Singlehanding Techniques on a West Wight Potter 19
Good singlehanding skills mean that you can take folks sailing who have never been and not have to rely on them as crew.
We have a couple of other sailboats that she will not go near (“what if it flips over?”), but she feels comfortable in the Potter 19. We occasionally sail with friends, but generally it is just the two of us, or me and Sadie (our Lab/Golden mix). I end up sailing alone sometimes because I enjoy sailing in high winds and rough water, and most of our friends are not sailors and do not have the same appreciation for such things. You might say that even when there are others aboard, I am actually singlehanding the boat, and that would be a pretty accurate assessment of the situation.
The most important thing to have for singlehanding is a way to lock the tiller in place so that you can do other things (like talk on the radio, clear a fouled line, or go to the mast to reef). We use a modified Tiller Tamer that has a small length of bungee cord tied to each side so that there is a certain amount of give to it (Andrew Evan’s great book on singlehanding suggests surgical tubing). I have also used Jerry Barrilleaux’s “Cajun tiller tamer,” a length of bungee cord tied to each stern cleat and with 3 or 4 wraps around the tiller. The idea here is that the wraps are made in a straight line between the cleats and are somewhat loose so that you can hand steer. Sliding the wraps along the tiller toward the bow tightens them and holds the tiller more or less in place. This works pretty well, and I use this method on the other boats, but Aldebaran’s tiller has an auto release clam cleat for her kickup rudder that is in the way, so we use the Tiller Tamer.
It is important to realize that a Potter 19 (like most other boats her size and weight) will change her course some as you move around the boat with the tiller locked. I try to stay on centerline when moving as much as possible, but realize that as you move to the leeward side she will tend to head up and as you move to the windward side she will tend to head down.
Aldebaran does not generally self-steer well in waves over a couple of feet, or in higher winds. This depends somewhat on point of sail, and how gusty/choppy it is. So, the next most important thing to know when singlehanding her is how to heave to. In The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, John Rousemaniere describes the process as putting the boat 40 to 60 degrees off the wind, backing the jib so that the clew is near the windward shrouds, and trimming the mainsail so that it is mostly full. When the helm is put to leeward, the boat will make 1 or 2 knots in a series of gradual swoops. This description pretty well matches up to what you can expect out of a P19.
Here is how I do it. Say we are speeding along in 20 knots of wind with a reef in the main and the jib partially furled, and I decide that I need to go below and get something to eat. I will head up onto a close reach and pull in the windward jibsheet until the jib is backed (clew on the windward side of the mast). Depending on what point of sail you were initially on, you may be able to leave the leeward jibsheet set. Do this if there is enough slack in it. Then the mainsheet gets let out so that the boom crosses the leeward coaming at about the center of the cockpit. Push the tiller to about 30 degrees or so to leeward and lock it down. You will generally have to make some minor adjustments to the tiller to balance things just right, but with practice you can do this whole procedure in 30 seconds or so. You want the mainsail to just barely stall as the jib starts to push the bow back down. If it is flogging after the tiller is adjusted, pull the sheet in a bit. Make sure that you have enough room to drift without getting yourself into trouble as she slowly makes headway/leeway. At this point, you can do anything that you need to do and the boat will take care of herself. It is amazing how calm it seems when you are hove-to as compared to pounding through the chop in higher winds.
To get underway again, unlock and straighten the tiller, let the windward jibsheet go (and haul in the leeward jibsheet if you had to uncleat it to back the jib), haul in the mainsheet, and you are right back where you started.
Aldebaran has most of her lines led back to the cockpit. This is quite handy if you are sailing by yourself, and although I know folks who don’t think it necessary (and who seem to do just fine without), I like being able to douse the Ljungstrom or the mainsail on any point of sail without leaving the cockpit. From port to starboard we have: topping lift, Ljungstrom halyard, Ljungstrom downhaul, mainsail downhaul, and mainsail halyard. Combined with the roller reefing for the jib, I can control any of the sails from my seat, only leaving the cockpit if it is necessary to reef the mainsail. There is a great short article at Judy Blumhorst’s Potter 19 website on setting up a system like this. If you are interested in rigging your P19 this way I recommend that you check it out at www.blumhorst.com/potterpages/linesrunaft.html.
Reefing while underway is an important thing to practice. Aldebaran has a 4-ounce main that came with the boat and a 5-ounce main that we got from Point Sails a couple of years ago. Both sails have two sets of reef points, although we mostly sail with the 5 ounce—given the weather down here. The boom has blocks and cleats on it for jiffy reefing, and I usually rig both jiffy reefing lines. Reefing is accomplished by heaving to, then letting off the main halyard to its reefing mark (marked in sharpie at the correct spot), using the downhaul if necessary to pull the sail down, then standing on the cooler/step in the companionway and hooking the tack of the sail to the reefing hook on the gooseneck. While I am there, I can pull in and cleat the jiffy reefing lines and then tie in the nettles, working my way back and ending up in the cockpit. Again, if you don’t have your boat set up for this, check out Judy B’s excellent Potter 19 site: www.blumhorst.com/potterpages/potter_19_jiffy_reefing.htm .
Another handy thing to have is a cockpit organizer. I made ours out of half of a Husky brand Bucket Jockey from Home Depot. One side of this thing has a bunch of pouches that are just the right size for stuff like a handheld VHF, wind meter, GPS, signal horn, etc. Just cut it apart where the two sides are sewn together and put a couple of grommets in. Ours hangs from a couple of suction cup hooks that we got at the dollar store. It is great for keeping stuff handy, but up off the seats. Pretty much everything that fits into the organizer has a lanyard on it that is attached to the cockpit rail.
I’d have to say that I consider a motor in good working order to be an important safety feature on any boat that is too large to row or paddle. Our Nissan 5-horse outboard came with the boat, and is rarely used. It gets maybe a gallon of gas run through it in a year’s time. This lack of use can lead to issues if proactive maintenance is not done. A while back, Sadie and I headed to Sabine Lake for a weekend on the water. After rigging the boat and putting her in the water I cranked the outboard to make sure that it would start, and for the first time ever, it did not. This did not stop us from heading out as we usually leave the dock under sail anyway. We had a great time sailing and the defunct motor did not cause any problems at all until we sailed back in and turned into the channel leading to the dock. The wind had shifted some and was blowing at 14 or 15 knots straight down the 40 foot wide channel. The tide was out, too, leaving only about three feet of water under the hull.
This left me with only two options. First I tried to tack up the narrow channel with the daggerboard cranked halfway up. The P19 takes a moment to get her speed up after a tack, and with the daggerboard partially raised she doesn’t like going to windward. This combined with her hefty windage meant that after three tacks we really were making no progress, so at that point I went with option number two and jumped overboard and hand-towed her the 100 yards to the dock, keeping a close eye on the pair of juvenile alligators who live in the channel. A helpful spectator took the bowline and held it while I climbed back into the boat and then up on the dock. I got to thinking what it would have been like to make my way through a crowded anchorage or marina in similar conditions, and when I got back home that day I immediately went online and ordered the service manual for the outboard.
After a day of disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling, the motor started on the third pull and ran better than it ever has (at least since we have owned it). I cleaned the carburetor and fuel tank filter, and even put a new spark plug in after re-gapping it to the specs called for in the service manual. A properly maintained motor can be handy in a variety of ways. What if you are out in the middle of nowhere and have a rudder failure, or your mainsail rips top to bottom, or God forbid the rig comes down? With a working motor, you have options that you don’t have otherwise, singlehanding or not.
Finally, a secondary anchor that is kept for ease of use in the cockpit is an important piece of equipment anytime you are sailing, but especially if you are singlehanding. I keep ours in a small plastic crate at the aft end of the cockpit so that I don’t have to worry about tripping over it. It is a cheap Danforth type to supplement the 8 pound Danforth that lives up on the bow. The rode is run outside the shrouds to the anchor roller on the bow, then inside the shrouds back to the cockpit, where I can adjust the rode’s length and cleat it to one of the stern cleats after deployment without ever having to leave the cockpit. I do have to go forward to retrieve it, but that is generally under conditions that are more relaxed than those that would call for an emergency anchor deployment.
Larger boats than the P19 have been singlehanded on longer trips than most of us will ever take, but the key to singlehanding any boat is to put some thought into how to set her up for it, then practice with crew onboard until you are comfortable taking her out by yourself. Good singlehanding skills mean that you can take folks sailing who have never been and not have to rely on them as crew. You can introduce your spouse who is not a sailor to the joys of sailing, or take friends or the dog, and feel confident enough in your abilities that they feel comfortable, too. That’s a recipe for a fun and memorable experience for everyone involved.
Chuck Pierce lives in Beaumont, Texas with his wife Kathy and Sadie the half-Lab, half-Golden, Hair Machine and Sailing Dog. He has completed two Texas200’s in his Potter 19 Aldebaran.
First appeared in issue #76