Double-handed racing is booming in popularity, with both inshore and offshore events introducing double-handed classes. We get expert tips on how to set up your boat and routines for success

The popularity of double-handed sailing is on the rise. This year even Cowes Week ran a double-handed category for the first time, with inshore round the cans racing for two-person crews.

So why is two-up catching on in such a big way? Alexis Loison is a professional sailor who competes regularly on the Figaro circuit. He’s also been part of the winning crew in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. His biggest claim to fame came in 2013 when Alexis and his father Pascal raced their JPK10.10 Night and Day, to become the first double-handed crew ever to win the Rolex Fastnet Race; not just in their class, but outright, ahead of all the fully crewed boats.

According to Alexis, it’s partly because the logistics are much easier to organise with just two of you, rather than having to pull together a full crew of seven or more people all with different levels of commitment. Also, autopilot developments have made it much easier to handle a boat shorthanded. But for Loison the main attraction is that there is never a dull moment. No sitting on the rail for hours at a time. “When you’re sailing doublehanded, you have the helm, you navigate, you are busy during all the manoeuvres. There’s never a dull moment.”

So what are Alexis’s five top tips for successful doublehanded racing? Andy Rice found out…

Alexis and his father Pascal at the finish of the 2017 Rolex Fastnet ©ELWJ Photography/Rolex

  1. Forge a partnership

It’s really important to team up with someone who you like and who you respect. You have to have a similar outlook on sailing and on how you approach competition. With my father, I couldn’t find a better co-skipper; he’s the man who knows me the best, and that’s very important.

When you team up with someone for the first time, make sure you have both discussed everything in detail before you go afloat; how you will communicate, how you divide the roles, what weather you expect. It’s all about agreeing the processes in advance, and having your systems in place. Routines are vital.

Night And Day, the JPK 10.10, rounding the Fastnet Rock

  1. Choose the right boat

I love Class 40s, they are fast, powerful boats. But for two-handed racing a two-tonner is not all that much fun. The gear is big, and the boat is maybe too powerful in some ways. It can feel like the boat is in control of you, rather than you being in control.

A 33-footer, like the JPK10.10 that I sail with my father, that’s my favourite size of boat. It’s small enough to make it easy to change a sail; it is what I call a ‘human’ boat! Of course the boat is not the whole answer. Whichever one you choose, it’s important to really know your boat, to have practised all the manoeuvres so there is no hesitation about what to do. When it’s blowing hard in the middle of the night, you have to be ready.

  1. Twin rudders

While we were racing in the Fastnet that we won overall, we found ourselves in a match race with another JPK10.10, pretty much identical to us except it was fully crewed. We were both reaching along in 25 knots of wind, yet despite them having more crew weight on the rail, we were faster in a straight line.

Why? Because our boat has two rudders and theirs only had one. They suffered a number of broaches while we didn’t spin out once.

Two rudders give you so much more stability and control, which is even more important when you consider how reliant we are on the autopilot when racing doublehanded. Two rudders are definitely better than one.

  1. Prepare for the worst

Before a big race we do a lot of weather preparation. We look closely at the GRIB files, we analyse all the currents. We use Adrena, which is a really good tool for helping with your navigation plans. We make up a little route book with key points for different parts of the race.

Also, we talk through worst-case scenarios about what we’ll do if a sail breaks, and so on. Be meticulous about your safety planning, double-check your lifejackets, the life raft, and so on.

We have a personal AIS system and a small wireless remote control that has two functions. One, we can use it to change the course on the autopilot; and two, if we have a man overboard, the remote automatically registers a MOB situation on the computer.

  1. Double-handed crews mixing it up with fully crewed yachts at the start of the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race ©Carlo Borlenghi/Rolex

    Survive the heavy weather gybe

A heavy wind gybe is the most difficult manoeuvre in two-handed sailing. We always follow the same procedure. Firstly, we use only one pole but we have two sets of sheets (guys and sheets) each side for the spinnaker.

  1. I take the helm and my father handles the No.1. I think it’s safer for me to be steering rather than leaving the boat on autopilot.
  2. Cleat the mainsail traveller in the middle of the track.
  3. Adjust the sheet to the ‘standard position’ marked on the rope. At this point the clew is sitting near the forestay. Barber-haulers are set at an equal distance, in line with the top of the guardwires.
  4. We ease a lot of downhaul on the pole and, once the boat is surfing nicely on a wave, I gybe the boat, with the new sheet in my hand so I am able to adjust the sheet for stability of the spinnaker and the boat. Obviously this is more difficult when the boat is bigger. If there is really strong breeze then my father will help me handle the sheet.
  5. We make sure the boat is stable, and then my father passes the pole to the other side, with no stress because we have guys and sheets. I also keep the sheet in my hand to help him out.