sport was turned into the ultimate challenge – single-handed yacht racing. It was pioneered by Britons “Blondie” Hasler and Francis Chichester who had a half-crown bet on first place for the winner of a westward crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The race, called OSTAR, developed into the first single-handed transatlantic yacht race and was held in 1960.

It was won in 40 days by Chichester, then aged 58, in Gipsy Moth III.

Not content with this, Chichester set his sights on the next logical goal—a racing-style circumnavigation of the world. In 1966 he set off in Gipsy Moth IV, a yacht that had been custom-built for a speed attempt to set the fastest possible time for a round-the-world trip. At the age of 65 he became the first single-handed sailor to circumnavigate west-to-east, by the clipper route, with just one stop (of 48 days) in Australia. The voyage took 274 days overall, with a sailing time of 226 days. This was twice as fast as the previous record for a small vessel.

Even after so many “firsts” have been achieved, sailors today still set out to make their mark on history. Just look at Ellen MacArthur – another great Briton…

  • June 2000: current record for a single-handed monohull east-to-west passage, and also the record for a single-handed woman in any vessel; she sailed the monohull Kingfisher from Plymouth, UK to Newport, Rhode Island, USA in 14 days, 23 hours, 11 minutes.
  • 2000-2001: her second place in the Vendée Globe with a time of 94 days, 4 hours and 25 minutes is the world record for a single-handed, non-stop, monohull circumnavigation by a woman.
  • June 2004: she sailed her trimaran B&Q/Castorama from Ambrose Light, Lower New York Bay, USA to Lizard Point, Cornwall, UK in 7 days, 3 hours, 50 minutes. This set a new world record for a transatlantic crossing by women, beating the previous crewed record as well as the singlehanded version.
  • 2005: she beat Francis Joyon’s existing world record for a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation in the trimaran B&Q/Castorama. She sailed 27,354 nautical miles (50,660 km) at an average speed of 15.9 knots in 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes 33 seconds with no more than 20 minutes sleep at a time, beating Joyon’s then world record time by 1 day, 8 hours, 35 minutes and 49 seconds. Subsequently, in late 2007, Joyon snatched his record back by bettering Ellen’s time in a 57 days, 13 hours 34 minutes and 6 seconds circumnavigation.

And 40 years after first conquering the world, Gypsy Moth IV showed she was still a boat to reckon with by circumnavigating the world again…

The single biggest fear for shorthand sailors is that of falling overboard. In a boat with crew you stand a chance of being rescued, but to man-overboard on your own with the only solid thing in your huge watery world disappearing over the horizon on auto-pilot … not a nice thought. So staying on your boat is imperative and with the use of  handholds, lifelines, and tethers, single-handed sailors make themselves as safe as possible… some even tow a rope astern as a last desperate  resort should they fall in.

File:Single Hander Reefing.jpg

A sailor in strong winds remains tethered to the boat for safety as he reefs his sails – with thanks to Wikipedia for the photographs.


  1. A Double-handed Sailing Race begins on Friday, 31st December - 2010 | 28 December

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