How Big Of A Sailboat Can One Person Handle?

How big of a sailboat can one person handle

There are many reasons why you might wonder how big of a sailboat one person can handle. Maybe you are browsing for your next boat to buy or questioning whether you can do a delivery job for someone else. Even if you don’t plan on being alone on the boat, knowing the size of the vessel you can handle safely by yourself is handy.

A beginner should stay below 40 feet until they get some experience. With experience, one person can comfortably handle a boat up to 45 feet alone. To exceed 45 feet, you want to have a higher 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.

Recommended criteria for handling a sailboat solo

There is a massive variety of sailboats, and many are well suited for single or short-handed sailing, while others require a crew to be operated.

The table below shows approximately how big of a sailboat one person with good physical fitness can handle depending on configuration and experience level:

Experience LevelNo System AssistanceMedium System AssistanceModerate System AssistanceFull System Assistance
1. Beginner<35 ft40 ft45 ft<50 ft
2. Competent<40 ft45 ft50 ft55 ft +
3. Expert<45 ft50 ft55 ft60 ft +
1. Basic knowledge of sailing and sailboats
2. Have some years of experience
3. Excellent level of experience
Electrical Systems:
Electrical systems:
Windlass, Self-Steering
Electrical Systems:
Windlass, Autopilot, Bow Thruster, Electrical Winches
Electrical Systems
Windlass, Autopilot, Bow & Stern Thruster, Electrical Winches, Electrical Furling, Steering Assistance
The table shows how big of a sailboat one person can handle depending on configuration and experience level

I have spoken to several sailors about their opinions on the maximum size sailboat a person can handle alone, and everyone agrees that the average range is between 35 and 45 feet. Once you step above 45 feet, there are several important aspects you need to take into consideration. Let us walk through them together.

Beneteau Oceanis 48
Beneteau Oceanis 48

What to consider for handling a large sailboat alone

When we talk about large sailboats in this article, we refer to sizes above 45 feet. Once we get past 45 feet, we reach a point where the sail area often is close to 500 ft2 or 46 m2 on each sail on a sloop. It takes a lot of physical strength to handle sails of this size, and I wouldn’t do it without the help of electrical systems.

Handling big sails is just one of the tasks that get increasingly difficult on bigger boats. Your lines and equipment are more prominent and heavier as well. Leading all the lines back to the cockpit makes for an excellent 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 onboard and the biggest you feel comfortable operating within a price range you can afford.

Most people will fall on a sailboat between 35-45 feet, especially if they plan to spend extended time onboard. I wrote an article about the ideal size for a liveaboard sailboat that you might be interested in:

However, there are many good reasons why you want to go bigger, and you should know that you definitely can. Just consider the things that can be challenging on a larger boat versus a smaller one and understand what you get yourself into.

Let us have a look at some of the tasks we need to be able to handle on a sailboat alone which might be harder on a larger boat.

Amel Super Maramu 53
Amel Super Maramu 53

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 sailboats above 45 feet have electrical winches, making it easier to hoist, furl and trim the sails. 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 that hasn’t let me down. Yet.

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: Will you be able to reef your massive sails manually if the wind suddenly increases to 50 knots?

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 feet by yourself if there is a little bit of wind.

Modern sailboats 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 Moody 54. His boat has a bow and stern thruster, making it easier to maneuver than my 41-footer!

Managing mooring lines alone can be tricky on a large sailboat, but with some technique, it can be done without too much trouble.

How Big Of A Sailboat Can One Person Handle?

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 boat up to about 50 feet 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.

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  1. Robin,

    I am writing a novel in which knowledge of sailing and sailboats would be helpful. Would you be available to answer an occasional technical question via email? The setting is primarily the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but will include time in the Bahamas and Caymans. The time is 1964-65.

    Hoping to hear from you, and thanks.


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