On Becoming an Old Sailor


    In 1983 a woman came up to me at the Long Beach Boat Show, where I was making an appearance, and said, “You’re younger than I expected.  I thought you were an old fool.”

    I replied, “No, madam.  I am a middle-aged fool.  Come back in twenty years and I’ll be an old fool.”

    So in 2007 I am obviously defined.

    In fact I have officially been a senior citizen for four months.  I think this gets me a discount on buses that I don’t ride and unsolicited mail from Medicare supplement insurance providers that I don’t want.   Those of you who are younger have a lot to look forward to.

    At intervals since my sixty-fifth birthday I have been thinking about age and sailing and I haven’t come up with much.  Finally I realized that that may be the message.

    Of course age matters.  No one age sixty-five is playing in the NFL or pitching in the World Series.  And for that matter not many are even coaching.  But as for sailing?  Well, a friend who is five years older than I just completed a circumnavigation in his 53’ ketch, with a crew whose average age was seventy and oldest member was eighty. 

    In some ways I am lucky.  I’ve never gained weight and have remained in reasonably good shape.  Some of this may just be good genes and some that my mother was a bad cook, which has the unexpected side-benefit that food is never going to be important.  But I also worked at it.  I’ve had to.  Several times my body has kept me alive against odds and expectation.

    I’ve always kept active; and since my late twenties I’ve followed an exercise routine usually three times a week when not at sea, which has only moderately been modified with time.  We all know what happens to machinery that sits idle.  When Carol and I lived aboard in Boston, I was apprehensive each April as I turned the key to try to start the diesel inboard for the first time in six months.  So it is with our bodies.

    But there is hope even for those who have been too long idle.  Studies seem to show that people can develop muscles well into their eighties.

    Most advice to people getting old is probably along the lines of doing things ‘smarter’ and using labor-saving devices.  I don’t agree.  I think labor saving devices should be used only selectively.  A better approach to finding yourself getting weaker is to make yourself stronger.

    I can’t think of any devices I have purchased to make sailing easier just because I am old. 

    The most important labor saving device on a sailboat is a self-steering vane, and I’ve used them for more than thirty years. 

    I did change over to self-tailing winches a few years ago, but that wasn’t age, just an opportunity to buy at half price in South Africa due to a temporary aberration in exchange rates.

    So I’m not opposed to making sailing as easy as possible, and one device I may install because of age and a bad back is a power windlass.  I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but haven’ yet because my set up using a manual Anchorman is simple and works perfectly, and because THE HAWKE OF TUONELA takes considerable water over her deck at sea and I suspect that even after spending several thousand dollars for a power windlass, I may still end up with only a manual one. 

    Nevertheless this is a concession to old age that I am willing to make and may soon.

    Others, such an putting an outboard on a dinghy, I will resist.

    I like to row.  I’ve never had an outboard on a dinghy.  I don’t want one.  My mooring in Opua, New Zealand, is four hundred yards offshore.  I like it out there, and I like rowing ashore.  Sometimes it is difficult.  Occasionally  it is impossible.  I’m not saying that I will never buy an outboard for the dinghy--there have been days I’ve thought about it--

but if I do I won’t be able to kid myself.  It will be a defeat.

    Age has affected my sailing in a few ways.

    I’ve never liked going up the mast and now, except in a true emergency, I don’t.  One advantage of being an old man is that you can pay young men to do things you don’t want to.  I’m much happier paying the guys at Bay of Islands Rigging $30 to go up and change a failed masthead wind instrument or a burnt out bulb than do so myself.

    Another change I have noticed is that I don’t set the cruising spinnaker as often as I used to.  The problem isn’t getting it up, but getting it down, even with a good ATN sock, when the wind increases rapidly.  I am definitely less comfortable dancing around a heaving foredeck than once I was. 

    I am considering alternatives, such as Facnor’s gennaker furling gear.  Maybe I’ll try it one of these days; but I’m not sure that the gain is worth the added complexity.  THE HAWKE OF TUONELA may go from being a three sail boat--full-battened main, furling jib, and cruising spinnaker--to just a two sail boat.  It probably would not lengthen any passage by more than a day, and I have time.  I’ve always had time.

    (Since writing this article, I have installed gennaker furling gear with excellent results.  This is the subject of an upcoming article, “Reclaiming the Spinnaker.”)

    Probably no one reaches their sixth decade without frailties.

Mine are skin, Dupuytren’s contracture, back, memory and vision.  This list is disconcertingly longer than I expected.

    I’ve taken care of my skin for the past few decades, but can’t undo damage done during teenage beach summers long ago when no one worried about skin cancer.  If you are young and reading this, take care of your skin.  You probably won’t, but you should.  And people in high-risk places such as Australia and New Zealand do.

    Dupuytren’s contracture is the formation of nodules around connective tissue in the palm of the hand, which can result in fingers being contracted into immobility.  I’ve had this for at least twenty years and it hasn’t progressed much.  It may even help explain explain why someone born in Saint Louis, Missouri, always dreamed of the sea.  Dupuytren’s is linked to a gene carried by the Vikings, and while as far as I know both sides of my family were English, there must have been a pillager back there somewhere.

    My back worries me some.  I have what my doctor calls a classic case of sciatica.  My worst episode came one morning when I straightened up after brushing my teeth and was immobilized by pain.  My doctor at the time was a professor at Harvard Medical School, which presumably means that I was getting the best medical advice available.  He told me to take massive amounts of ibuprofen and that there was a 90% chance that I would be better within three months.  He also suggested that I give up brushing my teeth.

    In fact I returned almost to normal within a week.  But the question has lingered in my mind:  What if this happened on the boat?

    We are not talking here about pain you can will yourself through.  At least not pain that I can.  This is pain where you absolutely can’t move. 

    And the answer is that I don’t know.  Over the years I’ve modified my exercises.  I do crunches instead of sit-ups.  I no longer do pushups with my feet elevated and I no longer touch my toes.  I’m careful about how I lift.  But on a boat there are times that you have to move quickly and bend and stretch and lift in awkward positions.  While nothing on the boat has caused me to have a severe episode, the question is always there.  Maybe it will never have to be answered.  And in the meantime I keep an economy size bottle of ibuprofen on board.

    A different area of concern is memory.  Immodestly I am going to state that I had an exceptional memory.  Some friends say I still do.  But that is long term memory.  During my fifties my short term memory definitely declined, and it certainly hasn’t made a come-back in my sixties.  On the boat this is manifested in the lost tool syndrome.   I have wasted considerable time looking for a tool I put down a minute ago, particularly when working on projects that require many things to be moved from their usual places, such as recently when I replaced the navigation lights and had to run a new wire from the main circuit breaker panel to the bow.  This would have been a simple task except that the wire ran through four major bulkheads and two other lockers and half the interior had to be torn apart.  In such situations I have learned to put the screwdriver or drill bit or wire stripper I just used on the chart table or in some other obviously visible position.  Not, however, with complete success.  Thus far I’ve not lost anything permanently, and in the right mood can even be amused.  For a while.

    But I find myself wondering:  what if I ever forget something really important?

    I think there are a couple of at least partial solutions to this.  One is to reduce clutter and keep everything important in its specific place.  This is good advice at any age.   If you go to sea long enough, one night you are going to need to find things in the dark when the boat suddenly heels over 30º and begins leaping about.

    Another is to make lists, and this, too, is something I’ve always done.  A steno notepad is usually within arm’s reach of me on land and at sea, except when I’m on deck.  I use it both as a writer and a sailor.  And before a long passage I end up with a number of lists:  things to do; to buy; to check.  It is not unusual for me to end up with a list of lists.  Someone once took a photo of me sitting back two days before I was to set sail relaxing because the last thing had just been crossed off my last list.

    Airplane pilots use check lists before take-off.  I haven’t gotten to the point of making a standardized one for departing on an offshore passage, but it isn’t a bad idea.

    My vision has been impaired since I was young.  If uncorrected I would be legally blind and miss entire continents beyond arm’s reach.  With age my eyes have actually slightly improved, but, as is to be expected, my night vision has decreased, which is all the more reason not to enter harbors after dark.  This is something I have seldom done anyway.  I can only recall two exceptions in the past thirty thousand miles:  at Rio de Janeiro and on my last return to Opua from Fiji.  In both instances I was within sight of the harbors at sunset; their entrances are wide and unobstructed; and I decided to continue in rather than wait until dawn.  But I have seen too many boats lost when sailors closed a coast in the dark.  At any age it is better to spend one more night at sea.

    I don’t deny time.  I don’t doubt that sometime in the next minute to twenty years my body is going to fail me.  But at sixty-five I have the same passions I’ve always had:  to write; to sail; to love.  And I don’t believe they are much diminished.

    In his FOUR QUARTETS, T.S. Eliot wrote, “Old men should be explorers.”
    Why not?  We risk so much less than the young.

    I still think my mooring in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands is as fine a place to keep a boat as any in the world; but I am getting restless and miss the open ocean.  It is about time to set off again at least part way around the world.  I’ve got ideas about the first five thousand miles, which is far enough ahead for a senior citizen to plan.

    So far turning a middle-aged fool into an old one hasn’t made much difference.