Think of all the possibilities that single handed sailing opens up to you. You can go sailing whenever you want to, and will never depend on your friends’ diaries. Or you can simply enjoy a bit of sailing time on your own. Even if sailing alone is not something that you really enjoy, just think of all those situations when you would need to do everything on your own: seasick crew, man overboard, etc. Whether or not you like the idea of being the skipper, first mate, crew and cook altogether, it is clear that being able to single hand a sailboat can be vital in the event of an emergency. Ok, all this may sound great, but then you think “Hang on, I can’t simply do everything on my own! How can I berth the boat without someone helping me out with the lines?”. Well, indeed, berthing is among the trickiest bits of sailing, but even more so when you are single handed. But let’s start with other things that you will need to learn in order to be a self-sufficient sailor.
Single handing a sailboat means that you will have to do everything that you normally delegate to your crew. Yet, you can’t be at two places at the same time –and especially– you can’t leave the helm unattended to do something else. So the first thing that you will need sort out is how to free yourself up from the helm’s slavery. I am assuming that you have a tiller, but there are similar alternatives for wheel steering. For simple manoeuvres like tacking and gybing, depending on the boat’s setup (for example, how far the sheet winches are from the tiller), you can simply steer with the tiller between your legs. Simple, but enough to free up your hands to winch the headsail sheets, etc. Another common alternative is to rig a rope between two aft cleats and around the tiller. Friction between the rope and the tiller is sufficient to temporarily hold the rudder during a tack or gybe. However, if you need to go to the deck or to the cabin and have to leave the helm for longer, then you will need an autopilot.
Electric tillerpilots are the most popular among day sailors and are tremendously useful for single handed sailing. They usually work by keeping a given course, although fancy ones will also steer to wind if they are connected to a wind transducer. Most tillerpilots will also have a tack function that basically shifts the steering course through a tack angle of 100 degrees. Among the disadvantages of tillerpilots, it is fair to say that they consume a great deal of battery. In general, they are also not strong enough to steer the boat under strong wind. In addition, steering to a fixed course may also result in accidental gybes if the wind changes direction. For these and other reasons, many sailors prefer mechanical systems (for example a wind vane), specially for long passages. However, for beginners venturing on short inland or coastal sailing, tillerpilots provide good value for money and will do the job. An autopilot will allow you to do most of the things that you need to do, like navigation, hoist or reef the sails, adjust a traveller, cook, go to the toilet, etc.
Single handed sailing is also easier and safer if the boat is properly rigged for it. There are a few things that can make your life a lot easier, specially when the sea is rough and the wind strong. Having all ropes led back to the cockpit and a few stoppers will save you from a lot of hassle and risk, and allow you to do all sail trimming from the cockpit. Going to the deck with large waves hitting the boat can be risky, but even more so if there is no one else on board to recover you from a man overboard. For the same reason of avoiding the deck, a headsail with a roller furling system is also a must. The roller furling will enable you to reef (furl) a large Genoa in the blink of an eye and safely from the cockpit.
Now let’s go back to the issue of single handed berthing. The general rules for berthing should all be taken into account, and become even more important when you are alone. It is particularly important to have a clear plan, and also a ‘plan B’ in case something goes wrong. Like many other sailing skills, berthing is learned through practice. The good news is that you don’t need to take any risk to practice single handed berthing, simply ask your crew to relax on the deck (but be prepared to jump when you start screaming), and do everything yourself.
As you’d normally do to berth, you first need to assess the wind and tide stream and guess what they will be doing to the boat. Get all lines ready and fenders well distributed from stern to bow (you never know where the hull will hit the dock exactly) well before you start to approach the berth. You will obviously have fenders on the side of the pontoon, but it’s not a bad idea to also have a couple of them on the opposite side just in case things do not end up as you thought they would. You also need to know which side the propwalk will swing your stern to when you reverse to slow the boat down.
Once you are ready, approach the pontoon slowly (but not too slowly, as you might loose steering control). When your beam touches the pontoon, reverse the engine quickly to slow the boat down, and then put it back to neutral. Always give the prop a bit of pause in neutral before reversing (the gearbox will appreciate it). Use your propwalk to keep the boat close to the pontoon. If your propwalk is to starboard, then it may be wise to approach the dock to starboard and vice-versa.
As for the lines, I find it handy to have one cleated amidships. If you do not have a cleat there, tie it to something strong enough to hold, like a headsail block or a sheet winch. Cleating this line first to ashore and keep it as short as possible. This should be enough to prevent the boat from swinging massively. It may be helpful to keep slight revolutions in forward, which will help to hold the boat nicely against the dock. If you reached this point, the situation is already under control and you can cleat the bow/stern lines and then the two spring lines.