There’s a lot of gray hair amongst the cruising set. Those who wait to start cruising until retirement bring gray hair with them. Others who began cruising earlier in life wake up one day and look in a mirror (or across the cockpit) and exclaim, “Who’s this OLD person and when did she/he get on board!?”
Gray hair notwithstanding, the cruising community is remarkably age-blind. Children back home would be surprised to see parents and grandparents socializing easily in sundowner get-togethers and potlucks, adventuring in reef exploration and mountain hikes, or partying and dancing at beachfront palapas, generally heedless of generation gaps that might loom large back home.
This age blindness stems from the reality that everyone is coping with the same issues – from weather to breakdowns to the challenges of new horizons. It’s a community where young learn from old and old learn from young, and members stand ready to help one another without discrimination.
Plus most cruisers insist that the lifestyle keeps them younger. Margie of Peregrina, in her early 60s, cites the healthy diet of fish, fruit and vegetables that took 25lbs off them in their first year. Ellen of Cayenne III points to the toning activity of living aboard: “up and down companionway steps, clambering in and out of dinghies, bracing and balancing in a chop, and, of course, walking everywhere!”
Plus the mental stimulation of planning, navigating, and interacting in new countries beats crosswords and Sudoku for keeping the brain sharp.
That said, there are some realities about cruising in The Golden Years that we can’t ignore. No matter how much we will it not to be so, those golden years – that promised time to live out our dreams, the long awaited ME time — is also a time when our capabilities are changing, our strength and endurance ebbing. Since the Admirals and I have been at this for quite awhile — cruising and the column — many of us now fall in the Golden Year category!
Several of my older Admirals have changed boats, down-sizing or switching to trawlers or catamarans. Still cruising in her 80s, Bev of mv Cloverleaf states, “Just like you don’t sleep on the ground in a pup tent anymore but can still enjoy the great outdoors in an RV, forget you were passionate about sailing and buy a motorboat!” On the other hand, not wanting to give up sail-power, Suzanne and John of Zeelander at age 67 switched after their circumnavigation from a full-keeled monohull ketch to a catamaran, welcoming its more-level sailing characteristics.
Instead of changing boats, others change style. Perhaps, for longer passages they, like Bette and Tom of Quantum Leap, engage crew, gaining not only more hands, but more hours of off-watch sleep. Or like Mary and Carl of Camryka in Panama they decide to limit their cruising to a smaller range, forgoing long passages.
“Choosing the easier path,” Bev points out, “doesn’t mean you can’t go see the whole world. That’s what yacht transporters like Dockwise or Yacht Path are for.”
Virtually all the Admirals stressed “substituting brains for brawn.” Power windlasses are a must; they make big anchors and stout chain manageable by anyone, which in turn brings peace of mind and better sleep. Two or three-part tackles for all hoisting jobs; bigger, double-handled winch handles, or even electric winch handles (either the commercial Winch Buddy or a homemade version using a 2- speed right-angle drill with a winch bit) are recommended to help with sail management. After my stint as crew aboard the catamaran Quantum Leap, I’m a firm believer that electric winches are NOT a luxury, but a safety essential for keeping older sailors going.
Another recommendation is doing what you can to minimize time on deck. Self-furling sails, controlled from the cockpit, protect older bodies from being on deck in bad conditions. After doing a delivery on a boat that had one, Margie says she and Peter would consider a furling main next opportunity. What sacrifice there might be in performance is more than made up for by not having to go on deck every time to raise, reef or drop sail.
Short of a major change to the rig, installing lazy-jacks or a cradle cover and rerouting halyards and control lines to the cockpit where one could have at least one power winch, as Sheri of Procyon had, help minimize exposure on deck. Not all older boats, however, can be adapted efficiently. Fortunately, newer boats are increasingly designed for cockpit-based control.
Preventing injuries and health problems was also high on the list of the Admirals’ advice to older cruisers. Consistent hydration – with water not beer! – is essential for all, but particularly so for seniors who could be prone to urinary and kidney issues. Physical injuries can be reduced by installing strategically-placed handholds, making steps non-skid, removing throw rugs, and keeping decks above or below tidy and organized. Wearing shoes (not flops) on deck protects feet.
Another age-related issue to be alert to is vision. Not just a matter of glare, UV light contributes to cataract development and macular degeneration among others things, so it’s essential to wear good sunglasses. On the other hand, good lighting — daylight fluorescents and LEDs — in cabins, the galley, over nav desks and cockpit reading perches — prevents eyestrain. A stash of magnifiers for reading faint or tiny notations on charts doesn’t hurt!
As we get less nimble, having the boat easily accessible from docks, dinghies and the water is a high priority. Many boats have stern-opening entries with landing areas that make unloading from dinghy to boat very easy. Catamarans and trawlers generally excel in stern accessibilty. However, high-freeboard bluff-stern boats can be boarded easily by hanging solid mounting steps amidships.
Getting from boat to dock is sometimes the most precarious gyration demanded by the cruising life. If you spend a lot of time stern-to in pier-less marinas, as often found overseas, a wheeled passarelle with stainless-steel handrails mounted on the stern is worth the cost. Where finger piers are available, the passarelle alongside or a set of steps reduces the challenge of tidal changes. Also worthwhile is a good boarding ladder for getting out of the water after snorkeling. The best ones are wide with good props and wood steps on each rung. Some passarelles do double duty.
Lastly, making the boat easier to care for saves a lot of effort and back-strain. Consider, for example, painting over your varnished cap rails or, alternatively, leaving your teak to go au naturel. Allow yourself do things at a slower pace, and face the reality of hiring more maintenance help in the yard or marina for stuff you used to do yourselves. You don’t have to keep up with a standard you set ten or twenty years ago! “Keep the tire out of re-tire-ment,” Bev says!
Perhaps, most importantly, not every cruiser will be able to go on indefinitely like Suzanne or Bev. Sometimes, serious health or family issues intrude; sometimes we just get worn out. The later you wait to start, the more chance such terminal interruptions will cut short your ME time before you’re ready, or worse, before you even get started! All the Admirals urge those who dream of cruising to go, to not let age daunt you. “Old” is not what it used to be. According to Suzanne, gerontologists are redefining “The Golden Years” calling persons 60-75 as “Young Old”, 75-90 “Middle Old, and 90-100+ “Old Old”.
“Who says there is a time limit to when you must start or stop cruising?” concludes Bev. “It’s like anything else in life: if you feel like doing it, if you are willing to compensate for whatever handicaps age has brought you, you can go. You can do it well and comfortably, you just have to make the right choices.”
Also on this website (on the Women and Cruising blog):
- Sailing into the Eighties, by Germaine Beiser
Germaine Beiser shares her story and her suggestions on continuing to cruise as you get older.
- Handholds, handholds, handholds, by Bev Feiges
There is no such thing as too many handholds, especially as you or some of your special friends and relatives get older.