Self Reliant Sailing – Taking the Helm

“At times like this, I was thankful I could manage the boat myself.”

On social media recently I’ve seen some posts from people admitting they rarely helm, or take control of their boat. This reminded me when Noel was ill and it was up to me to get us to, and in, a foreign port, on our 51 footer. Here’s the excerpt from This Is It…


On the second night, Noel became ill. He thrashed in the aft-double bed, writhing beneath sweat glossed skin. He moaned, hot, cold, clearly in pain, and with half-closed eyes darting back and forth. I worried over his condition and spent the night alone in the cockpit.

Every fifteen minutes, with stomach clenched in worry, I’d nip below decks, wondering if Noel’s condition had worsened.

Mostly, he’d relax enough to relay the message that he’s okay. Clearly, he wasn’t.

The bed became sticky with sweat beneath him; I tried to mop his brow with a cool cloth, but he fidgeted and ached.

‘Everything hurts,’ he said; he’s never one to complain.

While the pain buffeted Noel below decks, Pyewacket sailed beautifully in near perfect fifteen knots of wind aft of the beam; as if the wind, waves, and boat had conspired to make my night easy. I only had to watch for other traffic; check the lines, sails, rigging, radar, course, speed; and then navigate and download weather maps to ensure nothing horrid lurked nearby.

‘Do you need me to radio for some help?’ I asked Noel at one stage during a lucid moment.

‘No, it’s a fever. I’m fine.’ I watched him closely.

What could anyone do via radio anyway?

The night dragged for us both; Noel in the grip of an unrelenting fever, and lack of sleep threatened my skills with each passing minute. At times like this, I was thankful I could manage the boat myself. Noel and I made a point of us both understanding, handling, and managing every aspect of sailing, weather, navigation, and the boat as a whole. We always feared and prepared for the worst case scenario: something happening to one of us, leaving the other single-handing.

Can you handle the sails, navigation, watch, manoeuvring, collision regulations?
Can you handle the sails, navigation, watch, manoeuvring, collision regulations?

Through the night, I became starkly aware of my responsibilities, my power. I’m in control. I had sole
responsibility. I wallowed in a sense of achievement for a while.

Yes, this is ‘enough.’ I answered my long asked question.

My little piece of self-indulgence didn’t last long with equipment checks, patient examinations, and a foreign port to enter in the morning.

I pulled the large scale chart of the Pago Pago harbour to the top of the pile and studied it carefully. We’d already put waypoints into the GPS for the safest route. I checked the latitude and longitude of each one and opened up the electronic charts, too.

The bright computer-based charts were simply amazing, with the ability to zoom in and out all over the world. We could plug in our GPS and watch us move along the screen.

But we didn’t trust them.

AUS252 chart with navigation course

We didn’t trust the paper charts, either.

And not to sound like conspiracy theorists, neither did we trust the GPS entirely (not for narrow waterways).

Inherent errors exist in every piece of equipment, chart, paper, and electronic. Not one item must be solely relied upon. So we utilised everything at our disposal, as well as our ears, eyes, and all those yummy, fun, imperative navigation exercises the best boat skippers employ all the time: deduced reckoning (DR), distance speed time calculations, running fixes, set and drift, double the angle off the bow, three bearing fixes, and at times, in calm weather, utilising the sextant – celestial navigation.

You can continue reading here by purchasing This Is It – 2 hemispheres, 2 people, and 1 boat

Have you had an unplanned single-handed experience?

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