Below are some common questions about solo passage making.
Why do you sail alone?
For me these adventures are less about being away from people and more about being close to the elements and enjoying the practice of self-reliance. When sailing with another aboard, much of the passage ends up being about your relationship with that person—it just can’t be helped on something so small as a sailboat. That’s not the experience I’m after. You could say I solo because I’m selfish. I want to do all the sailing, make all the decisions, do all the work, and see the entire ocean myself. That’s where the fun is. Read more on being alone…
What do you find most challenging about long distance sailing?
Getting up the courage to go. After the years of dreaming and months of preparation, all the expectation set with oneself and others tend to come crashing in just as I am ready to raise anchor. That’s when I experience the most self-doubt, knowing of the challenges ahead. Did I plan well enough? Am I smart enough and strong enough to survive? Will I meet some big, unavoidable event that simply wipes me out?
But once out there, each day unfolds in its own way. It’s just you and the boat and the ocean. The problems that arise must be solved with your own ingenuity and the tools you have and nothing else … because there is nothing else. Operating in a world of such simplicity is deeply satisfying. Sure, there is plenty of fear and hardship, but for me at least, those experiences are balanced by an immense sense of beauty and wonder, and an understanding that this, this moment, is exactly what I was made for.
What’s been your scariest moment at sea?
In my view, there are just two rules to successful passage making: one, keep the boat going in the right direction; two, stay on board. On my way to Alaska in 2012, I broke the second rule when I fell off the boat reaching for an object in the water. I was collecting debris from the middle of the Pacific for scientists at the University of Hawaii, who were modeling debris distribution resulting from the Japanese Tsunami in 2011. On this morning I had encountered a bag with Japanese script on it floating at water top, my first provable tsunami artifact. I had to untether from the boat to reach it, but I lost my grip when the boat lurched. Instant panic as I fell in. The nearest land was over 1000 miles away at that point. Get separated from the boat and you drowned: end of story. As it turned out the boat was moving very slowly, and I was able to scramble back aboard pretty easily, but it was a sobering moment. Read more about the day I fell overboard…
Can you catch enough fish to live on while making a passage?
I can’t. I drag a hook and lure constantly but only catch a few fish a month. I’m probably a poor fisherman, but also there are vast areas in the middle of the ocean that are like an aquatic desert where fish are rare.
Where do you pull into port for provisions?
You don’t. There’s no stopping, so you pack all the food you’ll need along with you. Because boats have lots of storage space, you can take quite a variety, but I end up eating much the same as I do on land. Cereal (with water, not milk—I don’t have refrigeration) in the morning; nuts, cheese and crackers for lunch or a can of soup or stew, and for dinner a meal made of dried goods, like rice and lentils. The big drawback, of course, is that after a couple of weeks I run out of fresh vegetables and fruits, so the bulk of my diet is canned and dried, and I have to take vitamin C tablets to keep from getting scurvy. This is what makes catching a fish so nice: fresh, tasty, vitamin-rich meat.
How do you communicate with those at home?
Cell phones don’t work more than a few miles off shore and I don’t have a satellite phone. Instead I use old but clever technology that connects my laptop with land-based servers via high frequency AM (HAM) radio signals. The connection is very slow; sending a simple text message, all I can do, can often take a minute or more and there’s no surfing the internet. But the technology is pretty reliable and inexpensive to operate.
Do you sleep normally while at sea?
When I’m in known shipping lanes or other areas that I consider risky, I sleep in intervals of 30 minutes or less. Otherwise I sleep in one hour intervals. An hour at a time is not much sleep, so I’ve made a deal with myself that I can sleep for one hour as many times in a day as I like. Oddly, on average I tend to sleep the same number of hours per day at sea as I do on land, and I do most of my sleeping at night.
Because the boat is underway 24 hours a day, how long to sleep and when is a hotly contested question among solo sailors. The main concern is collision with objects in the water, collision with debris like lost shipping containers, large logs or icebergs in the extreme north and southern oceans, or worst of all, other ships. From the deck of my small boat, the furthest I can see to the horizon is about 4 miles. The bridge on a large container ship may be seen from, at most, about 10 miles away. Ships travel quickly compared to small boats, often as much as 25 miles an hour to my average of 5 miles per hour, and can go from below the horizon to on top of you in less, sometimes much less, than half an hour. A solo sailor is his only watch-keeper, so how long to sleep and when is a decision with important consequences. Read more about one night’s fitful sleep…
Where do you get your drinking water?
Because it’s so salty, sea water is potable only in tiny quantities and only in survival situations. And because marine desalination devices tend to use a lot of electricity, a thing I don’t have in surplus, I usually carry all my water and replenish my supplies with rain water when I can. If I use fresh water only for drinking and use salt water for washing and even for cooking, I know from practice that I can survive handily on much less than a gallon a day. On my Pacific passages I carried 70 gallons of water but never used more that about 30 gallons.
How do you know where you are?
GPS navigation is as common at sea as it is on land, and for safety purposes I have several units on board. But for me it has been important to learn the old methods, like using a sextant, the sun and stars to find my position. Electronic devices are delicate and can fail, so these methods are essential from the perspective of survival, and learning them is deeply satisfying.