Staying fit on a voyageOct 28, 2013
Ellen hiking in the Marquesas.
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Voyaging is a healthy enterprise. The air at sea is unpolluted; the watch routine ensures that sailors spend more time outside than their landlocked friends; food can sometimes come fresh from the sea or, especially in the tropics, fresh from tree and vine. Regular, structured exercise, however, remains a problem. Lengthy passages mean days of living in a space only as large as your boat: walking a lap around the deck takes a minute or maybe two. Yet fitness is important for physical and mental well-being, and is particularly important for voyagers.
Exercise maintains and improves one’s physical condition. Strength exercises and stretching increase muscle mass; stretching also improves flexibility; agility training shortens reaction time and improves balance; and cardiovascular work strengthens the heart, lowering the resting heart rate and thus diminishing stress on it. Cardiovascular exercise has the added benefit of making you happy, the feeling known as “runner’s high.” Staying fit and maintaining a healthy weight for your height not only reduce stress on all vital organs, often prolonging life, but also ensure your capacity to engage in physically demanding activities.
This is especially necessary for voyaging. A good level of fitness increases your enjoyment and safety. It gives you the option of sailing in rougher seas and visiting remote locations, and it allows you to partake in more strenuous activities while ashore, such as hiking or scuba diving. On the other hand, poor physical condition makes voyaging close to unmanageable: if you lack the necessary flexibility and agility to climb aboard from your dinghy, you are limited to calling only at ports with marinas. If reefing the main takes more strength than you can muster, safety becomes an issue.
Seth reefs Heretic's main.
The inevitability of rough weather makes fitness essential for your safety at sea. Although voyagers plan their routes according to favorable seasonal weather patterns, most sailors will eventually encounter storms that require physical strength and endurance. Autopilots and wind vanes can handle some gales but not all, and it is crucial to be prepared for heavy weather.
During our circumnavigation aboard our 38-foot cutter Heretic, my husband Seth and I encountered weather in all oceans. Much of it was short but violent rain squalls requiring hand-steering and expeditious reefing, but some was more severe. With very inconsiderate timing, our roller-furler broke just as a front off New Zealand struck us, so we had to man-handle our big genoa off the forestay while green water drenched the bow. By far the most exhausting, however, was a Force 11 storm we encountered while rounding Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa. After furling all sail except for a tiny blade staysail, we spent 16 hours at the helm to keep Heretic running before 30-foot seas. The force on the rudder demanded strong and quick reactions, and the sound of the wind and foaming crests taxed all our mental stamina. We weathered it successfully, however, because we had maintained a good standard of fitness throughout our voyage.
But how to do so? Fortunately, it is relatively simple. The motion of a yacht at sea ensures constant low-intensity exercise. Her rolling and pitching on the ocean swell keeps your body moving continuously; some muscle is always working to keep you standing, sitting, or even snug in your bunk against your lee cloth. My first long ocean crossing, the Pacific, surprised me in this regard. I was always hungry, and despite frequent hearty meals, I arrived in French Polynesia several pounds lighter than when I left the Galápagos. I couldn’t attribute my weight loss to the conversion of muscle into fat: I was slimmer, and I had no trouble hiking in the mountains of the Marquesas or hauling up our 60-pound CQR with our small, manual anchor windlass.
Our next two big crossings illustrated this phenomenon even more strikingly. Heretic hurtled across the South Indian Ocean before winds seldom less than 25 knots. The seas were steep and confused as the waves met a cross swell brewed in the Southern Ocean. Again I ate constantly and fell into my bunk exhausted at the end of my four-hour watches. The South Atlantic, however, served up a tranquil, almost calm, sea and a light but steady breeze. Instead of fatigue, Seth and I felt restless. Walking around the deck was insufficient: we started doing step-ups on the cockpit benches. This gave us our needed cardiovascular and leg work, although we had to take care to time our step-ups to Heretic’s roll.