Adventures in Single Handing

A lot is written these days about girl bosses, boss bitches, women in charge, and leaning in. Though I’m not part of the corporate machine, and I’m no one’s boss, I am dead set on developing the skills I need to be in full command of Sunshine. That will take a lot of leaning in, heaving ho, and bitching.

We’ve been at this live aboard cruising game for a number of years now, and it’s always been my aim to learn to single hand. Tom has done it while I was away, but I’ve never had the chance to try. To be honest, I’ve also lacked the guts to just go for it. Which flies in the face of my desire to always seek adventure and competence.

Responsible Adventure

There are many ways to get to adventure. Going out in a boat without knowing what you’re doing is one way. But I believe it’s incumbent on any responsible adult who spends a lot of time on a boat, to know how to take over and run that boat. The sea can be a dangerous place. Accidents happen. Skippers get seasick. I never want to be thrust into that The-Stewardess-is-Flying-the-Plane kind of adventure, getting talked down, or rescued because I don’t have the skills. If I am going to be on the boat, I am going to be expert at handling her, and to be complete, that means single handing.

That’s the plan. In reality, with time always tight, or weather inconvenient, Tom became the defacto Captain. He has more experience driving, docking, and repairing boats, along with greater strength. I’m good at the helm, and dock, anchor and sail as part of a team, but I haven’t made a concerted effort to learn to single hand.

Building Confidence

That changed when I returned from my care taking time in Washington. That particular adventure had me doing all house, garden, car, food, fitness, and financial tasks, along with organizing medical care, safety, travel, and fun for myself and my loved one. Then I drove across the country by myself, camped in a tepee in Wyoming, and hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail. There was no way my chosen boating life would remain the one area I didn’t have the confidence to go alone.

So, now that I’m back to boating, I’m obsessed with getting completely proficient at handling the boat myself.

There are a lot of skills, hacks and techniques required to move a boat around. A boat that you live on takes even more prep. The first couple of months home that’s pretty much all I could manage, just work on getting all my habits and sea legs back. But this month I’ve dug in and worked on my boat handling skills.

Basic Boat Handling Skills


The other day I took a major step forward in my docking. I left the dock by myself in wind and current and then docked again in the same conditions.

Our slip is in a tight corner, with a fire suppression system stand pipe right where our anchor goes. We can only get Sunshine in and out at high tide, and even then, the space between other boats and a hump of mud is narrow. My depth meter read 4’8″ and Sunshine’s draft is 4’10”. Dragged the keel through the pluff mud once again. So thankful for pluff mud. Much more forgiving than rocks. I did not hit the stand pipe. Yay me.


Image of Nancy Bartlett raising anchor single handing

Anchoring by myself is the skill I’m currently pursing. Sunshine has no windlass. We drop and raise the anchor by hand. I’ve always done either part of the job, the steering or the anchor handling. But now I’m treating Tom like a fire extinguisher – only there in case of an emergency. I do it all. I drive, select the spot, determine how much line to put out for proper scope, position the boat, drop the anchor. When it’s time to leave, I pull the anchor up, regardless of the weather and tide conditions, and drive out of the anchorage.

If we were in a very tight anchorage with many other boats, I might condescend to have Tom help. But for now, I’m making him sit on his hands while I work on my 10,000 hours of practice.


Navigation is mostly covered by our charting software, Navionics. But I also know how to use a paper chart, GPS, compass and dividers to locate our position and set a course. I will never go anywhere without a paper chart. Like skippers, electronics have their weaknesses. I will not be at the mercy of a wonky chart plotter, software glitch, or corroded connection. Backup systems are a must aboard a boat.


In weather, steering can be really hard. Upper body strength is vital. Keeping myself fit is job one. I steer as much as I can, and hit the weight machines three times per week. Raising the main at the dock on windless days is another great way to build strength and confidence.


This is the big one, and another great reason to raise the main more often. For me to single hand under sail will take a lot of practice and some techniques and tools we don’t currently have aboard. Sunshine’s main sail is huge and heavy. I can raise it, but it takes me a while. In shallow East coast waters, time is sometimes not all that plentiful when you have to round up into the wind, keep the boat steady, and haul the sail up before hitting land.

In heavy weather, holding on to the helm comes first. But the sails can’t just be left to do whatever. Being able to drop the sails in an emergency is a huge project I will have to tackle soon.

Single Handing – Putting the Parts Together

For my birthday, I didn’t want anything but to get the boat back under full sail again. It’s been almost two years. Tom came along for the ride, but single handing, I took Sunshine to Eddings Creek, near the mouth of St. Helena Sound and anchored her for the night. In the morning I pulled anchor and headed out to the Atlantic for a leisurely sail in the sunshine down the coast to Port Royal Sound. The wind was forecast to be 10 knots from the east, the seas 1-2 meters. We would have a nice, smooth beam reach.

Cue the theme to Gilligan’s Island.

Cruise Planning – Another Basic Skill

Image of navigational chart showing portion of South Carolina coast

I forgot that this section of the South Carolina coast runs more west than south. That east wind was actually 15 knots on our tail the whole way, and pushing waves that were usually more like 2-3 meters. I think I saw a few 8 foot waves, though I didn’t have time to measure. Another set of rollers came at our port beam, leftovers from a storm somewhere off Africa. Sunshine is a light little bobber of a boat. She surfed one set of waves, then slewed sideways on the other, then rolled upright to meet the next set. The motion was pretty bad.

Right after Tom raised the main, he headed for the rail. I’m not going to say he was of little use most of the day, he did tune the sails, and he steered now and again. But for about 11 hours it was mostly my boat. Luckily, I was ready. I had the mindset in place, and we’ve been going to the Y to lift weights and swim. I had the strength to fight Sunshine back on course after each sickening swoop, but by the time we got back to dock, my hands were claws dangling from noodles.

Ironically, Tom had just begun installing our new auto-pilot a few days before this. But I couldn’t wait. No complaints though, this was my perfect birthday treat. I should be more careful what I wish for.

Candace, my friend and sailing mentor, had this to say about our trip: “In general, I think that’s the way sailing goes. The word “sail” sounds so soothing, and from shore it looks so peaceful, but that’s true at most 25% of the time.”

And so goes my progress toward sailing independence, it looks peaceful from shore.

In the Boot Prints of Female Captains

Image of etching of pirate Anne Bonney

Before anyone gets the idea I think I’m sailing uncharted waters – I’m hardly the first woman to want to be captain. There have always been women in command of boats and ships. My goals in this area are not to head off to sea alone, or even to get a captain’s license. Neither Tom nor I are planning to single hand. I just want to be able to, for my own fulfillment, for confidence, and for safety.

I did a search for “female captain” and the first link that came up was about Anne Bonney, a famous pirate, and the history of piracy.

There’s nothing wrong with a little piracy now and again. I do feel a bit like a pirate sometimes as I wrest the wheel from Tom’s manly hands.

“Arr,” I tell him, “go make coffee.” But I can’t help adding, “Please.”

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  1. Happy belated birthday Nancy. Glad to read the adventure of living and learning are still dear to you. Please relay to Tom a warm hug. Regards, The other Tom J.

    1. Thanks Tom! It’s great to hear from you. The learning and adventures do continue. Would love to see you guys again. Come sailing with us!

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