Old sailors never die, they just rejig their yachts

Some sailors will be lucky enough to continue to sail well into their 80s but, well before that age, most will find they need to progressively curtail their activities. Various infirmities in themselves, or partners, may make it increasingly difficult to continue as in their younger days. Financial constraints in retirement can also become a factor.

Most cope or adapt, however, to their changing circumstances and may even get pleasure from finding solutions that allow them to continue involvement with boats and boating. This article canvasses some strategies and options in what is, of course, a universal human dilemma.


For many, the eyes are the first to go and magnifying glasses become a necessity for reading fine detail on charts by the mid-forties. Sailors are particularly prone to develop pterygiums that cause irritation, especially in glary situations.

Sun exposure may also accelerate the development of cataracts, which can effect the vision of relatively young people but becomes increasingly common as people reach older age. So even if you are not there yet, pay serious attention to protecting your eyes with hats and polarised, wrap-around sunglasses.

Fortunately cataract operations, to replace an eye’s clouded natural lens with an artificial one, are usually very effective and may even result in glasses not being needed for most purposes. Some folk choose to have a lens for distance vision inserted in the dominant eye and one suiting closer tasks in the other. This particularly suits the sailing situation, where one is frequently scanning the distance and yet also needing to view a screen or read a chart.

Night vision often deteriorates but brighter lighting over chart tables, or a weatherproof place to secure charts in the well-lit cockpit may help. Navigation often involves alternating between close up and distance vision, so half-height lenses, bifocals or progressive focus spectacles can be useful; for intermittent use, a pair may be slung on a neck strap.

Also, as one’s eyes get older, pupils lose some of the ability to dilate in the dark and cannot let in all the light gathered by a pair of standard 7×40 binoculars, let alone the traditional 7×50. A new, smaller pair may bring unexpected pleasures.

Even 7×35 would not be sacrificing much night vision for an older person and better optics are more affordable in smaller sizes; plus smaller binoculars are, of course, easier to hold or stow in a pocket as well.

Other optical developments worth mentioning, for those that can afford them, are night vision intensifiers and image stabilisers, which allow higher magnification in handheld binoculars and compensate for trembling hands. Cameras incorporating such technology are becoming common, but are not generally as robust.

Night vision devices can more than compensate for night blindness, a monocular device is light enough to be used single-handed while steering.

Older eyes also take longer to adapt to changing light conditions, such as when moving between a lit cabin and a dark cockpit. To reduce the chance of accidents, glow strips or LED lighting can be used to provide low-level illumination or edge indications on steps for example.

Red lighting disrupts night vision less than white and these days one can buy LED cabin, cockpit and head lights that can be switched to either white or red.

Older sailors who learned to navigate using traditional methods will generally have embraced modern developments such as GPS but, as with computers, some predigital sailors have not kept up. Despite any necessary learning curve, GPS chartplotters do greatly reduce the workload of keeping track of a boat’s position and real course. It should, therefore, help those who find traditional navigation becoming more difficult.

While computers and tablet PCs etc. may be used to run navigation software, the waterproofness and full daylight cockpit viewability of chartplotters make these a better choice.

Easing the physical work

Operating a yacht typically involves inactivity, punctuated by periods of intense effort; such as when raising anchor, hauling in a sheet, or dealing with deteriorating weather. Strength, endurance and fitness all tend to decline as we age and many older folk become further limited by chronic conditions such as rheumatism, bad backs, wonky hips or knees, torn shoulder ligaments or heart problems. Fortunately there are substitutes for muscles.

Electric anchor winches are now commonplace and, provided they do have a manual back-up capability, are a proven solution.

Manual sheet winches can only magnify the torque’s input by the person turning the handle. For jobs where speed is not important, such as tightening the last few inches of a halyard or sheet, simply buying or building a longer winch handle is an effective compensation for reduced muscle force.

Powered winches are expensive but an alternative, for some winch designs, is to have existing ones modified so as to be driven by a geared electric motor mounted underneath the winch.

Another possibility is to install a powered capstan in the cockpit. Where the loaded rope, such as a halyard, passes through a jammer a capstan can be used in place of a regular winch. Otherwise the capstan can be used to provide the grunt, while the normal winch serves as a snubber.

A less expensive possibility is to use a heavily-geared portable power drill to drive any existing winch via its winch handle socket. Suitable right angle drive rechargeable drills with a star drive bit are increasingly used in this way and, while they may not be powerful enough for heavy jobs on larger boats, they may offer a practical solution on smaller ones.

Boating sometimes involves loading or unloading heavy objects over the side: outboard motors, batteries, liferafts and sails; as well as LPG cylinders, provisions and fuel or water drums. Swivelling hoists with block and tackle, or even a powered winch, reduce the effort, plus any loss overboard.

On land, wheeled trolleys can make it much easier to move such big items.

If the dinghy is to be stowed on the foredeck, investment in properly organised lifting tackle and a three-point bridle, allows quite large dinghies to be hoisted aboard and swung onto deck chocks. If the spinnaker pole is long enough it can, for example, serve as a swivelling derrick supporting a block and tackle. Or the anchor winch may be used to provide the grunt.

Stern davits are an even better solution and can be fitted to most yachts. They may even allow the outboard to remain attached to the tender.

Other areas

Reaction times and sense of balance tend to decline as we age and the chance that we may experience a dizzy spell probably increases, so a tippy tender is a liability. But, the problem with large boats and RIBs in particular, is their weight.

In conjunction with a hoisting system and good wheels, outboard motors allow larger tenders to be used and even small motors offer an alternative to rowing if this becomes physically difficult.

Routine wearing of an inflating lifejacket in tenders is becoming more common, even where it is not a legal requirement. If someone was to faint or fall and strike their head for example, an automatically inflating jacket might save a life.

Many yachts have fairly steep steps, either from the cockpit of a monohull or into the hulls from the bridge deck of a catamaran. These can present real obstacles to folk with restricted knee movement, increasing the risk of a fall. Providing extra hand grips should be straight forward.

The simple act of getting aboard can similarly become an issue. Possible aids include: booster steps at marina berths; gates or drop-down sections in the lifelines; handgrips; fore and aft dinghy mooring cleats near boarding points plus sterns with inbuilt steps rather than precarious pipe-frame gunwale ladders.

Planning can also become important. At a fixed dock, for example, when taking on fuel and water or a less-able passenger it pays to check the tide for when it is at a convenient height.

Autopilots have become so ubiquitous that it may be overkill to mention the attractions here. An autopilot on board can relieve the helmsman of physical work and allow them to attend to other tasks, especially with a partner who is now unable to fully ‘pull their weight’.

Providing fresh water aboard generally requires either periodic berthing near a hose or considerable cartage of heavy large containers. In the long term, provided clean seawater is available, a watermaker may be worth considering.

Taking on younger crew on a regular basis may be worth considering. Not everyone is lucky enough to have children or even grown grandchildren, nieces or nephews who have the interest and time to accept frequent invitations to go sailing, but there are other possibilities.

One alternative I have witnessed involves younger sailors at a stage in their lives where owning their own boat is still a dream. Casual invitations to bring their partner along for a social sail develops into long-term friendships; including arrangements where the owners became happy to allow the crew independent use of the boat, perhaps in exchange for assistance with maintenance chores.

Some of the most strenuous sailing activities involve hoisting, reefing and tacking. Making major modifications to a rig, such as replacing the spar to suit in-mast furling for example, are unlikely to appeal to most folk unless perhaps a dismasting provides the opportunity. A less expensive option may be to fit a powered in-boom furling system.

In some cases though there may be less drastic changes or improvements that may be worth considering: lazy jacks, full length mainsail battens, low friction track inserts and luff downhauls can all help to reduce the work involved with slab reefing.

Modern mainsail covers with a central zipper can be designed to remain on the boom while sailing. Headsail furler/reefers can be retrofitted to any yacht, which negates the need to routinely change, hoist and bag sails on the foredeck.

Change boats

Another way to reduce the work is to buy a smaller yacht. As it is not so expensive you could add options to make your sailing easier, such as powered winches.

The advantages may go well beyond this and include easier maneuvering, lower mast, access to shallower waterways and probably cheaper maintenance, berthing, insurance and slipping fees.

Downsizing may go hand in hand with a change in sailing objectives: day sailing or local cruising instead of making longer passages. Downsizing may also be the answer if a dependence on no longer able-bodied crew has become a problem.

Reduced rolling and heeling are well known advantages of catamarans compared with monohulls. The older a person gets, the more the relative ease and safety of moving around on board becomes an issue, it is not surprising that many sailing retirees go cruising in catamarans; even before other benefits such as shoal draft and greater speed are considered.

Motorboats may roll more vigorously than sailing yachts, but they do have compensating advantages: progress is direct, effortless and predictable. This allows quicker passages especially in calm windless weather and avoidance
of overnight passages on coastal routes.

There is generally copious electrical power available and the helm and other controls are in a protected wheelhouse with padded seating. Many sailboat sailors eventually retire to displacement power boats. Catamaran power cruisers roll much less than monohulls and, being twin-screwed, are not completely dependent on one engine.

Motor sailors are an attractive compromise: combining roll stabilisation and independent propulsion of a sailing boat with the advantages of a powerboat. The drawbacks include the cost and space needed to provide both propulsion systems and the limitations of each.

Compared with a pure motorboat, motor sailors include: masts that generate extra windage and may not get under bridges; keels that restrict access to shallows and an exposed cockpit strewn with winches, sheets and halyards. Compared with a normal sailing yacht, the limitations include the extra weight of the larger engine and its fuel, greater propeller drag and, in many cases, a relatively short and inefficient rig.

In practice, despite the inevitable compromises they involve, motor sailors are a popular class. They do make satisfactory cruising boats and, although they still have sails and running rigging, modern motor sailors often incorporate powered headstay and in-mast furlers. This allows sails to be reefed or removed with a minimum of effort, in the knowledge that deliberate under-canvassing can be compensated for by a powerful engine.

Many owners of these craft are older folk with extensive sailing experience, so there is no doubt this is an option worth considering.

Others simply keep their sailboat, but decide to motor more than they used to!

Living aboard

Most sailors spend fairly short periods living on their boats, usually during vacations or while racing or cruising. They look forward to doing more of this in retirement, including perhaps much more extended cruising.

A significant minority, individually or as couples, deliberately retire to a life afloat.

In some countries, compared with some alternatives, it can offer a reasonably cheap and independent lifestyle on a limited budget. It can, however, also become a financial trap if, for example, an appreciating asset such as the family home is sold to buy the dream yacht, which will inevitably depreciate in value.

Modern communications including mobile and satellite phones, email, internet and Skype have done much to remove the isolation. Given reasonable health and fitness and sufficient income, many folk enjoy years of cruising in retirement.

Use it or lose it.

A love of boats and the sea is reason enough to want to persevere with boating, but there are other benefits too. Continued use of mental and physical skills helps to prevent the loss. Many older sailors seem fully aware of this.

Maintaining and operating a boat exercises mind and body, one of the few activities in which knowledge and skill born of long experience is still relevant to younger people. In a society where old folk are often isolated, being out and about on the water brings opportunities for social contacts and an antidote for ennui.

So on the one hand, there may need to be a deliberate policy of not always taking the easy route, of persisting with rowing for example, even when your children give you an outboard motor for your birthday. On the other hand there is a need to recognise real limitations and what, if anything, can be done to circumvent them.

Many obstacles can be got around using appropriate labour-saving devices. Maybe that little outboard is a good idea!

Andrew Bray
Lagoon 51
Sun Odyssey 380
M.O.S.S Australia
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