Singlehanded Sailors :: An Interview with Rod Percival

This is the beginning of a series of interviews that will serve to inspire us all by sharing the wisdom and experiences of singlehanded sailors that I admire.

Last night I had the privilege of sailing with Rod Percival aboard his 1985 Contessa 33, “Rubicon III.” I met Rod through the club I recently joined, Pacific Single Handed Sailing Association (PSSA), where he is a long-time member. Rod is a veteran single-handed sailor and racer, having logged more than 12,000 hours racing over the last 37 years. He also has had his fair share of racing wins in the challenging PSSA races here in Southern California. It was a pleasure to get to spend an evening sailing with him.

I arrived at his dock at 4pm, and with little light remaining in the day, we made a speedy departure from the dock. Well, I should say, HE made a speedy departure from the dock, because besides removing the mainsail cover, I had nothing to do with the process. He efficiently and effortlessly maneuvered around his boat preparing, and within minutes we were heading out of the marina. He was politely apologetic about not being great at delegating due to the fact that he mostly sails alone. I, of course, understood this perfectly and assured him that no apology was needed. I actually really enjoyed observing another single-handed sailor’s preparation and process. It was similar to my own process, except for the differences in our boats.

As we headed out into the golden pre-sunset light, Rod shared his long history of sailing, which started in his native Western Australia. Rod grew up in Perth, and says that sailing was basically the norm there. His father was a sailor, therefore, he and his brothers were steeped in it from a young age. His dad built them a Pelican sailing dinghy when Rod was a young teen, and he and his brother had much success racing her in local races. From there, he started crewing aboard local racing boats, and his knowledge about and passion for sailing and racing accelerated. When he was a young man, he and one of his brothers bought a cruising boat, fixed her up and headed out on some adventures together. His brother moved on to other things, but Rod stuck it out aboard the trusty cruiser and embarked on a big trip from Freemantle to Greece across the Indian Ocean. It was on this trip that he reports having one of his most awe-inspiring sailing experiences. Armed with nothing but a sextant, he successfully made it to the Cocos Keeling Islands and beyond. He says that making landfall for the first time on that voyage, at the exact location he predicted he would, was an incredible moment for him. I think that in our modern days of GPS navigation, it is easy to take a feat like this for granted.

Rod also shared one of his most terrifying moments at sea. It was aboard a racing boat off Cape Leuwin, Western Australia. The crew was very experienced, thank God, but that didn’t stop them from being overcome by quickly building 30+knot winds. The winds were so intense and built so quickly that their mast broke. Thankfully no one was hurt and they were able to recover their rig and drift downwind to safety.

Rod moved to LA 30 years ago and began racing with PSSA in 1994. He says that his favorite part of sailing alone is the “mental gymnastics” that one has to perform in order to stay safe and be effective on the water. I, of course, had to ask what wisdom he would share with someone like me, who is getting more serious about single-handed sailing and racing. His first words of advice were to plan ahead as much as possible, to go through everything in my mind a few times before I actually do it. This includes everything from planning and reviewing my route, to sail changes (based on predicted weather), to my procedures aboard the boat. He stressed the importance of always staying in control of one’s boat by staying one step ahead if possible. The best example of this is what so many others consistently remind me: to reduce sail early.

My biggest take-away from being with Rod and observing him handling his boat, was the importance of being calm and calculated. He never moved with haste, but that’s not to say he wasn’t efficient, he just never rushed. I could almost see his thought process unfolding as he moved around his boat and methodically performed all of the necessary tasks. Everything from dealing with a jammed jib halyard, to setting and dousing his spinnaker, was smooth and efficient. It was inspiring to me, and reminded me of the importance of staying centered. I have a lot of gratitude for Rod and other single-handed sailors who set the example for sailors like me, showing us that not only is all this possible, but it is also enjoyable! It is also comforting for me to know that there are other people out there who love this kind of "crazy" thing as much as I do!

We had a beautiful sail in light, but steady winds. The evening light was magical, and the sunset was one of those golden, dripping-into-the-horizon, California winter shows. As it grew darker, that seemingly unparalleled sight was quickly upstaged by a new moon on the horizon emerging out of the sun’s waning light. It was absolutely stunning! Many thanks to Rod and Rubicon III for hosting me and allowing me a glimpse into their special relationship. And also, for all you sailors reading this, Rod has designed and manufactures amazing lightweight sprits for many boats to aid in asymmetrical spinnaker flying. His motto is "ditch the pole". Please check his website out here!