Think again. Many in their golden years carry on sailing or even take it up as a new hobby and the oldest mariners sail well into their 60’s, 70’s and some even into their 80’s and 90’s. Sometimes, we have to wait until later in life to realise some dreams, when the chaos of family and career have subsided a little and time is, once more, on our side.
Sailing keeps you fit - mentally and physically. If you are able and in decent shape, then age isn't as major a factor as health is. It’s up to you whether the risks are acceptable. You can always get help, with a crew or automated equipment. Here are some things to consider.
Sailing as a Hobby
Hobbies are an integral part of life, no matter your age. They take on an even bigger significance during your retirement years. Hobbies are pleasurable and offer a host of mental and physical health benefits. Sailing doesn’t make the standard list of senior hobby opportunities, but maybe it should. Although it’s a time when our capabilities are changing and our strength and endurance not what they once were, some plain sailing in warm climes could be just the hobby!
If you are a newbie without any experience of sailing, the best way to start is with a crewed charter, somewhere with easy sailing grounds, like Greece or Croatia. Go on a chartered cruise where you can have hands on experience, with the safety of an experienced skipper. Something of this nature will give you an idea of what you will be doing physically on a sailboat. The skipper and crew will take care of the hefty work, while you get your sea legs and see if it’s for you. A Mediterranean sailing experience will definitely determine whether it’s your thing or not.
It’s All about the Boat
A lot depends on the boat you will be sailing. Self-tacking jibs, roller-furling mains and electric halyard winches are all great ways to alleviate the physical work of sailing. You will need to substitute brainpower for body power. If you are thinking of chartering a boat, you can request these conveniences from you charter company, who will try to match your needs.
More physical strength is required in operating a sailboat than a powerboat. If it seems too strenuous to sail, you can look into powerboat charters as an alternative.
If you are basically fit, without serious health problems, you can go sailing. There are a few things you can't cheat on, such as the ability to keep balance which is important on a boat. If you have physical limitations or medical issues you should see your primary care physician and explain what you want to do.
Also, to prepare, consult with a physical therapist who can tailor a specific set of ‘do-anywhere’ exercises to increase flexibility, stamina and strength. These should be done before and during the trip to help prevent injury, and improve balance and muscle tone. As we age, we need to stretch our muscles more before physical activity.
Most older cruisers insist that the boating lifestyle keeps them younger and fitter. In addition the mental stimulation of planning and navigating is even better than Sudoku for keeping the brain nice and sharp. The fresh air, physical activity, connections with fellow sailors and new friendships formed are some of the keys to worthwhile retirement years.
Generally, the sailing community tends to be age blind, and if you are a seasoned sailor you can be a great source of advice for the younger generation. No amount of gadgetry can make up for the experience of all-weather sailing. Everyone in the sailing community is coping with similar issues – weather, breakdowns, electrics and new horizons. It’s a community where young learn from old and old learn from young, and members stand ready to help each another.
Oldies at Sea
The late sailor Harry Heckel was a legend in the sailing community. A lifetime sailor, he completed his second solo circumnavigation at the age of 89! He holds the record for the oldest person to go around the world alone – and he did it twice. After this incredible feat, he retired from single-handed sailing, but carried on sailing with his family on his faithful boat The Idle Queen. His published memoir, Around the World in 80 Years—The Oldest Man to Sail Alone Around the World—Twice! is an inspirational read. He died just 10 days before his 98th birthday.
Granny Tilly had never stepped on a boat before her 90th birthday. Her son Humberto was a keen sailor and had been sailing in the South Pacific before coming to celebrate her birthday in Europe. Right there and then, Till decided to sell her house so they could buy a bigger boat and set sail for new adventures. On their brand new St. Francis 44 catamaran, with some modifications for Tilly, they sailed from the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean. Granny Tilly’s 91st Birthday was celebrated at sea between Beveridge Reef and Tonga and her adventure continues.
What inspiring stories for young and old alike. As Mark Twain said “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than those you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
By Merryn Wainwright