Solo and two-handed, Two similar, but not equal, ways to sail

It is like solo sailing, but you are not alone. It is like having a crew, but usually you sail with nobody else around. There seems to be a contradiction, but there is none. Two-handed ocean sailing is perhaps similar but in no way identical to the other two sailing modes: solo sailing and sailing with a full crew. That is why the Barcelona World Race was organized and that is why this round-the-world race seems to be bound for success. Those who have raced wish to do it again, and those who have not are anxious to face the challenge.

Articles JUL 25, 2012 01:00

What makes two-handed sailing so attractive to the best solo skippers, such as those who compete in the Volvo Ocean Race? There are as many answers as there are sailors. Some consider it a version of solo sailing where you can rest and have the advantage of not feeling completely alone. Others see it as a very different kind of challenge, that of building a team which is not just the sum of two personalities but a multiplication of the crew members’ individual abilities. One could say that two-handed sailing is like fully crewed sailing, except that there are fewer hands to do the work.

The boats that participated in the first Barcelona World Race appear to be the same as the ones found on the Vendée Globe start line: they all belong to Open 60’ IMOCA class, prepared for solo sailing. It’s true that they differ from the Vendée Globe boats in some minor respects. For example, the deck is designed to allow for simultaneous work by both crew members at crucial moments, while the interior has enough room to stock food for two people. But these are just details.

A dos, se fuerza más el barco

With two on board, the boat is driven harder

Let us now return to the starting point. If the boats are basically the same, and many are navigated by the same skippers, is there a difference between solo and two-handed circumnavigation? "Double sailing is physically harder because you usually perform more manoeuvres. Solo sailing is more demanding psychologically. For example, when you change the sail by yourself you have to be really careful not to make any mistakes" remarks Alex Thomson, second in the inaugural Barcelona World Race, who is not hiding his desire to be on the starting line in Barcelona next year.

Nearly all the interviewees seem to agree that in two-handed sailing, the boat is driven harder. Javier "Bubi" Sanso says that Mutua Madrileña kept the spinnaker up for ten days, but had he been sailing alone he would have taken it down. "We kept the auto-pilot at the edge. When you are alone you have to take the sail down, but as there were two of us we were at the tiller for ten days non-stop, doing four-hour shifts".

Does this mean that the sail suffers greater wear and that failures and breakages are more likely to occur? Not necessarily: "The sail suffers a lot more during manoeuvres, which are much longer in solo than in double sailing. While you reef the main, the sail is flogging and this wears it a lot. As the manoeuvre is performed much more quickly by two people, there is less wear in double-handed sailing than in single handed sailing, even though you drive the boat harder," explains Estrella Damm skipper Guillermo Altadill, who has six circumnavigations under his belt. "You do drive the boat harder in two-handed sailing, but you gain more reliability and control because there are two people on board," concludes Albert Bargues, a skipper of Educación sin Fronteras from the first edition of the Barcelona World Race.

Sleeping like a log

Dormir a pierna suelta: la gran diferencia
All the respondents agree that the second major difference between solo and two-handed circumnavigation has to do with fatigue management. With another person on board you sleep more and better. This "better" is, of course, relative: nobody expects to get as much rest on an Open 60 in the middle of a storm as in a five star hotel king size bed. The movement, sudden accelerations and decelerations of the boat all add to the deafening roar of a carbon fibre hull which amplifies every noise like a drum.

"When two people are on board, you go to bed and you sleep. But when you are alone, you never really do", states Thomson. "It’s essential that you get your four to six hours of good sleep every day," remarks Sanso, for whom "the stress of a solo sailor lying down on his bunk with nobody left on deck is brutal." Sebastien Josse, Vincent Riou’s partner in the first edition of the Barcelona World Race, adds: "When sailing double, you go faster and you get less tired because you can really fall asleep. Also, your going to bed does not depend as much on the weather, so you don’t reach the state of total exhaustion as often."

However, Jean-Pierre Dick, the winner of the first Barcelona World Race, does not agree that two-handed sailing is less tiring than solo. After saying that the tiredness "is more or less the same" in both, he openly confessed that he ended up more exhausted in the Barcelona World Race than in the Vendee Globe two years earlier.

Sharing space

A separate chapter could be written on the relationship between the two people on board. For at least 13 weeks on end, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, each participant interacts exclusively with his sailing partner, with whom, in addition to hard work, fatigue, all the difficulties, and freeze-dried food, he must share a living space of less than 10 square meters. Sebastien Josse believes that, "putting up with the other guy is the hardest part of two-handed circumnavigation," although he makes it clear that he never got fed up with his companion in arms. "One must pay attention to his way of life because he is not alone. One has to set up rules and follow them," adds the French sailor, who has completed the Vendee and the Volvo as a skipper, and who, with his teammate Vincent Riou, led the Barcelona World Race until a mast breakage forced PRB to withdraw.

Albert Bargues emphasises that racing two-handed is not the same as having two solo sailors on board: "Is sharing space tough? No. It can be hard, but it may also be marvellous. It’s the most beautiful thing about being human. It’s true that the most important thing is to share values. A two-handed sailing is not the sum of two solo sailings. In the Barcelona World Race, I learnt to live together with another person and I became more tolerant while sailing around the world as well as afterwards."

Dick considers the crew to be a key element in this race. In his opinion, managing the partnership must be one of the skippers’ priorities. The outcome of his philosophy speaks for itself: not only did he win the first Barcelona World Race, he is also considering a possibility of returning next year with the same partner, Damian Foxall.

"Partnership is definitely important. This relationship is very similar to marriage. Quarrels do happen, but they are balanced out by giving slack. If you are not willing to give in a bit don’t sign up for a two-handed race," firmly states Doctor Nando Munoz, medical officer of the Barcelona World Race organisation and amateur two-handed ocean sailor with two circumnavigations to his name.

Strained relationships on board may have a negative effect on the boat’s performance during a competition, whether you are sailing double-handed or with a full crew. A happy ship is always faster than a grumpy one. However, Munoz clarifies that the participants in the Barcelona World Race "are professionals, who are paid to do the job well. They are there to work, not to get married, so they have to leave their emotions at home. Living together may be difficult, but there is no need for them to be best friends. They must also realise that there may be no rivalry between them." Alex Thomson, on the other hand, believes that sharing space on board is not a problem, no matter how cramped it is: "It’s better than being alone; you always have someone to talk to and it’s more fun", states the skipper of Hugo Boss.

Solitario y a dos, dos formas parecidas, pero no iguales de navegar


Is it better to sail round the world aloneor two-handed? It is difficult to get a clear answer from blue water sailors. Most of them avoid answering this question, almost like a child who is asked to choose one parent over the other! However, there are exceptions. The Hugo Boss skipper does not hesitate to answer: "I prefer two-handed sailing; it is more fun; you always have someone to talk to." In contrast, Javier "Bubi" Sanso immediately declares his preference for solo: "Sailing alone wouldn’t compare to anything; whether you put two people on board or five, it’s like sailing with a full crew." However, sailing two-handed can’t be all that bad since the Majorca-born skipper is also dreaming of the second edition of the Barcelona World Race. It was clear to all observers how he was able to transfer his experience to two handed sailing with Pachi Rivero on board Mutua Madrileña in the first edition. It must have left a deep impression on him. Most sailors, however, prefer not to choose one mode over the other. In fact, most of them usually sail in both, which is what they like to do most. The fact is, what attracts nearly all those world girdlers is the possibility of going back to the inhospitable Southern Oceans, to the kingdom of albatrosses and permanent storms. There, whether solo or two handed, they establish a special bond with nature. That’s where their potential is fully realised. That’s where the participants of the next Barcelona World Race will sail.