How To Sail A Sailboat By Yourself | A Complete 9 Step Guide

Until this point, you’ve always sailed with others onboard, but this time, you’re thinking of going solo. You’ve watched enough experts and have some firsthand experience, so you think you’ll fare well. Still, there are a few knowledge gaps you wish to fill in before you embark on your journey. How do you sail alone?

To sail a sailboat by yourself, make sure you follow these steps:

  1. Learn everything about your boat 
  2. Practice everything on tranquil seas
  3. Take a safety class
  4. Know some basic knots
  5. Don’t sail without jacklines 
  6. Have a capsizing preparedness plan
  7. Let someone know where you’re going and for how long 
  8. Master anchoring 
  9. Never leave without a life vest or life raft 

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover all the above steps in much more detail, explaining everything you need to do to set sail solo. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll feel confident enough in your skills to safely navigate the waters by sailboat alone.

Sailing a Sailboat by Yourself: Steps to Follow

1. Know Your Boat Inside and Out

When you sailed in the past, more than likely, you divided your responsibilities among you and the other sailors onboard. For that reason, you’re very familiar with some parts of a sailboat, but maybe not all of them. Some sailors may even know all the sailboats components but never used a lot of them.

That won’t do when you’re riding solo. You now do everything there is on the sailboat. You’re the engineer, the bow-person, the navigator, the dial trimmer, and the skipper. You need to not only become comfortable with every last square inch of your sailboat, but you need to know every last secret your boat holds. When you close your eyes, you should envision the layout of your sailboat in your head. 

This may sound excessive, but it’s completely necessary. If you’re fortunate, you’ll have calm conditions on your voyage, but that’s not always realistic. You need to know how to handle your sailboat in emergencies, and that means memorizing every last part of it. This knowledge will take you far and help you feel more comfortable and confident in the idea of sailing by yourself. 

2. Practice, Practice, Practice

You know the old saying that practice makes perfect, right? It’s true. When planning your solo expedition, you want to give yourself lots of leeway. If you can space the trip out a few weeks or even months ahead of time, that will give you ample time to practice. 

After all, you can read about boating terms until you go cross-eyed, but nothing can beat first-hand experience. This is where your familiarization of your sailboat will come from. You want to spend as much time on the water as you can. It’s best to practice in the calmest conditions possible. 

Yes, as we said, the weather probably won’t be perfect every day of your voyage. However, you don’t need the added pressure of a storm when you’re trying to hoist your sails for the first time. It’s going to make it nearly impossible for you to get the job done sufficiently. 

Instead, what you can do is simulate emergency situations. For instance, time yourself on certain tasks, such as trimming, sail hoisting, mainsail reefing, and more. If you’re getting these jobs done quickly enough, then you’ll know that should you have to do them fast, like in a storm, you’ll be fine. You can do that without a single gray cloud in the sky. It’s like having a safety net, which is nice for first-time solo sailors. 

3. Enroll in a Sailing Safety Course 

In your time preparing for sailing your sailboat by yourself, you have probably learned a lot. You might think you know all there is about sailing, but trust us when we say you can always learn more. Sometimes you don’t even realize there are topics you glossed over until you get on your boat and you have no idea where to find the spinnaker pole.

To augment your knowledge and maybe even teach you a new thing or two, we recommend you take a sailing safety course. At the very least, you’ll be all caught up on the latest safety rules and regulations. Plus, like we said, there’s the opportunity to learn, and that’s always good, too. Even if the course acts like a refresher for you, you’ll have all that info in the front of your mind when you set sail.

If you’re doing any kind of offshore racing or cruising, then we suggest taking the Safety at Sea Seminars through the Cruising Club of America specifically. Here, you’ll glean lots of great safety info for offshore racing on your sailboat. 

4. Familiarize Yourself with Tying Knots

There are three general types of sailing knots. Do you know them all? Hitches can attach your line to the stanchion, piling, or cleat. Knots that connect more than one line, like a sheet bend, go by the name bends. Then your stopper knot or your bowline knot would be categorized under basic knots.

Besides those classifications, you must also learn how to tie a handful of sailing knots if you’re going to commandeer your sailboat alone. While maybe you don’t have to know all of the following by heart, get comfortable with them anyway:

  • Cleat hitch: A cleat hitch attaches your dock lines to your cleat. To make a cleat hitch yourself, take your rope and rotate it around the cleat’s base once. The line should be led until its length extends beyond the cleat. Move the line to the cleat’s first horn, making a figure eight there. Then repeat on the other horn. Tuck the line in and secure it by pulling it.
  • Rolling hitch: If your winch drums lines get jammed up, then you’ll rely on a rolling hitch. You want to begin by taking your line and securing it around a post or fixed line. Now do this again. For the third go-around, take your original line’s standing end and put the working end atop it. Go back to the secondary line, tying the original line’s working end over the turns of the secondary line. Give the standing line a tug.
  • Two half hitches: The two half hitches knot can secure many items aboard your sailboat, so learn how to do it. You can start by wrapping your line around the item in question. Attach the first hitch to the turns by taking its working end and tugging it through is standing end. Do the same thing with your second hitch. 
  • Sheet bend: Instead of square knots, try a sheet bend instead. They’re more stable, so they won’t untie under pressure. Tie your own sheet bend by making two half hitches as explained above. You want to then create a running nose between the two half hitches. 
  • Clove hitch: It should take you mere seconds to tie a clove hitch once you become familiar with it. When you want to connect your toerail, stanchion base, or lifeline to your fender whips, a clove hitch comes especially in handy. To start, take your line and wrap it once fully around the item. The line should overlap itself by the second turn. Leave no spare line, so make sure the working line is part of the knot. Give the whole thing a tug to secure it.
  • Stopper knot: Last but not least, we recommend you know the stopper knot. This will keep your line where you want it, unable to slip through your rope clutch or block. Start at the back of the line with a stopper knot. With your working knot, pull it around your hand, keeping it open as you do so. Wrap it around a second time and then push the line’s working end beneath. Release the knot from your hand, holding onto the working end and pulling so the knot will tighten. 

5. Get Your Jacklines Set up and Always Have Them Ready

In case you don’t know (although we hope you do), your sailboat’s jackline connects from your stern to the bow via wire or rope. You can attach a safety harness to the jackline so you can get across the sailboat’s deck in an emergency, such as when capsizing (more on this in a moment). 

Jacklines serve an incredibly crucial purpose, then. While it’s great to know how to tie some of the above sailor’s knots, you want to make sure that your jackline is in place above all else. Besides emergencies, they also come in handy once night falls, in fog, and during storms. 

Now, you’ll have to rig the jackline yourself, starting it at your sailboat’s bow to its stern. Make sure you do this on both the port side and the starboard. You should have your jacklines set up even if you’re not expecting bad weather. This way, should a storm roll in, you don’t have to waste valuable time stringing the jackline. It’ll be ready to go. 

6. Learn How to Come Back from Capsizing

As we’ve written about on this blog before (see here) capsizing is something that can and likely will happen to your sailboat at some point or another. If you recall from that blog post, when sailboats heel or turn at an angle, they’re at a higher risk of capsizing. Also, the lightweight design and shape of a sailboat doesn’t do it any favors when it comes to staying upright.

You shouldn’t think of capsizing or tipping over as a “what if” scenario, then. In fact, depending on the conditions you ride in and how long you plan on sailing, you could end up capsized more than once. Unfortunately, capsizing can lead to death, so it’s very important you’re not caught off-guard. 

You need some sort of plan of attack for what to do when your sailboat capsizes. Whether you get a self-righting boat from the get-go or you learn to right your sailboat when it tips, you need to be ready. 

7. Never Sail Without Someone Knowing about It 

Woo-hoo! You’re about to set sail for your first solo trip and you couldn’t be more excited. You’ve already put in a lot of legwork, studying up on all the terms and parts of your boat, passing a sailboat safety course, practicing your sailing, and tying lots of sailor’s knots. Now you’re ready to ride the open seas on your sailboat. You feel more than prepared.

Wait, hold on. Before you embark, did you let anyone else know of your plans? We don’t just mean vaguely, but detailed information of your trip? If not, then you need to change that ASAP. This sailing communication plan can save your life. It’s ideal if the person you choose is someone with a modicum of sailing knowledge (or even some moderate knowledge), but even if they’re not as experienced as you, it’s still good to have someone aware of your plans.

You want to tell this person where you’re going, how long it should take you to get there, the day and time you’re leaving, and the day and time you estimate you’ll arrive. If that date and time passes and there’s still no sign of you, this contact of yours could try reaching out. 

You have a few means of staying in touch, even on your sailboat. Your smartphone works, but you will have to keep it charged. Also, sometimes, connectivity can be spotty since you can sail pretty far from any cell towers. You could always get a satellite phone or sailboat Wi-Fi installed on your vessel, although neither come very cheap.

8. Know How to Anchor Your Sailboat

If you’re sailing or cruising on a multi-day trip, then you’ve got to stop and sleep sometime. When you do, you’ll have to anchor your sailboat so you don’t lose control of it during your respite. Otherwise, you could end up lost. Your boat could also hit other vessels, crash into a shoreline, or plummet against some rocks, all of which would end your trip very fast. 

Where you choose to anchor matters. You want to make sure you’re not close to a lee shore, since sometimes even when you anchor your sailboat, it will drag a little. The place you select should also offer adequate safeguarding from both waves and wind. If you can stick your anchor in mud or sand, that’s best. It can slip off grass, seaweed, and rocks. You should drop your anchor to a depth of 30 feet, sometimes even 40 feet, but you must make sure you have the right amount of anchor rode, between 200 and 300 feet of the stuff. 

When you do finally drop your anchor, you don’t want to rush it. Stop your sailboat completely and then let the anchor go. If you do this too fast, the anchor might not settle where you want it, which is just as bad as not having anchored your sailboat in the first place. 

9. Have a Life Vest or Life Raft Onboard

As we’ve said already, when you’re sailing by yourself, you assume all duties onboard the vessel. There’s no one else looking out for your safety but yourself, so you must take your own safety very seriously. In all the hustle and bustle of preparing for your first solo sailing trip, you could forget some things. 

While that does happen, one item you must absolutely not forget is a life vest or life raft. You might even bring both since you only need one of each. If it’s a life vest you prefer, then you want to get it fitted before you set sail. The vest should fit close to your body but not to the point where it’s constricting. If you can’t maneuver freely, then the vest is too tight. If it slips right off you when you try to do anything, then it’s too loose. 

We’re not asking you to wear your life vest 24/7, but you can if you want to. You do always want to know where it is and have it within arm’s reach. If you need to put it on very quickly, it won’t be too far away. Having a life vest can be the difference between life and death in a sailboat incident, so please, never forego yours.  

Related Questions

Will a sailboat right itself?

Sailboats won’t right themselves unless you get a model that’s self-righting. These boats can flip themselves back upright without any intervention on your part. If you’re in the market for a new sailboat, then it’s recommended you get a self-righting model. That’s doubly true if you plan on sailing alone. It can be very difficult to push a sailboat upright if you’re by yourself.

Will a sinking boat pull you under?

If your sailboat begins to sink and you’re still onboard, you may wonder what the risk is of it pulling you under with it. It can happen if the sailboat gets full of water and you don’t move or swim to safety. By staying with the boat, a rip current-like situation can develop, where the force of the water pulls you down, potentially causing drowning. 


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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