#21 – Fitness

Keeping fit is not the automatic “gimme” from the cruising life that one might imagine. I know I was hopeful, that my plump bod, simply by moving aboard, would magically transform into one of long lean lines.

That magic did not happen. My reality and the reality of most of my Admirals is that we live a life of reasonable activity balanced by a reasonable intake of food – very little of it the processed crap of American diets and almost none instantly available without cooking it ourselves. The lifestyle promotes flexibility as we are forever clambering up and down companionways and in and out of dinghies, and there is definitely an isometric toning going on simply by living on a moving, tilting platform. Even so, many cruisers have enough time to get lazy, and when we do we must resort to the dreaded “E”-word: Exercise.

“The key here is to get involved in something healthy that you really enjoy and want to do,” advises Jane of Lionheart, who has just taken up kite-surfing. “Don’t try and convince yourself you are going to go running, if you hate the fact that all your bits wobble and bounce as you huff and puff along a hot and humid dirt road in the middle of nowhere causing the locals immense amusement if not confusion or offense! It just doesn’t happen.”

Probably for those reasons, the most common fitness pursuit reported, perhaps surprisingly, is walking. I say surprisingly, because unless you are in a marina, you can’t just step out the front door for a walk around the block. There’s the getting ashore by dinghy, to a dock if you are lucky, but up a sandy beach if you’re not. This means a bottle of water, a towel and a change from water shoes to socks and sneakers. For some, their walking regime is no more than that which results from searching a new town for groceries or parts and carrying them back; a day in town can often be exhausting!

When you stay in port long enough, daily walks have time to become a regimen: this morning a loop through town this way, the next day another. “So many cruisers never see anything other than what is right along the waterfront,” observes Debbie of Illusions, who walks regularly on her own. “I’ve walked safely everywhere just by asking advice from other cruisers and locals before setting out.” If you don’t like exploring alone and your partner isn’t enthusiastic, never fear. It seems that in almost every place cruising boats gather, a walking group will soon coalesce, meeting ashore at first light when temperatures are cool.

My husband and I favor getting away from town. When we first started out, we hiked many islands of the Eastern Caribbean: the groomed hikes on tiny Saba’s Mt. Scenery, the extinct volcano of St. Eustatius, scrambles to waterfalls on Nevis, Dominica and Grenada, all hikes listed in cruising and travel guides. By the time we reached Trinidad we were able to keep up with the weekend Hikeseekers group on its vigorous Sunday excursions in the lush mountains of Trinidad’s North Coast. “It is amazing what more you see of an island when you walk regularly,” agrees Debbie, who favors climbs on Carriacou, St. Vincent and Martinique.

The difference regular walking makes in weight management becomes immediately obvious when you stop. As we headed west through the islands off Venezuela, we fell out of the walking habit and gained twenty pounds! It wasn’t until we reached Central America and Mexico where we walked regularly again that that weight came back off.

One might think that water-based exercise would be the logical option for cruisers. Indeed, cruisers with rowing dinghies are invariably more fit than those who rely on motors, but they are by far in the minority these days. Inflatables can be rowed with the outboard up; it’s great upper body exercise, but it’s cumbersome and the oars are a pain to set. Kayaks, on the other hand, are quite popular, especially among cruising women who enjoy the independence the kayak affords. If rigid kayaks take up too much room on deck, consider an inflatable one. You won’t set any records to windward in them, but they’re comfortable and relatively lightweight, so you can launch them single-handed. Windsurfing and kite-surfing are also vigorous sports you can take with you, but again there is the equipment/space issue. Likewise scuba diving.

Surprisingly, many cruisers become wimps about swimming for exercise. It is either too chilly or too choppy, there are too many sting-y things, too much current, too many boats pumping overboard, or too much dinghy traffic. Plus there is always the specter of sharks, whether realistic or not. Plenty of cruisers will take their dinghy to outer reefs and snorkel for hours, but usually at a sight-seeing rate that is hardly aerobic. In the Sea of Cortez, where ciguatera is not an issue, we and our friends spent a great deal of time free-diving for dinner – either spearfishing or gathering shellfish from the bottom. This ups the aerobic ante quite a bit. My solution to the swimming issues is to don a Lycra suit and hood, mask and fins (it is always safer to swim with fins any time there’s the chance of ocean or tidal current) and snorkel-swim a brisk crawl around the perimeter of the anchorage. It’s a great workout, you are pretty visible splashing along, and you learn a lot about the underwater topography as you go.

I am often asked if bikes are a good thing to have aboard. We’ve had friends who’ve carried full-size bikes and fold-ups, and no doubt there are places – the shoreside roads of Pacific atolls are particularly inviting – where they would be cool to have. They are definitely useful in ports or during extended yard stays, but the space they take up in between and the effort it takes to maintain them in the salt air environment weighs heavily against them in my book, especially since they are a prime target for thieves. So unless you were a serious biker before cruising, consider rentals first.

All the above aerobic exercises involve getting off the boat. What can you do on board, particularly underway?  We’ve all seen virtuous souls out on their foredecks uninhibitedly doing some regular workout – (most memorable is a woman, singing blithely along to her IPod, doing her kickboxing regime on her Deerfoot’s foredeck,!) Cindy of Tashmoo says she tries to do some Pilates, push-ups and crunches for 20 minutes every morning. Kathy of Hale Kai has a hand-weight routine she has adapted to the space in her main salon, because she has “never liked exercising on deck in view of other boats.” I myself have a little routine I do that mixes weights, calisthenics and yoga which I will do on the back deck if I get up before my neighbors.

The biggest trick to these workouts is adapting to the odd spaces, equipment and moving platform of your boat. One of the best presentations of this is Kim Hess’s book Yoga Onboard. In it she relieves you of the idea that a yoga pose must be done a certain way, by breaking the move into bits and adapting them to different parts of the boat. Recently I recorded a session with my favorite yoga teacher on a tiny digital recorder enabling me to take her soothing voice to the back deck with me.

As for underway, most Admirals do something in the cockpit on watch, whether it is crunches, leg lifts, or as Judy of Ursa Minor calls it, “dancing and stretching and just flailing around to music on my IPod.” After all, you may be on watch…, but nobody’s watching.

Looking over this column, it reads like I am a pretty fit person. Well….as ashore, consistency is the secret, …and THAT is something I have NOT mastered.

Contributing Admirals: Debbie Leisure, Illusions; Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Jane Hockley, Lionheart; Maribel Penichet, Paper Moon; Cindy Blondin, Tashmoo; and others.

This article was published in the April 2008 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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