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Fit for Passage-Making

Unlike Forester's Hornblower or O'Brian's Aubrey, few of us on long cruising passages have the luxury of even twenty paces of quarterdeck to walk for our daily exercise. Yet, if we want to be able to stagger further than the first beach bar at the other end, we really do need to stay in shape. What is more, too much gentle trade wind sailing can leave us unfit even for handling emergencies and the more demanding conditions in higher latitudes.

Most fitness exercise regimes have as their primary goal improving overall fitness, not merely maintaining it. This usually involves some form of aerobic exercise, such as running, rowing or biking, which gets the heart and lungs pumping for long enough to get higher levels of oxygen flowing throughout the body. This kind of sustained exercise is almost impossible on a small or medium-sized yacht at sea. For that reason and all the other limitations on types of exercise in this situation, a fitness regime for passages is almost bound to take the form of damage limitation - keeping fit, not getting fit. That said, what can we do at sea, on a yacht rolling down the trades, probably in the dark, because it would be too hot in the day?

We exercise in the cockpit. Though there is more space on the foredeck, the movement is greater and there are too many obstacles to trip on. The other great advantage, as we have a wheel, is the pedestal support, which we use like a ballet dancer's bar. On a tiller-steered boat you could probably use the after hoop of the cockpit spray hood or a line stretched taut between the primary winches. In the cockpit, it is also easy to stay clipped on, and we are close to the instruments, wheel, sheets and autopilot controls if anything needs adjustment or action. Sitting or standing exercises are easily done in the enclosed safety of the cockpit.

Inevitably our regimes are adapted to our personal needs and then more broadly to those of two reasonably fit, but middle-aged sailors. Our general priorities are to maintain suppleness and muscle tone, but with an emphasis on the legs, because these get so very little use on passage. In addition, we do some work on maintaining arm and shoulder strength so that we can wind winches and pull lines effectively. Tom also wants to be able still to lift anchors and chain when we arrive at our first anchorage at the end of a long passage.

None of the exercises we’ve chosen is in itself very strenuous. As a result we’ve found that large numbers of repetitions are needed to get any real benefit. And ‘large’ means lots and lots! For the legs, it really means numbers in the hundreds not tens or scores. This may seem a lot, but if you think of the walking and stair climbing that normal land-based existence requires, a few hundred knee bends pale into insignificance.

Most of the exercises we have used are very simple. For the legs, heel lifts – rising on tip-toe - are good for the calves,while knee bends to 90 degrees are good for the upper leg and to some extent the buttocks. We found that by the end of a long passage we have built up to 300 – 600 repetitions of each of these exercises.

All sorts of body bending and rotating are good for suppleness as are rotations of the neck, shoulder and wrist joints – repetitions between 30 – 50 seemed about right, though you could easily work up to 100. If you can manage them, 50 or so leg lifts and arched-back pelvic thrusts help to maintain tone in the abdomen and buttocks.To maintain muscle tone in the forearms and biceps, winch handles – the chromed bronze type – make light but effective dumbells for curls, inside and outside, as well as presses, all of which can be done sitting down. 100 of each of these with each arm seemed about right. It’s a good idea to keep the rotating end of the handle away from your head!

Safety has to be a paramount consideration in establishing your regime. It is pointless staying fit and then spraining, straining or worse yet breaking something. Many exercises can and should be done sitting or even lying down. Standing exercises should allow you to hold on firmly with at least one hand and keep your harness on. Jumping jacks and running in place are not likely to be safe, though in calm weather it may be possible to do exercises which are potentially aerobic, if you do enough of them, such as step-ups on cockpit seats. But on passage such opportunities will be the exception and cannot be regarded as part of a regular regime. Depending on the space available, some excellent traditional exercises, such as sit-ups and push-ups may be possible in calmer weather, but for reasons of balance, they are best done athwartships, where it is hardest to find enough space.

In rough weather, when even a safe, conservative regime may look too daring, and if just holding on isn’t exercise enough, then you can resort to a range of isotonics and isometrics. In other words, use muscles against each other or against immovable objects for exercise and to maintain tone. The classic isotonic exercises involve pitting one arm against the other, either pulling, for forearms, biceps and shoulders, or pushing, for triceps and pectorals. Interestingly, holding yourself in one place in rough seas with your arms is an isometric exercise, as is pushing hard with your legs against the lee cockpit seat. Use timed periods for these exercises. Some may say, 'No gain without pain,' but we feel that the appropriate period is probably one where the muscles tell you that they feel exercised, but before they say, ‘This really hurts.’

The cruising life seems inherently healthy, with lots of fresh air and the appearance of plenty of exercise – ‘It ain’t necessarily so!’ Especially with electric windlasses, roller headsails, autopilots and so on, it is possible to get by with remarkably little real muscle work. It may not be until something goes wrong and we have to work really hard in an emergency that we feel the heart flutter painfully and muscles give out long before they have accomplished what really has to be done. Fitness may not be just a matter of good health and general well being – it may also be a matter of survival – safety equipment you can’t buy, no matter what you’re willing to pay.

One of the great side benefits of establishing an exercise regime for a long passage is that it does help to pass those long night watches. No matter how beautiful the stars, the moon and the phosphoresence, as well as the philosophic thoughts they stimulate, time does pass slowly. A bout of exercises half-way through does wonders to speed through a watch, while confering a wonderful sense of superiority over those lolling unfitly in their bunks.

Tom and Vicky Jackson