Solo Sailor

Sailing alone

I spend most of my time at sea as a single-hand sailor. That sounds heroic, great role models like Wilfried Erdmann or Ellen MacArthur come to mind. But I don't intend to circumnavigate the world. According to my definition, everyone who sails a yacht alone is a solo sailor, even if he or she is "only" navigating from Großenbrode to Heiligenhafen. You can also sail "alone" with a lot of people on board, but as landlubbers they can't tell a tree from a boom. Sailing alone is a lot of fun, but also raises some questions, some of which I would like to discuss in this blog.

What is the maximum length of a yacht?

The question about the "right" boat is mainly about the size of the boat and the equipment. Both are in proportion to each other.

Let's start with the size and especially the question: How long may a boat actually be, to be able to sail it alone? As long as you are out on the sea and the equipment is working perfectly, you surely can handle a 20-meter yacht too. It looks different if something doesn't work as it should, then you will quickly reach your limit. The forces alone overtax a single sailor. In an emergency, 40 square meters of sail area are easier to handle than 90 square meters. In this context, of course age and personal fitness also play an important role.

Another factor that, in my opinion, limits the size of the boat upwards for a single sailor are the port manoeuvres. Of course you can compensate a lot here with appropriate practice, nevertheless I don't want to do it alone with a large yacht in a narrow box with a fresh crosswind. Under difficult circumstances port manoeuvres then quickly become an uncontrolled matter of luck.

For me personally the maximum boat size at the moment is 12 meters. in the 6th decade of my life, I don't want to think about, for example salvaging the headsail in bad weather or to cope with similar sweat-inducing tasks. It is quite possible that as I get older, I have to shrink to less than 10 meters.

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What equipment should a yacht have?

As mentioned in the previous question, this also depends on the length of the boat. While on a 7-metre boat you may reef the mainsail still manually, on a larger yacht this is not possible. That's why for me the furling mainsail and the furling foresail definitely belong on a boat for a single-handed sailor. They should be operable from the cockpit.

A well functioning autopilot is also indispensable for a single-handed sailor. It does not have to offer all sophisticated electronic features. It is perfectly sufficient if the part reliably holds a course while you work on the foredeck. In this context you also have to think about the energy supply. The best (electric) autopilot no longer works when the battery is empty. Therefore one should eventually increase the installed battery capacity or install a wind autopilot. A battery management system that displays the available remaining capacity is helpful for example to start the engine in time for loading.

For a single-hand sailor, no one drives a man-overboard maneuver. Therefore he must prevent by all means to go overboard! One means is a tightly tensioned, sufficiently dimensioned running line into which you pick your lifeline before you leave the cockpit. So you always stay connected to the boat. It must be fixed so, that you can walk freely from the stern to the bow. At the same time this line, sometimes also called "stretch rope", should be tightly tensioned so that you don't go too far overboard in case of a fall. Y-shaped running lines are also available on the market, but they have the disadvantage, that on the way to the bow you have to pick your way around. The alternative is to use two independent lines from the stern to the bow, one on the port and one on the starboard side. If one would go overboard and fall into the leash, very large forces arise, similar to a mountaineer falling a few feet into his rope. Therefore, the fittings to which the stretch rope is attached must be able to withstand these forces and the rope itself must be dimensioned accordingly. If you take a universal line it should be at least 10 mm in diameter corresponding to 3000 daN breaking load.

The bigger the yacht, the more important a bow thruster becomes in order to be able to drive problem-free port maneuvers. For my taste there should be such an equipment on board at the latest from 10 meters boat length.

To avoid collisions on a yacht for single-hand sailors, a radar reflector as well as an AIS (Automatic Identification System) is required. An on-board radar also makes sense. The latter, however, only helps if the radar image can also be interpreted. So practice! For a radar newcomer, the picture looks like an ultrasound picture taken by a family doctor. In the beginning, the most difficult is to distinguish other ships from fixed targets such as buoys or islands. While the fixed echoes maintain their position relative to each other, other boats move relative to these. So you should observe the radar picture for several "sweeps" to find out, which echoes change their position. Depending on the radar system, the display may be set to "True Motion", or the nautical chart may be inserted into the radar image to make work easier. In case of rain or a higher swell you should experiment with different settings for "Gain" and "Sea Clutter". Particularly small boats "disappear" again and again between the wave crests and are not displayed in every revolution of the radar antenna. Once a radar target has been identified, it may be marked and automatically tracked by means of MARPA (Mini-automatic radar plotting aid). The plotter then calculates speed and course of the opponent and thus facilitates possible evasive manoeuvres. A "Guard Zone" can also be defined on newer devices. If a radar target penetrates this area, an alarm is triggered.

Here an example: At the top left a radar object moves into the image and is marked with the cursor. After a few seconds the radar determines the data and displays it at the right edge as "MARPA Ziel 1". The oncoming boat is 11.3 kt fast and will give us a distance of 0.2 nautical miles in 2:36 minutes. The data is of course only correct on the basis of current rates and speeds.

The radar continues to follow the target and we see the ship passing on portside as predicted. If it would have entered the red area MARPA would have generated a warning sound.

A VHF radio is certainly part of the standard equipment of every slightly larger yacht today. For the single-hand sailor it is important that he can operate the radio from the cockpit, without having to go below deck every time. On many Yachts the microphone is located at the navigation place below deck. So you either install your transeiver somewhere in the cockpit, or you can buy a mobile control unit that you can take with you anywhere like a mobile phone. When I was recently taking a yacht to Holland, I learned the value of such a control unit, when I was able to communicate with the bridge attendant comfortably from deck, in front of every folding bridge.

Even a single-handed sailor is not spared from having to climb into the mast from time to time. Normally you are pulled up by a trustworthy sailor using a winch. If you are on your own, you can use a rope ladder or a rescue ladder. In this case it is recommendable to tension an additional rope and to use this with a rope brake. Such a brake is available in mountaineering shops, it glides upwards when climbing up, but brakes a possible fall.

In principle, everything that facilitates work on board is an advantage for the solo sailor. In the course of time everyone will equip his boat according to his needs.

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What personal equipment do I need?

Depending on the area and the weather, the right clothing is even more important as a one-handed sailor than when you are sailing with a crew. You will spend most of your time on deck and will be exposed to wind, sun and rain. Clothing must protect reliably against water and the onion principle is recommended. The first layer is the underwear. It should not have seams that begin to rub when worn for long periods of time. Classic synthetic functional underwear is sufficient, but another variant is made of merino wool, which does not stink so quickly. The next layer is called Midlayer which looks like a surf suit without sleeves. You wear a jacket with it. The third layer is the so-called oilskin, a water-repellent Jacket and pants. You can also buy such clothes in shops offering work clothes. There you can find good quality at reasonable prices.

Actually the Lifeline should be part of the standard equipment of every sailor, but experience shows that most of them have a shadowy existence. Especially when sailing single-hand it should not only be "somewhere on board", but must be used actively. As soon as you leave the cockpit, you pick your way into the running line and are secured on deck against "falling overboard". In real heavy weather, it can also make sense to to leash yourself in the cockpit. Most yachts have massive fittings for this purpose. There are different lifelines, some with three carabiners to stay connected to the ship when pecking around, e.g. on railing supports. I personally like lifelines that have a flexible part in the middle.

Additional safety is provided by a personal mobile-sized EPIRB that can be worn on a man or woman. In case of an emergency, the EPIRB transmits its own position for at least 48 hours. This is received by a satellite and forwarded to a central office. If you have your own boat,the assigned MMSI - number is used to link the emergency with your ship. You can also register as a person in a database. So it is possible to determine immediately who triggered the alarm. In my opinion, this personal EPIRB is the best possibility, how one can still hope for rescue as a single-hand sailor, gone over board.

Another way to draw attention to yourself is an AIS-SART transponder. It generates a special AIS signal (red circle with a cross) on ships in the vicinity. In contrast to the EPIRB, the range is very limited (approx. 10 nm) and assumes that there ARE other ships with an AIS receiver in the vicinity.

If you have to leave your boat in a controlled way, e.g. due to fire or leakage, it is recommended to pack a rescue bag. It should contain additional equipment such as distress signals, food, rescue blankets, etc.. If you sail alone it is advisable to have such a bag ready packed.

On night drives I have learned to appreciate a LED headlamp. On deck, but also in the cockpit, it is a real help and a safety factor. You miss less trip hazards and always have the right lighting in the right place when working on winches and lines.

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When can I sleep?

If a single-hand sailor wants to cover longer distances, at some point the question of the necessary sleep arises. If one reads reports of famous single-hand sailors, you will learn that they also slept below deck for hours. This may be possible somewhere in the South Atlantic on a circumnavigation of the world away from all shipping routes. On the Baltic Sea or in the Mediterranean it would not be possible. Of course, you can't get off the road with a boat immediately after closing your eyes, as you would driving a car. For reasons of collision prevention however, in my opinion one should not "nod off" for longer than 10 minutes in densely traffic waters. I set myself an alarm clock, check the surroundings once more and then sleep. Then I check the horizon again, set my alarm again, etc. During the short waking phase you should get accustomed to a ritualized procedure so that you don't forget anything and can fall asleep again as quickly as possible: Search the horizon, check the course, check the sail position. In this way you can drive through 36 hours without getting totally exhausted. With an average speed of 5 kt, you can reach every island in the Mediterranean during this time from the mainland, be it the Balearic Islands, Sardinia or Crete. I would not undertake longer solo trips in the waters mentioned above.

Due to the short sleep phases it makes sense to sleep on deck as far as possible. This has the advantage that you don't have to climb into the cockpit every time you fall asleep, you are directly at the rudder in case of something happens and you also hear a lot more acoustically than below deck.

Everyone is different and so one has to hear into oneself whether one rather leaves in the morning after getting up, or first sleeps during the day and then starts rested into the night. In tidal waters you may be limited to a certain departure time due to the tides. In any case the boat should have been made ready for departure before, so that you dont have already some hours "on the clock" before you start.

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What is the best way to berth?

Good preparation is important, therefore prepare the fenders and mooring lines in good time before entering the port, so all you have to do is throw them over. There are ready-made mooring lines, which have an eye at one end. At the other end, you knot an eye of at least the same size with a bowline and lead the line from the cleat outside the Railing on the deck and again outside the railing back to the cleat. Secure the rest of the line on deck so that it doesn't get over board. Now one is well prepared for all "berthing cases". By the way, you can practice throwing over the line ashore in peace and quiet, by taking a mooring line one half in your left hand and the other half in your right. In the the middle, you let a bay hang down that you can throw like a lasso from the boat over the bollard at the jetty. With a little practice it works quite well and you don't need anyone to take your leash on land. If you plan to berth alongside, you can put the front line, provided it is long enough, outside the railing to the back in the cockpit.

Preparation also includes finding out how to berth at an unknown port. Are there floating jetties, dolphins, docking alongside or Roman-Catholic berthing with mooring lines? Information can be obtained from port handbooks (Reed's, etc.), port plans on the nautical chart and internet forums. It often helps to zoom in on the destination port on the chart plotter.

If you then drive your docking manoeuvre, the principle is: Always take it easy! It's better to start three times than to ram the next berth the first time. For solo sailors it is most pleasant berthing stern-to, because in this case the mooring line, the steering wheel and throttle are located next to each other. If the first line is on land, you can do the rest in peace. Thereby it helps in many cases to "steam into a line". If, for example, you have to berth alongside and the wind is offshore, you drive against the wind towards the jetty and throw the stern line over. Now put the rudder into the wind and give forward thrust. The bow comfortably move towards the bridge and you can fasten the front line.

Whole books have been written about berthing and in fact it turns out that every time something is different. Usually case distinctions are made, which at least I find difficult to remember and which, in case of need, I can't quite retrieve. Much more important than memorizing fixed instructions is to understand physics and above all to try it out on the boat. How does my propeller work? Do I have a folding propeller? How does my boat behave in crosswind? What can I expect from my bow thruster? If you know your yacht and know how she reacts, you can act flexibly in different situations.

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What are the legal regulations?

For some, the question may arise as to whether it is legally permissible, to set sail alone with a yacht. The answer, as so often, is: It depends. The following refers to German law. If your boat sails under a different flag, other legal regulations may apply.

As long as you are travelling privately, nothing stands in the way of the project. There are no regulations regarding a minimum crew for non-commercially used recreational craft. Only the insurance company can possibly put a spoke in the wheel. There are hull policies that exclude the operation of a yacht with one person.

If you are a commercial sailor, e.g. a sailing instructor or skipper, the "See-Sportbootverordnung" applies. According to this, one may, provided he/she has the appropriate certificate, sail alone within "coastal waters" with a yacht up to 15 meters in length. "Coastal waters" are defined as "sea waters of all seas up to 30 nautical miles from the mainland coast and the sea areas of the Baltic and North Seas, the English Channel, the Bristol Channel, the Irish and Scottish Seas, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea". Theoretically, therefore, one would be allowed to sail from Stockholm to Athens alone. However, another rule applies which states that: "Recreational craft which sail for more than ten hours within 24 hours must be manned by an additional licence holder". Also the legislator has obviously not escaped the fact that human beeings sometimes get tired. This conversely raises the question "What do I do when I get tired?"

At this point, rule 5 of the COLREG comes into focus, which in short states that a vehicle must always keep a good lookout. This shows that a single-hand sailor, who just turns on the autopilot and then goes for a sleep is not legal anymore. I'll explain later how you can approach legality in practice.

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How do I prepare myself?

Food and drink hold body and soul together. This concerns all sailors equally. When sailing alone you often don't have the time to go "downstairs" and prepare something. Therefore it is important to get the appropriate catering before departure. Everything that can be prepared for consumption without great effort is suitable, elaborate meals should be saved for the port. Plan at least 4 litres of drinking water per day.

Of course, you should be healthy and physically fit before you set sail. That's a commonplace for now, which you can fill with life by listening to yourself and asking yourself one or two questions: Did I perhaps drink one glass to much last night? Have I had a good night's sleep? Does my meniscus hurt today more than usual? Nobody is supposed to become a hypochondriac here, but one must also be aware that you and nobody else brings you back to the harbor.

If you are just starting out with one-handed sailing, you should set yourself manageable goals. Only after some practice, you can start a longer trip or a night trip. It has also proved to be a good idea to have a fellow sailor on board but who is not involved in the operation of the boat. So you can practice the necessary moves and skills and still have a "backup".

Mental action plans and checklists according to the motto: "What do I do if..." help if necessary: How do I bring my life raft to water? How do I fight a fire? How do I make an emergency call? If you have already gone through such mental plans, it helps you tremendously and gives you the necessary self-confidence. As an example you can download a checklist for the deployment of a life raft or a checklist for sending an emergency call as PDF. It is based on procedures as they are also used in commercial aviation. The "quick action topics" that must be worked through are listed in black letters. Additional information can be found at the appropriate places in green. Please note: this is only an example for your own checklists, which you can create according to your personal equipment.

Also a personal on-board pharmacy is part of the preparation not only on long journeys. On a Sailboat one can hurt oneself very painfully fast. Or did you never hit your foot on a fitting before, have slipped or twisted your ankle? With a fast acting painkiller you can still get to the next port. In addition to the first-aid material, I also have a broad-spectrum antibiotic on board. Talk to your family doctor and get a prescription. Otherwise you can, according to your personal taste, upgrade your boat pharmacy e.g. with medical charcoal against diarrhoea, Anti-seasickness agent (scopolamine plaster), ointment for bruises and sprains, disinfectant spray for open wounds, etc.

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How do I prepare my fellow sailors?

Further above I already mentioned that you can also be a single-hand sailor, although you have other sailors on board. The following episode will illustrate this. It took place in exactly the same way and was reconstructed in the course of the official investigation, after the incident.

On a Thursday at the end of May the very experienced skipper and his fellow sailor start a sailing trip lasting several days on the Baltic Sea. The 11-meter yacht is well equipped and has extensive navigation equipment, VHF radio and a life raft on board. For the end of May it is relatively cool with 14°C, but the visibility is good and there is a fresh wind with 4-5 Bft. Around 11 o'clock the boat runs on autopilot before the wind. The mainsail is to starboard, the foresail to port, thus a sail position (goosewing) where you have to take good care, that the mainsail doesn't suddenly bang onto the other side.

The fellow sailor, or perhaps you should say passenger, has no knowledge of sailing. She is just below deck, as a strong jerk can be felt. She hears a rumble and cries for help, jumps on deck and sees the skipper swimming in the wake. He carries a sailing jacket, no life jacket and shouts "sails down" to her. As the distance to the skipper increases, she realizes that both sails are now to the portside. Probably the skipper had left the cockpit, the boom came over and he was thrown into the water.

The fellow sailor doesn't know how to stop the boat, how to bring out a lifebelt, how to start the engine or how to make an emergency call. The skipper disappears from view and she is helplessly alone on the Baltic Sea. After some time, she manages to steer the yacht with the autopilot towards the coast. She waits until the boat runs aground and swims ashore. Residents alert the police, the search for the skipper who has gone overboard remains unsuccessful. 8 days later he can be recovered dead.

This clearly shows that it is worthwhile to familiarize even inexperienced sailors with some basics. Of course you can't teach them how to drive a MOB maneuver, but the following points should be addressed at least:

Especially on trips lasting several days, you should take your time for it.

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In what weather can I go to sea?

For single-hand sailors the same rules apply as for all other boats: Obtaining the relevant weather information and assessing the weather development before departure. As a single sailor, you should set your limits a bit tighter than with a larger crew.

In particular, you should make sure that visibility is not restricted for long periods of time. The worse the visibility, the later you can see other vehicles and the less time you have to do work that has nothing to do with "holding a lookout".

Everyone has his own wind limit, depending on the boat, personal experience and area. If you drive alone you may reduce your personal wind force a little bit. Especially as a one-handed sailor, the sail area must be adapted to the wind force in time. If you don't have a furling mainsail and have to reef the mainsail manually, you should consider to put the first row of reefs already in the harbour to avoid unnecessary stress at sea, if predicted wind is 5 Bft ore above. Last but not least, you should also think about how to dock alone with the predicted wind direction and wind force.

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How do I keep a good "look out"?

Rule 5 of the Collision Prevention Rules COREG states: "Every vehicle must keep a proper lookout that gives a complete overview of the situation and the possibility of a collision." This requirement naturally presents us, as single-hand sailors, with special challenges. In view of the fact that not a single crew member stares at the water all the time on other ships, I try to approach the danger of a collision pragmatically.

As a rule (except for emerging submarines), ships do not just appear out of nowhere at sea. Normally one recognizes his opponents some time in advance, depending on visibility. Let us take a mathematical look at the mutual approchement: A sailing yacht with a speed of 5 kt covers 155 meters per minute. A freighter with 20 kt then makes 620 meters. If both approach each other directly in the worst case, they approach each other at a speed of 775 metres / minute. If you can see the freighter in good visibility at a distance of 12 km, the time to drive past him is about 15 minutes. With a moderate visibility of 5 km, this time is reduced to just over 6 minutes. This calculation gives you first a feeling of how much time passes between a sighting and the CPA (closest point of approach). If you check the horizon for other ships and there is no vehicle to recognize, one can go quite below deck, get a can of ravioli and warm it up.

To detect other vehicles long before you can see them, an AIS (Automatic Identification System) is helpful. You can't rely exclusively on the AIS, because not all vehicles are equipped with it. Nevertheless it is very recommendable especially for single sailors. In this context a radar is helpful also in good weather conditions. Especially at night and with higher waves I have detected some smaller vehicles on the radar first. This is also true for fishing buoys. Some fishermen provide them with small aluminium snippets so they can be seen on your radar screen.

True to the motto "See and be seen", it also makes sense to improve the visibility of your own vehicle. This includes, for example, paying attention to the functionality of the position lights. A three-colour lantern in the mast top increases the distance at which one can be perceived by other ships. A radar reflector is particularly suitable for plastic yachts. Without it they are hardly noticed by other radar installations. There are also active radar transponders, that return a signal when hit by an impulse. This signifivantly increases visibility on other radars. If you have an AIS receiver and a transmitter on board, you can enter the remark "Solo Sailor" next to your ship's name. This informs the other vehicles "Beware, he is alone."

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How do I anchor?

As a single-hand sailor anchoring takes on special importance. On the one hand, it has a safety aspect: A good functioning anchor harness, which is ready for use at any time, gives you the quiet feeling in an emergency quickly "to be able to throw the iron." If, for example, the engine breaks down, you can go under sails behind a pier and anchor there. The employee of a shipyard, who often brings yachts for painting, told me once "we'll remove everything beforehand, only the anchor stays on board".

As far as fatigue is concerned, anchoring is sometimes a clever solution. It is easier to drop anchor in a sheltered bay to catch a few hours of sleep, than entering a marina with all the paperwork.

For most yachts the anchor is ready for use in a corresponding fitting at the bow. If you dont have this equipment, the anchor incl. chain should be clear, not at the bottom somewhere below the beer cans. Normally the anchor is operated by a crew member who is in the bow, on command he drops the anchor. For the single-hand sailor it can therefore make sense to install a switch in the cockpit, with which he can operate the anchor.

When choosing a spot to anchor, it is particularly important that it is "problem-free" for the duration of the anchorage, means that there is as little onshore wind and as little swell as possible. In the expected area where your boat may move there are no other yachts. Be careful in the tidal area: even at low tide there must still be some water under the your keel. The ground should be such that the anchor holds well (clay, loam, sand or solid silt), but it is also important that you later can get the anchor upwards again without any problems. Alone the forces are limited, which is why I try to avoid especially stony ground. Too fast the anchor wedges itself somewhere and one needs greatest effort to get it clear again.

Legally there might be no anchor watch is required but nevertheless it is good seamanship, that you check during the anchoring, whether the yacht moves. As a single sailor modern electronics helps. In principle, there are two possibilities: On the one hand, you can adjust your depth gauge to a specific minimum depth below which the alarm will sound. On the other hand, the anchor position can be stored in the GPS, the alarm goes on when you move further than a preset value away from it. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, which is why it's handy to use both in parallel. There are even said to be mobile apps that go anchor watch.

When actually anchoring, one should approach one's anchorage exactly against the wind and before the anchor falls, really stop the boat all the way.

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Drinking water on board

At this point I would like to go into more detail about the drinking water that we take on board. Contaminated Drinking water is a source of numerous diseases caused by microorganisms. At the very top here "Montezuma's revenge" or travel diarrhea followed by Hepatitis A, typhoid fever or poliomyelitis. In some countries the probability of catching diarrhoea during a 14-day stay is 90% ! Occasionally we get the water, that we take board from dubious sources, especially in southern countries. Therefore, here are some options and tips for water disinfection.

One distinguishes between chemical and physical processes for water disinfection. At the top of the chemical list is the Chlorine. The combination of dosage and exposure time is decisive for effectiveness: the more you take, the faster you go. However, one should consider the following points:
If the water is polluted by organic particles, a large proportion of the chlorine is consumed. This is called also "chlorine consumption".
In the case of chlorine tablets which are not individually packed in blisters, their effectiveness over time may be impaired by contact with air and moisture. Therefore, open the container as rarely as possible, close it tightly and observe the expiry date.
To get rid of the unpleasant chlorine taste, you can add a little lemon juice after disinfection.

In Spain other sailors showed me an inexpensive possibility for chlorine disinfection of the water on board. They use, and this is no joke now, the cleaning agent "Lejia". It is officially approved for the disinfection of drinking water. as long as it does not contain any odorous substances. The package then says "APTA PARA LA DESINFECCIÓN DEL AGUA DE CONSUMO", meaning "Suitable for the disinfection of drinking water". The stuff is available in every supermarket with the cleaning products and approx. 5 ml are enough for 100 l water.

With the physical disinfection methods there is first of all the thermal disinfection or more simply expressed the boiling. At 100 °C bacteria and viruses die within seconds, at 80 °C even the heat-resistant Hepatitis A virus in one minute and water kept constant above 65 °C for 30 minutes can be considered safe according to expert opinion.

Another disinfection method is the irradiation of the water with UV radiation. It is resistant to all types of microorganisms. The pathogens differ in their sensitivity to radiation. Bacteria are relatively sensitive, while viruses have a higher resistance.

For us sailors, these two methods provide a possibility of disinfecting water in the case of cases the Solar Water Disinfection SODIS. Difficult name but easy to use: Fill water into commercially available plastic or glass bottles and expose it to the sun for several hours. Professionals paint the back of the bottle black, which makes the water to be purified faster. In strong sunlight 6 hours are recommended, in cloudy skies up to 48 hours.

Of course there are still many commercial products for outdoor water disinfection. Everyone can decide for himself, what makes sense for him in terms of price and the amount of water to be treated. Last but not least, you should also take a look at the drinking water system of your boat. The best disinfection does not make sense if you have biofilms in the tanks and hoses. Especially on boats that have been standing for a long time, an examination for legionella may be useful.

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