Backs and boats: the physical and environmental challenges of sailing.

I spent last week putting some of the fleet of sailing yachts that I manage back in the water and training our new crews who’re getting ready for the season. At the same time I had a book to review called ‘Beating Back Pain’, written by sports physio Mark Alexander, which caused me to reflect on just how bad for your back sailing can be.

There’s been quite a lot of research into back injuries caused by ‘hiking’ in dinghy sailing (that’s leaning out over the side of the dinghy to counteract the weight of the wind in the sails), but the issues faced by sailors of larger vessels are far less specific as the range of activities and movements is incredibly broad. Operating manual winches, lugging sails around, throwing and catching heavy mooring lines all pressure on backs, but these activities are often carried out in a confined space where it may be impossible to achieve a biomechanically efficient body position. On top of this, you’re working on a moving platform, sometimes in extremely boisterous sea conditions when holding your balance is difficult, there are lots of obstacles to fall against or be driven into with massive force by a wall of water coming over the deck. Below decks on a yacht in rough weather is like being in a washing machine and at its most extreme, ocean racing can be a bit like a game of rugby played on a power plate!

Less obvious are the issues caused by lack of activity. Sailors on long passages spend a huge proportion of their time sitting down; often in awkward or slouched positions trying to get comfortable or brace themselves against the motion of the yacht. Even during peak activity such as sail changes, the distances covered on foot are very short (maybe only a hundred feet or less), and in challenging conditions such as those that prevail for weeks on end in the Southern Ocean, you’ll be crawling on all fours! Over a period of several weeks, muscles begin to lose strength and endurance due to lack of use. This physical decline is exacerbated by the energy demands of sailing on a rough sea, which are so high it can be impossible to consume sufficient food to meet them; in response your body draws on its fat stores as well as sometimes metabolising muscle tissue that you’re underusing.

The muscles supporting your back and providing the core strength required to fix your spine against powerful movements such as winching, throwing, pulling and pushing, may begin wasting and are thus less able to provide the protection your back needs. If they’re barely up to it before you start, they’ll soon be doing a pretty poor job. Your hip and gluteal muscles can be similarly affected. Conversely, measurements taken from elite ocean race crews show that if muscles are in constant use, they may actually increase in size and strength, such as the quadriceps (from bracing to operate sail trimming winches). Combined with degeneration of the antagonistic and synergistic muscles this can initiate postural changes and muscle imbalances, further exposing the sailor to injury or chronic pain.

So, the physical and environmental demands of yachting present a double challenge to our bodies, amplifying the likelihood of injury, but how many yachties bother to do any strength and conditioning training in preparation? The answer is very few, unless you happen to be professional race crew for something like the Volvo. Rather than wait until you’ve hurt yourself, pay attention to your posture, maintain good flexibility especially in your hips, thoracic spine, hamstrings and quadriceps, build up your core strength and practice good technique for winching, lifting, throwing lines and so on. I recommend that anyone taking up sailing (especially if you’re doing it later in life), going on an ocean passage or becoming a professional sailor, gets their posture assessed and develops an exercise programme that they can follow even when at sea. Inform yourself – Mark’s book ‘Beating Back Pain’ gives a useful overview – and don’t settle for living with what initially may seem like minor problems. You can read my review on the Peak Performance web site along with details of how to order a copy.