Stay Fit by Sailing

Sailing can make you physically fit and keep you that way. If you work out at the gym, work on the boat becomes that much easier. Sailing is quite an adventure for one’s muscles, without that much effort.

The very activity of getting on and off a boat takes some exertion, especially at extreme low  tide. The rule is to keep both hands free so that you have one hand for the dock (piling) and one for the boat (shroud). Be careful not to jump onto the boat as that will damage the knees. Jumping into a small boat will send you ass over teakettle into the drink. Check to see if anyone saw you.

As the sailboat heels, the muscles tightenTo stay fit by sailing, keep all body movements fluid. As the sailboat heels, it gently requires tightening of certain muscles to retain one’s balance. People find their way by propping one foot here and another there. Standing requires its own set of muscle contractions as the boat sways in the wind and the waves. It’s seldom strenuous but still kinetic.

Hoisting the sails requires upper-body strength to pull down the halyard. Done correctly, it should stress the back muscles but not to any great degree. As the sail reaches 80% of the proper height, the weight increases and the line  should be transferred to a winch. Turning the winch handle requires some strength, especially at the end of the process. You’ll get used to it.


Pulling the lines (aka sheets) requires some deftness in the arms, again nothing too rigorous. As the boat tacks through the wind, the jib sheets are loosened on one side and pulled on the other to bring the jib to the leeward side. It’s like a bullfighter turning his cape as the bull passes through. Timing is important, as is quickness. To stay fit by sailing, it’s good exercise for the arms as long as you don’t extend them out too far. That could eventually hurt the trapezius muscle or the rotator cuff. Sailors who turn the jib for a living sometimes develop a reverse form of tennis elbow. The conventional fabric brace used by tennis players is excellent for sailor to reduce the stress.

Docking requires pulling on lines, but not much. Most of the work should be handled ahead of time by the engine moving the boat into proximate position. You can’t stay fit by sailing if you fall off now.

Heeling tightens the leg and arm muscles
Heeling the boat tightens the leg and arm muscles.

Moving around the boat requires balance. Always keep one hand on something sturdy. When going below to the salon, some people prefer to stoep backward to prevent slipping. Beware of wet surfaces.

Sailing is not for everyone. Obese people can handle it if they are prepared to be mindful of their hips and legs. Mid-size boats are impervious to weight distribution since the wind will take of that anyway. The key issue is knees since heeling requires some pressure on them.

As for exercise off the boat, rowing activates the core, shoulders and arms. In fact, try anything that works those muscles: tricep dips, sit-ups, push-ups, etc. Two videos below show exercises you can do for the upper body and lower body, specific to sailing.

Sailing Exercises

Following is excerpted from “Sailing – A Woman’s Guide” By Doris Colgate, Published by Ragged Mountain Press

One of the wonderful things about sailing is how forgiving it is. You can participate at any exertion level: casual cruiser or hot racer. But during a racing course, you will do more drills and maneuvers in a short period of time than you would during a normal sailing outing. Chances are, you’ll discover a few new muscles and experience a different kind of fatigue at the end of each day.Instructors watch for fatigue

If you’re overweight and out of shape, don’t let this hold you back. You might run out of breath pulling lines, and you might feel clumsy getting around the boat at first. But it won’t hinder your ability to learn to sail. Certified instructors are trained to watch for signs of weariness and give you easier jobs or let you rest.

Sailors who race on a regular basis put their bodies through more extremes than casual sailors do, so they need more physical preparation. The 1995 all-women America’s Cup team was up at 5 a.m. running, bench pressing, and developing muscles that matched those of the male team members on other boats. But that’s the extreme.

Women who sail regularly generally emphasize working on upper-body strength and toning exercises for sailing. To compensate for small size or too little strength, Stephanie Argyris recommends learning to use your whole body — your trunk and hips, not just your arms, especially when pulling on lines and using winches when you take one of our US sailing courses at Offshore Sailing School.

Toning your body

I was surprised to find that few women thought about sailing workouts before taking a sailing course. Maybe that’s because fitness is so much a part of our daily lives. If you don’t have a regular exercise regime, I suggest you do a little preparation each day to keep the minor aches at bay. These exercises for sailing can be done wherever you are, at home, on the road, in the gym.

Stay Fit by SailingAgility and suppleness. Limber up before you go out. Bicycle 5 miles at a good, steady pace on a nice cool morning. Use a stationary bike in the gym or at home. Do a 10-minute fast walk. Stretch each morning to avoid a pulled muscle or soreness at the end of the day.

Arms and upper body. When you do standing exercises for sailing, remember to keep your back and shoulders in line, buttocks tucked in,and stomach muscles tight. Legs should not be more than shoulder-width apart.

Upper body and chest muscles. Holding small weights or soup cans will augment these sailing workout exercises. Always keep your back straight, and your stomach and buttock muscles tight.

Leg muscles. Remember: For all the leg sailing workout exercises, keep your buttocks tight (you get a little boost in shaping that area too), back straight, and stomach muscles tensed.

Exercises aboard

Stay Fit by SailingDiana Smith, an avid racer and NWSA founding member, carries a 6-foot length of ¾ inch surgical tubing wherever she goes. On a boat, she hangs it over the boom or over handholds in the cabin below and pulls against it to strengthen her shoulders and upper back. For a simulated pectoral machine, she wraps it around a vertical post and sits with her back to the post, pulling the ends to the front. To simulate a rowing machine, she sits with feet extended and wraps the tubing around her soles. She has thus found numerous ways to stay fit by sailing.

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