Skip to main content

On Sailboats

Can sailing be your fountain of youth?

Joystick controls might make sailing easier, but a study finds that grinding winches can be good for you

Can sailing be your fountain of youth?

Joystick controls might make sailing easier, but a study finds that grinding winches can be good for you

Get ’em while they’re young. Keep ’em when they’re old. And don’t lose ’em in between. That’s the strategy for growing and sustaining the sport of sailing. But even with high oil prices, it’s been a struggle to attract new faces and keep them in the game. The sport also has been bleeding older, affluent folks who used to sail, but decided to take up golf, Scrabble or trawler cruising because they felt it’s too much fuss and toil for the cocktail hour of life.

Yes, squeezing into a tight berth in a packed marina when the breeze is cranking and others are watching is a piece of work, especially for an older husband-and-wife crew. Hoisting a heavy sail or tossing a dock line with force and accuracy can be physically demanding and a wee bit harrowing (“What if I miss?”). But if research can be trusted, there are measurable health benefits to sailing.

On the other hand, if technology keeps creeping along as it has, the sweaty and stressful tasks all soon will be distant memories. That’s a fine contradiction, since fitness is connected to physical activity, which allegedly is a big deterrent to aging sailors. Perhaps a separate look at the two paradigms might produce a more differentiated picture.

Ditch sweat equity

Thanks to innovations like roller furling, self-tending jibs, electric winches, carbon spars and better ergonomics, sailboats have come a long way since the days of Capt. Nat Herreshoff. And if Bob Johnson has his way, we’ve merely seen the beginning of it. Johnson heads Island Packet Yachts, the Largo, Fla., company that builds cruising yachts for mature mariners — meaning mostly couples with grown children — who want sailing to become part of their lifestyle (again).

“Simplifying the operation of any boat has two advantages,” says Johnson. “It attracts people who are new to the sport, because it minimizes the challenges, and it keeps them in the game.”

Johnson points out Island Packet’s SP Cruiser (, a motorsailer he considers a step toward the age of hands-off sailing, with push-button controls for trimming the sheets from the inside steering station. His future vision is the fully automated sailboat. “Automated sailing is the industry’s endgame,” he says. “If the customer wants, he should be able to turn on the boat and the entire rig, not just the instruments and the engine, so it can sail itself to any destination. All it takes is networking all the systems properly and putting waypoints into the GPS.”

This isn’t utopian, Johnson insists, because such vessels already exist, and they are equipped with technology that is readily available. A bright future perhaps, but also a bland one, at least to those who like an old-fashioned adrenaline rush every once in a while. Yet Johnson and others like him are on the right track because losing older participants and struggling to replace the dropouts with newcomers isn’t a U.S.-specific problem. It has been an issue in Europe as well, where sailing has a bigger following.

Germans are especially concerned because this development mirrors a macroeconomic trend — a rapidly aging population and steadily declining birthrates. In 2007, a survey that tracked the ages of 130,000 slip renters in German marinas showed how sailing a cruising boat now is a “geezers’ game”: Every third slip renter was 61 or older, and nearly as many (30 percent) were between 51 and 60.

Science to the rescue

Fit & Sail is a research project initiated by Dr. Wolf-Dieter Mell, an engineer and the head of IBoaT, the German Institute for Boating and Tourism. It examines age- and gender-related exertion levels and their effects on participants 60 years or older when performing typical boat chores. The industry is behind the effort with support from the German Marine Federation, the Institute for Sport and the Science of Sport at the University of Kiel, the International Marine Certification Institute in Brussels, the French Sailing Federation, and commercial sponsors such as Hanse Yachts, Volvo Penta and outfitter A.W. Niemayer.

“The key problems for older crews is hoisting the mainsail and docking,” says Dr. Burkhard Weisser, a professor at the University of Kiel, who conducted the medical tests for Fit & Sail. According to Weisser, one of the test subjects, a 66-year old skipper, developed a pulse of 149 beats per minute during docking maneuvers and 161 when manually hoisting a 355-square-foot mainsail. (The median heart frequency for hoisting was 115, while 130 was considered strenuous and 160 the upper limit. During docking the heart frequencies varied from less than 115 beats per minute to 145 or more.) Sure there are electric winches that crank up the main with the push of a button, but maneuvering a large boat with a small and less-than-athletic crew still is a bear.

Mell tried to wrestle this bear with the ComfoDrive, a system that uses joystick control to turn, spin and scoot a sailboat every which way. Say what? Isn’t that the same promise of such systems as Hinckley’s JetStick, Volvo Penta’s IPS and Cummins MerCruiser’s Zeus? Pushing the stick forward and backward moves the boat forward and backward. Pushing it sideways or diagonally makes the vessel crab sideways or diagonally, and turning a knob spins it around. It’s advanced, it’s easy, and users dig it. For the sake of convenience, technology trumps art.

“While idea and purpose are similar, our solution is quite different,” Mell says of the comparison between the ComfoDrive and the powerboat systems. “Our joystick is designed as a single point of handling, replacing — rather than augmenting — common engine controls. Hence, it is larger, more robust and ergonomically better suited for the use on sailboats. Besides, others work with sterndrives or rotating pods that are only used on powerboats, while the ComfoDrive manages bow and stern thrusters for lateral motion and a conventional fixed shaft auxiliary engine for fore-and-aft movement.”

Theory and reality

Mell has been experimenting with the ComfoDrive prototype since 2006, first on a 22-foot Neptun pocket cruiser, then on a Hanse 341. “Better control resulted in more safety,” Mell told the German magazine Die Yacht about his experiences. “My wife asked to give docking a try, something she normally doesn’t.”

While Mrs. Mell handled the boat, her husband was free to go forward and handle the heavy dock lines, which he is better equipped to do — a safety benefit of a docking system that can be handled by anyone on the crew, not just an experienced skipper. Other advantages include down-speed maneuvering — holding the boat stationary before entering locks or passing under bridges, spinning it around in narrow marina fairways, and reversing in a straight line — without having to use the boat’s main rudder.

But the ComfoDrive isn’t perfect yet, as a test on the water with a Hanse 341 revealed. The most obvious challenge stemmed from an undersized bow thruster that didn’t provide enough push to move the 34-footer laterally against fresh crosswinds. The testers suggested a stronger, retractable thruster that can extend farther below the waterline. Another issue is electrical power, since bow and stern thrusters can be energy hogs. Battery banks and charging capacity need to be upgraded to ensure the sufficient supply of juice.

The future

At 20,000 euros (about $31,000), the ComfoDrive is anything but cheap right now. However, Mell says he has fielded inquiries by several manufacturers who showed interest in offering it as an aftermarket upgrade for boats to 60 feet. At this time, the German company BCE-Elektronik is charged with system development and marketing.

“Should the production of the ComfoDrive reach commercial dimensions, a portion of the proceeds will be plowed back into research,” says Mell.

Promising talks are under way with project sponsor Hanse Yachts, which is considering offering a future version of the system as an option for larger models. As of this writing, the plan was to demonstrate an upgraded version of the ComfoDrive at Hanse’s annual dealer conference. Hanse boss Michael Schmidt says he is optimistic that it could be “up and running by 2009.”

While visionaries like Mell and Island Packet’s Johnson are making sailing more convenient for those who like the lifestyle but don’t want the drudgery — “Imagine getting up to change a TV channel,” Johnson quips — scientific evidence in the Fit & Sail study suggests grunt work does have measurable health benefits. To tickle your curiosity, here is the elevator pitch of the results of Dr. Weisser’s studies that he conducted on 26 volunteers:

• For most participants, a sailing trip involves significantly more physical activity than normal day-to-day life.

• The positive effects of this activity are comparable to daily workouts on a Galileo fitness machine, an apparatus that stimulates pelvis, spine and abdominal muscle groups.

• Moving about and working on board likely strengthens muscles and improves coordination and balance.

• After three weeks of cruising, the fitness of the tested individuals had improved by a measurable 3 percent, equaling that of someone two years younger.

“From my standpoint that’s true,” Mell says. “The more I sail, the healthier and the younger I feel.”

And there you have it — sailing as a fountain of youth. It’s something to consider before you run out to buy the next sweat-saving device.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.