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Sea Savvy - The Ancient Mariner

You might as well get used to cruising with Father Time because he’s not likely to jump ship.

You might as well get used to cruising with Father Time because he’s not likely to jump ship.

Soundings editor Bill Sisson asked me to write about growing old aboard, but I’m not sure what he’s thinking about. True, I’ve got a few years on him, and I’ve lived aboard and cruised for 27 years, but I can still whip him with one hand tied behind my back. Actually, I could whip him with both hands tied behind my back if my right shoulder didn’t hurt so bad when I reach around back there — and if I could just remember how to tie that knot. So it isn’t entirely clear to me why he thinks I should be the one to write this piece.


I am not growing old on my boat; my boat is growing old on me, but that’s another story. So I’ll have to base this on experiences with other people I see out here. Anything I say resembling anything you may have noticed about me is purely a figment of your imagination. Even this approach will be difficult because I don’t see many people growing old on boats. Boats don’t let you do that. I was reading a piece about exercising in an AARP magazine a few weeks ago (the magazine was on a friend’s boat), and to someone accustomed to being on a boat, the things it said to do call for the energy equivalent of dipping steamed clams in melted butter.

A fountain of youth?

People have a tendency to stay young on boats because boats are great exercise machines, with benefits ranging from subtle to extreme. When your boat is falling off waves and you’re hanging on for dear life with what seems like every muscle in your body, you’re getting a great workout. When you’re pulling in lines while docking, especially when you forget the engine is still in gear, you’re getting a great workout. When you’re wrapped around an engine trying to remove a critical heavy part without eviscerating a personal body part, you’re getting a good workout. When you’re trying to help a spouse get out of the water after he or she cut loose the crab pot line somebody just wrapped around the propeller, you’re getting a good workout (not to mention your wet spouse).

In my opinion, all these workouts are much more beneficial than a trip to the gym because they never stop. You don’t go home at the end of the session and sit on a couch. Boats don’t let you do that. And these workouts begin as soon as you get on a boat, even if you’re very young.

The more subtle forms of exercise occur constantly. For example, the floor doesn’t stay still. It constantly shifts and tilts, causing your body muscles to continuously compensate to keep you upright and balanced. This can improve muscle tone. If you live in a house, you don’t get this constant movement unless you drink too much or live in California. If you have back problems, you’ll probably notice this immediately.

Shortly after coming aboard you may find that boat movements cause significant discomfort, while you experience no such discomfort ashore. But a careful boater may be less likely to get back problems because of increased muscle tone. And if he does, there are many simple back exercises that can be performed just as well on board as in a house. There are also daily back exercises that aren’t available in a house, such as hanging by your toes from the gunwale while trying to pick up the boat keys on the little floating buoy keychain, which is in the process of rapidly floating away because you just dropped it overboard and you don’t remember where you left the crab net. (Lest we jump to conclusions, dropping boat keys overboard and forgetting where the crab net is have nothing to do with age. I’ve been doing this most of my life.)

Forget about age discrimination

Whether it’s politically correct or not, I’ve got to say that I’m much less concerned about people growing old on a boat than I am about people growing old and then getting onto a boat. Most “old people” I’ve seen on boats were that way before they ever stepped aboard.

People ashore become accustomed to being respected because of age. Institutions, customs and laws provide a cushion as people grow older. But the sea doesn’t care how old you are; it has no respect. It’s an equal opportunity ravager. It’s just as likely to hand you your backside on a platter whether you’re young or ancient. And the bottom line, like it or not, is that no equipment, no rules, no support infrastructure will change this when the chips are down.

We often see good folks who have had successful lives performing well in their careers and who are accustomed to being in charge and knowing what to do. Many think this will transfer to their retirement dream of cruising away on a boat. Not necessarily. Just because you’ve done a great job running a business doesn’t mean you have a clue about what to do when you take over a boat. And with a body accustomed to an armchair lifestyle and regimented exercise, and with brain cells that are just a little, shall we say, “seasoned,” the learning process may be much slower than that to which one is accustomed.

Getting older and getting a boat is a great way to enjoy what you’ve earned in life. But it takes hard work, learning, skill acquisition, common sense and a realization that you’re somewhere else, as to place and body. You’ll do yourself a favor if you don’t wait, and start boating at a younger age.

In the Exumas (in the south central Bahamas), you can travel along the chain of islands either inside on the banks, where it’s often shallow, or outside in the ocean. It’s easier going out there in the ocean if the weather is good and you handle the cuts safely. One year we saw — and heard on the VHF — a fellow repeatedly go outside and repeatedly get clobbered by head seas and winds. One time he almost lost his boat and his life because the seas were too bad at the cut where he’d planned his re-entrance. Other boaters had to venture out in their dinghies in the dark into the raging cut, with hand-held radios and lights, to guide him safely through the reefs.

Why, we wondered, does this guy keep repeating the same mistakes? I saw him on the beach one day and asked him what he’d done before he retired. “I was a pilot,” he said. “I made the trans-Atlantic run for a major airline.” That was the answer. He was used to going when he wanted to and couldn’t accept the idea that waves and wind were much more relevant to his 42-foot sailboat than his jumbo jet. He’d gotten old in a rut into which the boat didn’t quite fit. We’ve seen other successful executives repeatedly get into trouble because they planned their cruises like their careers. They have it on their calendars, so they think they have to do it. It doesn’t work this way with Mother Nature and a boat.

But to make everyone happy about all this, I’ll just set reality aside and proceed on the assumption that you do grow old on a boat, and we’ll talk about how to cope with it. The good thing about this is that the more you’re on a boat, the less coping you have to do.

Debate of the level playing field

Some boats have many levels; some have only one or two levels. Some say, for example, that the typical trawler configuration is harder to grow old on. This is the one in which you have to walk up a few steps from the aft or forward section to the saloon, then climb up again to the flybridge or climb down into the engine room once you’ve climbed to the flybridge and discovered that the thing won’t start. Others say all that climbing helps you stay young. I say this depends on the people involved. If I had the choice (read: money) I think I’d get a boat with multiple levels, not only because I want the exercise but also because I’d like the extra feeling of privacy.

Because it is a motorsailer, our Gulf-star 53 Chez Nous offers a great compromise. It has one level below that’s about five feet down a companionway from the deck. This is a real inducement to staying in shape, because you sure want to be able to get up those stairs if she starts sinking. And the boat is long enough to provide plenty of privacy.

There are other levels that also retard aging in ways you might not expect. One oft-visited level is the bilge about two feet below the engine. It’s a really helpful level because I know that whenever I’ve forgotten where I put something it’ll turn up there. All I have to do is to hang upside down into the bilge and get the thing. This helps the brain because all the blood settles there while I’m upside down. The brain gets an extra dose of rejuvenating blood because first I have to find my glasses that fell off my head to the bottom of the bilge as soon as I leaned over.

The levels on Chez Nous giving the greatest exercise are the infinite number of levels of the mast. I have to visit these levels rather frequently, making stops every several feet or so to check the integrity of the rig and all of the important stuff up there. Unfortunately, I don’t like heights; I hate heights. I use a bosun’s chair, and Mel, my wife, uses the anchor windlass to pull me up, so you might think it’d be a cushy ride. But I use more muscles hugging that mast out of sheer terror than you’d use trying to out-hug a horny grizzly bear. All of which gives me the opportunity to point out that the few gray hairs I’ve developed are caused solely by my fear of heights and going up the mast. They have absolutely nothing to do with aging.

Torture chambers

Yoga seems to be the in thing these days for staying young. If you’re so inclined, you can certainly buy a yoga mat and do it on a boat. I’m not into that sort of thing, but I do it by default because I live on a boat. And I get to do it with pieces of metal protruding into various vital organs.

Machinery spaces on boats force you into positions that most yoga experts never dreamed of. The things I chant don’t sound much like “namaste” or “om,” but at least they’re words with which I’ve been familiar ever since I first got my mouth washed out with soap as a small child.

It’s important to age on a boat with a lot of room in all the machinery spaces and a lot of good access within that room around all the machinery. There’s no way around the fact that if you spend a lot of time on a boat more than a few miles away from a marina, you’re going to have to maintain and fix things, and the older you get, the more it’s going to hurt when you twist your body into weird shapes. That’s why people like football players, tennis stars and gymnasts stop after a while and start endorsing cereals and barbecue sauces. But you can’t stop on a boat, unless you have as much money as those stars and can afford something big enough to carry crewmembers to fix things.


Some of our friends who are rumored to be aging will occasionally take on crew, particularly on the longer or more difficult passages. However, many don’t want the loss of privacy or the loss of that feeling of accomplishment they get after a passage. Also, taking on unknown crewmembers requires very careful research into qualifications.

If you use crew, younger people can perhaps be more helpful in some respects than friends of the same age, particularly if those friends aren’t experienced boaters. But friends of any age with boating experience and who are reasonably fit can help immeasurably with such tasks as watch-keeping, being the “gofer” during difficult repair jobs, line-handling, and other day-to-day jobs that seem to take more energy than before. Crew can be especially helpful with overnight passages. Four people to divide the watches instead of two can make a huge difference in fatigue level and your ability to respond to trouble.


Falling asleep at the wheel at night can have horrible consequences. In the old days people were sometimes hanged or keelhauled for it. General fatigue can contribute to this as well as many other problems. It interferes with one’s ability to diagnose mechanical or electrical problems that must be dealt with immediately. It interferes with one’s ability to interpret radar targets and their movements, to differentiate between aids to navigation, to handle the boat well during prolonged storms and in high seas. It goes to the root of good judgment, and this is a cornerstone of prudent seamanship.

We all know that staying awake most of the night increases fatigue, and this can become more pronounced as we grow older. Some people seem to need less sleep as they age, but don’t count on it, especially if you’ve been growing old ashore. Bodies and minds accustomed to turning in at a “reasonable hour” for many years and sleeping in the comfort and security of a house will have difficulty adjusting to nighttime passages. Sure you set watches, but until you’re accustomed to and comfortable with being out on a boat alone in the ocean, surrounded by a black night, you’re probably not going to sleep very well on your off-watch.

As you grow older, fatigue comes on more quickly. And you can’t always predict in advance the degree of impairment it’ll bring. An unexpected storm, a fog bank that means you won’t be able to come into an inlet, a series of small breakdowns … so many things can mount up so quickly to cause fatigue.

It becomes increasingly important to think about avoiding fatigue when you plan trips. This can mean running shorter days and planning for longer times to get from one destination to another. It may mean more marina stops. We usually stop at only a few marinas that are very special to us. While making passages, we normally ride out storms on the hook or under way if appropriate. But there seems to be less stress when we’re in a marina when a strong cold front or a dangerous thunderstorm moves in.

Taking less for granted

People say that as you grow older you take less for granted. This is especially true on a boat, and it should be. Ashore you can generally take it for granted that you’re probably not going to sink and that Momma Infrastructure is there to fix things that don’t work. Not so on a boat. Taking less for granted on a boat not only helps to avoid fatigue, it solves many other potential problems.

I know some folks with arthritis in their hands who can’t do the mechanical work they once could do easily. Also, vision changes can affect the ability to see close-up detail work (not to mention distance and night vision). Instead of assuming that aging equipment won’t break — I’m talking about equipment components on the boat’s machinery, not our own — it may be wiser to pay the money and get a good mechanic to replace the part, or replace it yourself before you leave. Instead of buying rebuild kits, as for water pumps, it may be wiser to buy a whole new (or rebuilt) pump so you can fix it by a plug-and-play installation, rather than spending hours trying to remove a bearing pressed onto a shaft and assembling a mess of clips and seals and bearings in the one and only manner that’ll work.

Taking anchoring gear for granted has caused more than one coronary arrest. Manually pulling up an anchor on a boat, especially in current and/or wind or in a hurry (as when you’re dragging down on another boat or a reef) is something that very few of us are ready for, especially the more “experienced” of us. Having a well-serviced anchor windlass and good gear, with a carefully planned and oft-rehearsed routine, can make this job relatively easy. But if you’re unable to handle things if the windlass fails, you may be sitting on a ticking time bomb — like your heart.

Machinery fails. It’s inevitable, especially at sea. So while you need to take every step to be sure your equipment will serve you well, you also need to be prepared with backup measures and knowledge and the physical ability to handle things when some chunk of metal lets you down. This is true at any age, but it’s often far more of an issue with a bit more age.


Each Wednesday, we look for a good anchorage where we can launch the dinghy and paddle over to the boat with the best bingo game. On Saturday evenings, we find a beach where we can dance to Guy Lombardo’s music wafting across the harbor from cockpit speakers. On Fridays, it’s Lawrence Welk. NOT. I’m not knocking any of the above, but we’ve found that the lifestyles of people hanging out on boats don’t seem to change as much as they grow older as those of people on shore. There are the changes that I’ve discussed here, but these aren’t as drastic as our society’s stereotypical concepts of “growing old.”

My favorite sports are free diving, swimming and boardsailing. In the cruising Mecca of Georgetown, Bahamas, one of the most popular pastimes of cruising people of all ages is very vigorous beach volleyball. I’ve known boat people who have been heavily into these sorts of activities well into their 80s. Music on the beach is more likely to be island music than ballroom. Social games, rather than bingo, are more likely to be those best not discussed in print.

Speedos and go-slows

Lots of people think aging means slowing down; ’taint necessarily so when it comes to being on the water. It’s true that some, as they grow older, want to get slower boats. These boats may be more comfortable, use less fuel, and give you a few minutes to look at that aid to navigation up ahead to figure out what it is before you hit it — or before you hit the shoal next to it. If your earlier boating has been constrained by a busy schedule ashore, necessitating fast boats so that you can actually go somewhere and be back in time for that Monday morning meeting, a slower boat such as a trawler may make a vast improvement in the quality of lifestyle aboard when you’ve retired and have more leisure time. It can completely redefine “boating” for you.

However, many people opt for faster, smaller boats as they grow older. Mel and I have lived and cruised on a 7.5-knot motorsailer since 1979. We’re beginning to think we’d like to run faster in a powerboat. We would then need shorter weather windows, which would enable us to make more trips to the Bahamas and more offshore runs along the coast. More speed also would shorten the time of the trip up and down the coast, even when done completely in the ICW.

The fact that faster boats usually draw less and don’t need as many bridge openings (because they don’t have masts) would make it even better for us. With this, we’d have more time to spend visiting our daughters, whom we miss very much after having had them grow up aboard with us. In fact, we weren’t able to spend Thanksgiving with our daughters — our first without them. Our schedule went out the window as we were clobbered by storm after storm on our trip south. If we had a faster boat, we could have reached our destination by running longer distances on the good days. The good news is that there are fine boats out there for whatever you want to do. The hard part is deciding which is right for you.


There are a lot of people who’ll tell you they’re “downsizing” because they’re growing older. “It’s easier to handle,” they say. “There’s less to maintain,” they say. “You don’t have so far to fall before you hit the water,” I say. Larger boats can sometimes be easier to handle than smaller ones.

It’s been said that it’s not the size that counts; it’s what you do with it. With boating, it’s what you do with it that makes the size count. I regularly run a 1985 20-foot Mako with a 150-hp Yamaha that will make close to 30 knots. I also run the 53-foot motorsailer, which averages around 7.5 knots, and I run this from 3,000 to 5,000 miles a year. I also paddle a kayak, frequently run a 12-foot dinghy with a 25-hp Yamaha, and hang out on a sailboard when I get the chance. I’m not sure which of those I’ll like the best when I grow up and get old, but this fall as I was heading south down Chesapeake Bay, busting into about 25 knots of headwind, I was very happy to be on my big motorsailer.

On our motorsailer we hardly feel moderate seas, and the coffee doesn’t spill when we set down the cups. When I go up to the bow at 5:30 a.m. to pull up the anchor, there’s plenty of room to stumble about without going over the side. I also can bend over and step back without impaling my backside on a stanchion — a decidedly unwholesome way to begin the day. When I go into the engine room to give the beasts a preflight check (OK, prayer), I’m able to actually walk around and look at most of the parts that I want, or dare, to look at.

It isn’t a given that growing old should mean a smaller boat. Depending on what you want to do, where you want to go, and when you want to go, a large boat may be much more enjoyable and much easier to handle. But if, for example, my goal was to go out a few miles for some rock fishing instead of south for around 2,000 miles, I’d rather be in my Mako. Back in November, I wished I had a fast megayacht so we could have gotten to our planned destination for Thanksgiving.

Handling it

The issue of handling a boat as you grow older bothers many people. Handling a boat can be a problem no matter how old you are. True, fending off pilings, bridges and other boats becomes more of a problem when your bones get brittle, but bow and stern thrusters make an incredible difference as to ease of handling. Our SidePower bow thruster has immeasurably improved our ability to control the boat, not to mention our level of stress. I can tell you from experience (other people’s experience) that the cost of one collision can more than pay for the cost of a bow thruster. But we’ve noticed that usually the “boat handling” problems come with people who’ve grown old ashore with little boating experience and who then retire to a boat. They think thrusters are going to be like a magic answer — you push a button and the boat goes where you want it. This can lead to disaster.

I don’t recommend using thrusters until you also know how to maneuver your boat without them. They’re supplemental equipment, not a main source of propulsion — even while docking. And, like all other equipment, they fail. But when you know the basics and then add the thrusters as the pièce de résistance, you can really improve your maneuvering.

Going your own pace

I’ve heard that as you grow older you have to change your pace. I’m not sure how that works with boating. For example, if I’m in the water shooting a grouper under a ledge and I see a shark coming, the last thing in the world I want to do is slow my pace. If I see a sportboat roaring past at just the right angle to throw a 10-foot wake into my beam, I can’t afford to worry about any pain in my wrists or shoulders when I spin the wheel to get the bow into the jerk’s wake. If I wake up at 2 a.m. while anchored in a cold, howling gale, I can’t push a button and ring for an assistant when I realize the anchor’s dragging. If I’m caught in the ocean in a storm and have to manhandle the wheel for hour after hour, I can’t call “time out.” I’ve just got to handle it. Momma Nature’s been around a long time, and she doesn’t cut any slack — for any age.

The real secret

I’ve talked about a lot of things that help to make boating better as we grow older. I’ve mentioned getting a different size boat, greater reliance on mechanics, extra marina stops and much more. Perhaps unnoticed is a critical underlying element that has constantly recurred during this discussion: what it takes to enable you to do these things. And this one thing doesn’t necessarily come with age. It surehasn’t come with mine, because I’ve been on boats most of my life. The thing is money. So Bill, since you think I’m growing old on a boat, ol’ buddy, ol’ friend and good editor of mine, how about a raise to ease the process?

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at .