I still remember the day like it was yesterday when I asked myself: “How big of a sailboat can one person handle?” I had absolutely no idea and didn’t even know how to sail back then. Many years later, I’ve got the experience and knowledge to answer this question for you in detail.
A beginner should stay below 40 feet until they get some experience. With moderate experience, one person can comfortably handle a 45-foot sailboat. To exceed 45 feet, you want to have a high level of experience and a boat with systems to assist you in handling your sails and equipment.
As with everything else related to sailing, the ability to handle a sailboat depends significantly on your sailing experience, physical fitness, and how the boat you want to sail is set up.
Determining the size of sailboat you can handle depending on experience and sailing systems
There is a massive variety of sailboats; many are well suited for single or short-handed sailing, while others require a crew to be sailed safely. One thing to also keep in mind is that even when sailing as a couple, you’ll be in situations where only one of you will be available to handle the sailboat.
Especially if you plan on doing extended sailing with frequent overnight passages. There may be situations where your better (or worse) half is sick or unable to help in a tense situation, and you’re on your own to handle the boat. So please do yourself a favor and be realistic with yourself and your capabilities before choosing the size of your boat.
Can you reef a massive sail by yourself in a sudden 50-knot storm in the middle of the night? Only you know the answer to that after you’ve tried it. Since we’re all different in our level of fitness and capability, I’ll keep the average person as a reference throughout this article, and you’ll have to consider where you stand in relation to this before making a choice.
Right, with the pep-talk done, let’s move on!
After chatting with several oldtimers with half a lifetime of bluewater sailing, we all came to the same conclusion. The table below shows approximately how big of a sailboat one person with good physical fitness can handle depending on configuration and experience level:
|No System Assistance
|Medium System Assistance
|Moderate System Assistance
|Full System Assistance
|55 ft +
|60 ft +
|1. Basic knowledge of sailing and sailboats
2. Moderate level of experience
3. Excellent level of experience
Windlass, Autopilot, Bow Thruster, Electrical Winches
Windlass, Autopilot, Bow & Stern Thruster, Electrical Winches, Electrical Furling, Steering Assistance
Critical elements to consider for handling a large sailboat alone
This article refers to sizes above 45 feet when discussing large sailboats. Once we get past 45 feet, we reach a point where the sail area is close to or bigger than 500 ft2 or 45 m2 on a modern sloop. It takes serious physical strength to handle sails of this size manually. Ketch-rigged sailboats spread the total sail area over an additional mizzen sail to allow easier sail handling of the individual sails.
Handling big sails is just one task that gets increasingly difficult on bigger boats. Your lines and equipment are more substantial in size and heavier as well. Leading all the lines back to the cockpit makes for an easier short-handed setup and keeps you in the safety of the cockpit in most situations.
Another thing worth mentioning is the price tag for buying and maintaining a large boat. The cost increases exponentially with size, so I recommend purchasing the smallest boat you are comfortable being on and the biggest you feel comfortable sailing and operating within a price range you can afford.
Most people looking to sail solo will end up with a sailboat in the 35-45-foot size range, especially if they plan to spend extended time onboard. You may be looking at smaller vessels too, but remember that you’ll sacrifice more space and speed the smaller the boat you choose.
There are many good reasons why you want to go bigger as well, and you should know that you definitely can. Just consider what can be challenging on a larger boat versus a smaller one and understand what you get yourself into.
Finding the right size range is all about the balance between what your capabilities can handle, the size of your cruising budget, and your preference for comfort and amenities onboard.
Let us have a look at some of the tasks we need to be able to handle on a sailboat alone, which might be more demanding on a larger boat.
By the way, I wrote an article about the ideal size for a liveaboard sailboat that is more relevant for those who won’t be sailing solo,
Operational tasks at sea
- Hoist, lower, furl, and reef sails in various conditions
- Trimming the sails
- Steering the boat
- Navigating in various conditions
Managing the sails can be solved in a couple of ways. If you choose a ketch, you’ll have less sail area to handle at a time at the expense of an additional mizzen sail. Many modern sloop-rigged sailboats above 45 feet have electrical winches, making hoisting, furling, and trimming sails easier. Electrical winches are usually reliable and can still be operated manually in case of failure.
Even below this size range, most modern boats have an autopilot, making it dramatically easier to handle the boat alone. A good autopilot is said to be the most valued crew member onboard, and I agree. My autopilot even has a name; Raymond is a trusted companion who hasn’t disappointed me. (Yet, knock on wood)
The problem when relying on electric systems is that we might be in big trouble if they fail, which is an essential factor to consider and make a backup plan for. When you have years of sailing experience, you know how to handle situations well and what you can do to make things simpler for yourself.
Think about this: Can you manually reef your massive sails if the wind suddenly increases to 50 knots?
And yes, that does happen offshore.
Operational tasks going to port or mooring
- Dropping and lifting the anchor
- Maneuver the boat in and out of a marina or port
- Tie the boat to the dock or pontoon
On a 45-55 foot sailboat, you will typically have an anchor that weighs 30-45 kg or 65-100 lbs. That anchor is attached to a 10-12mm chain. If you anchored at a 10m water depth, you probably have at least 50 meters of chain out.
The weight of 12mm chain is about 3.4 kg or 7.5 lbs per meter. This means you have 170kg or 375 lbs of chain in the water plus the weight of your anchor. Pulling that weight up from the seabed is a challenging workout that makes you want to rely on your windlass. But windlasses can fail, and I speak from experience.
I have pulled my 25 kg Rocna together with 75kg of chain off the seabed a few times, and I sweat at the thought of handling anything larger. On a smaller boat, the ground tackle weighs a lot less and is more manageable for one person.
Docking a large sailboat
Maneuvering any size sailboat into port is nerve-wracking for most people their first few times. I remember being scared to death my first few times docking by myself, and I didn’t have a bow thruster to assist. You won’t be able to push or single-handedly move a sailboat above 45 foot by yourself if there is a little bit of wind.
Modern vessels of this size usually have a bow thruster, making it significantly easier to maneuver the vessel into tight areas and marinas. My friend, who has been sailing his entire life, lives aboard and sails his close to 55 foot sailboat. His boat has a bow and stern thruster, making it easier to maneuver than my 40 foot boat!
Now, most boats don’t have that luxury, and a lot of practice will be necessary for getting confident in and out of a marina. NauticEd has a course on maneuvering by engine and docking that you may want to look at here.
Conclusion: Is it realistic to sail a large sailboat by yourself?
With a decent level of experience and a well-equipped sailboat adequately set up for single-handed operation, it is absolutely possible to handle a large sailboat alone. I know several sailors who sail large vessels by themselves.
As long as you have some sailing experience and good physical fitness, are aware of your limitations, and have a decent plan in case of equipment failure, you will, in most everyday situations, be able to handle a 50 foot sailboat and possibly larger alone. If you plan on buying a large sailboat, remember to consider the factors we have looked at in this article and be realistic about your budget.
There are just as many people upgrading to a bigger boat as downgrading to a smaller one. What size sailboat is right for you comes down to your needs, experience level, and budget. Take your time to make the right decision if you want to buy a boat, and be realistic about your capabilities and experience before you take on the task of sailing a large sailboat by yourself.