Singlehanded Sailors Notebook

Practical Sailor contributor and veteran singlehander Skip Allan outlines his gear and game plan for solo sailing the Pacific Ocean.


First sailed in 1978 and held in even-numbered years, the Singlehanded TransPac (SHTP) crosses 2,120 miles of Pacific Ocean from windy San Francisco Bay, across prevailing and often vigorous coastal Northwesterlies, under the Pacific high, and down the tradewinds, to tropical Hanalei Bay, Kauai.

Singlehanded Sailing

Mariah’s Eyes Photograpy

Though sponsorship is allowed, few have availed themselves, and the majority of the SHTP fleet are sailors who pour their hopes and dreams into whatever boats they happen to have at the time.

Organized by an all-volunteer staff of the Singlehanded Sailing Society (SSS) of San Francisco Bay, the SHTP has strict entry requirements, including a 400-mile qualifier, a working emergency rudder demonstration, and a 20- to 60-foot overall length limit.

Though the race has jestfully been dubbed a “bug light for weirdos,” world-class navigators Mark Rudiger and Stan Honey have both won the SHTP overall-Rudiger in the 29-foot non-ultralight Shadowfax in 1984 and Honey with his Cal-40 Illusion in 1994. The late Steve Fossett holds the multihull record of seven days in the 60-foot trimaran Lakota, while Vende Globe vet Bruce Schwab won in 1996 with his 66-year-old, long and narrow, 30-square-meter Rumbleseat. John Guzzwell, of Trekka fame, raced his beautiful cold-molded, water-ballasted, 30-footer Endangered Species in both 1998 and 2002. The most popular production design over the years for the SHTP has been the ultra-
light displacement boat (ULDB), Olson 30, of which 13 have participated, winning their class four times, and overall honors in 1986 and 1988.

True to form, this years 30th anniversary of the Singlehanded TransPac, which starts July 12, includes an entry list of widely diverse designs, most of the 23 entrants are 40 feet and under. They include a vintage Cal-20, an International Folkboat, Islander 36, Westsail 32, and Valiant 40. Also meeting at the starting line will be the speedy downwind designs of a Jutson 32, Olson 30, Santa Cruz 27, J-92, and the 2006 winner, Mark Deppes J-120 Alchera. Ken “The General” Roper, the events most frequent competitor, has entered his Finn Flyer 31 Harrier in his 10th SHTP at age 78.

In celebration of this anniversary, Practical Sailor contributing editor Skip Allan, of Santa Cruz, Calif., will contest the SHTP 30 years after he raced the inaugural event in 1978, when he and his boat Wildflower finished second in division to Norton Smiths ULDB Santa Cruz 27 Solitaire.

Allan, 63, is a veteran of 27 Hawaii races. He cites the camaraderie, the challenge of the two-week ocean crossing, and the “unfinished business” of second place as principal reason hes back again. And finally, he says, “Hanalei Bay is the most beautiful place in the world to finish an ocean race.”

Allan took time out from pre-race preparations to present this report on the gear and tactics he employs when racing alone. It is important to note that Practical Sailor does not condone sailing without someone on watch, a very risky reality that singlehanders face. Stay tuned for Allans followup report on electronics and safety systems for the singlehander.

Singlehanders Notebook

As one would expect of a performance-oriented cruiser, much of my emphasis is on sails and sail handling. The 27-foot-6-inch Wildflower has a 150-square-foot Dacron mainsail with two full-length upper battens and three slab reefs. The main can be reefed or unreefed in any wind strength on any point of sail, including downwind, something which I insist on, rather than having to turn the boat into the wind and seas.

Wildflower also carries the SHTP-mandated storm trysail. This sail lives on deck on its own track, is about the size of a fourth reef in the main, and sheets to the rail track. In advance of tying in the third reef or hoisting the trysail, the main is dropped, and a spring-loaded Forespar solid vang supports the boom during these exercises.

In the masthead foretriangle, for upwind sailing, there is a 117-percent Dacron No. 2, and an 85-percent No. 3, both with their clew well above the lifelines. These raised clews help avoid scooping waves and improve visibility to leeward. The jibs have short luffs and tack pendants, and can be raised several feet on the halyard when sailing off the wind. By raising the jib tack, chafe on the lifelines and pulpit is minimized, and again, visibility is maximized.

When offshore, Wildflower can be quickly converted to a cutter rig by bringing the inner forestay forward to a padeye 3 feet aft of the headstay. This inner forestay is tensioned with a turnbuckle and supported under deck by a tie rod to the stem. Running backstays are available, but not essential in most conditions, thanks to a large-diameter mast section.

There are three staysails that can be set on the inner forestay: a genoa staysail for reaching and a working staysail, which can be used alone in winds over 25 knots. A storm staysail of 38 square feet completes the sail inventory. With these choices, it is easy to shift gears without the need for roller furling, and Im able to keep the center of effort (CE) near the middle of the boat as sail area is reduced.

For off-wind sailing, Wildflower has two identical 255-square-foot, 0.8-ounce polyester, 125-percent jib topsails. These “JTs” hoist either singly for reaching or together with staggered hanks and a common halyard as twin jibs with twin whisker poles set with twin topping lifts.

In addition to white sails, Wildflower carries a symmetrical 650-square-foot, 0.75-ounce spinnaker. The spinnaker is about 20 percent greater in area than the twin jibs combined. Ideally, Id fly this sail as much as possible when running. In reality, however, the self-steering is unable to cope with the spinnaker in winds greater than 15 knots, and I either have to hand steer or switch to twin jibs. This change from spinnaker to twins takes five minutes, as whisker poles are rigged and the main dropped to avoid blanketing the leeward twin.

Before hoisting, Wildflowers spinnaker is easily put in stops by a series of clothing snaps along the luffs. I prefer stopping with these snaps, or yarn, and eschew the complexity of snuffers, which prove more useful on larger boats. I also prefer the simplicity of dropping the spinnaker under the boom in the lee of the main.

When dropping the spinnaker, the foreguy is temporarily led aft to a block near the windward chainplates. In this position, the foreguy keeps the pole from slamming into the headstay when the afterguy is run. I also trail the halyard tail overboard to assure the absence of tangles. Then, with the apparent wind angle at 150 degrees, I blow the afterguy, pull in and cleat the sheet, let the halyard run, and gather the spinnaker under the boom.

The spinnaker has a “thong,” which is a light Spectra line running from the head to the middle of the foot on the outside of the sail. This “thong” is encased in a small nylon tube that runs down the centerline of the sail. By tensioning the “thong,” the spinnaker is divided into two halves, becoming in effect twin jibs. This “reefing” stabilizes the spinnaker and is useful from 150 degrees apparent to dead downwind. During squalls, when attempting singlehanded, end-for-end spinnaker jibes, and in lighter winds, when the spinnaker luff wants to collapse, tensioning the thong can be used to good effect to quiet the spinnaker.

Self Steering

All-important rest depends on reliable self-steering. In Wildflowers case, I combine the balance of the cutter rig with redundant self-steering systems. I carry two Raymarine Autohelm electric tiller pilots (one as a backup). These steer the boat in smooth seas, winds under 10 knots, and at boat speeds less than 4 knots. They can be used to steer a compass course or to the apparent wind angle.

When in use, the tiller pilot is secured against accidental falls overboard. It lives in a custom, watertight acrylic canvas sleeve to protect against moisture, the bane of above-deck tiller pilots.

As winds increase, I switch to the Sail-O-Mat windvane. This powerful self-steering unit mounted on the transom has small-diameter Spectra cords leading from its servoblade to the tiller. With little friction and three sizes of wind vane to choose from (the lighter the apparent wind, the bigger the vane), the Sail-O-Mat can steer Wildflower on all points of sail using zero electricity.

The Sail-O-Mat performs best at boat speeds greater than 4 knots where increasing speed through the water increases its steering power and speed of response. Wildflowers best days run, 186 miles in 24 hours, was set entirely under windvane steering while reaching in 20 knots of wind under the No. 3 jib, working staysail, and double-reefed main.

The trick to using either electric or windvane self-steering is to balance the helm at almost neutral before connecting the self-steering lines to the tiller. This can be accomplished by reducing sail aft as the wind increases, reducing heel angle and weather helm. In some windy conditions, I let the windvane steer under headsail alone at no sacrifice in speed.

Unfortunately, neither tiller pilot nor Sail-O-Mat understands spinnakers or surfing waves, as the apparent wind can quickly change and the self-steering cannot anticipate nor react quickly enough to keep up with necessary course corrections. For running at night or in windspeeds over 15 knots, I switch from the spinnaker to twin jibs with little loss in boat speed, and the boat can still safely sail itself.


The Singlehanded TransPac requires a heady level of commitment of time, money, preparation, and sacrifice. For those who embark, seldom in life do you work so hard. The reward is racing one of the oceans truly great downwind passages combined with a special level of camaraderie that binds the fleet together before, during, and after the race. And after a couple of weeks alone at sea, you make landfall in one of those memorable moments reserved only for sailors: the sight, the smell, and the warmth of aloha at Hanalei Bay.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at