Fitness and sailing.

Once upon a time…….when i needed to go up a rig i would get into my climbing harness, clip into a halyard and hand-over-hand heave my way up the rig while a mate on the deck tailed on the halyard.  As the boats i sailed on and worked on got bigger i got fitter and stronger with them…..ever been up the rig on a maxi like that or heaved a maxi-mainsail around ? i have and regularly used to climb out of the main hatch with the 110 bruce anchor hooked over my shoulder.

Once upon a time !

Couple of weeks back i struggled to heave the 7kg Manson out of the mud : ok so it was blowing hard and it set like a bitch but you get where i am coming from.

I wouldn’t even wish to admit that now, 5 pull-ups later, and thats me done.  Ok so at the time i was light lean and fit and not from using a gym but quite naturally from working outside all day and then going rock climbing at the weekend.  I can hardly credit just how physical the boatyard job was in those days : just recently i had a jarring memory of this when i posted a photograph of the crane on Cotehele quay immersed at high tide and i remember that we had a larger version of that at the yard that we used to hand-wind yachts out onto the dock.

Of course as soon as i became a nurse i lost all of that very quickly, not that a job in nursing isn’t physical in fact in the early days i was an all-day long and everyday lifting machine for any heavy patient that needed heaving around somewhere : these being the days long before hoists and sliding sheets. Asked now i can clearly place every back injury repetitively back to that period.   Today i’m not fit in any sense, cardio, weights or otherwise and i easily tend to being overweight which has crept up on me again. When we first took on the cottage i worked physically had just about all day and every day, digging holes, moving soil and debris around and even last year dug out an built an earthbag wall that has some 23.000 lbs of soil in it all done by hand over 6 weeks of grinding effort.  Physical work keeps me fit and i have got to the stage here where there isn’t much hard labour to do so the down-cycle of increasing weight and lower fitness kicks in again and the only viable solutions are the gym (again) or the gym at home.

A few years back i took a serious look at fitness, and by a look i mean threw myself into a programme of doing and learning fitness seriously, i worked with one and then a second trainer and joined a ‘posh’ gym.  That kind of happened accidentally on the back of a weird muscle injury that occurred while i was out walking (gastrocnemus tear)….actually let me tell that story or at least part of it.

The actual accident happened on a very cold winter morning when my gastroc went into spasm and spontaneously tore, somehow i got home and my partner got me to the A&E department where the practitioner immediately diagnosed the tear and they told me i would be off work for some 6 weeks and potentially 3 months…didn’t go down well with my boss may i add !.  The next thing i had to do was go and get a note from my GP so the next morning i hobbled up there on crutches and sat in the surgery waiting room.  The receptionist must have warned the doc because instead of calling my name out the GP and not my usual one came bouncing out of his room to meet me….it was a hilarious moment as he saw me trying to get up onto my crutches and said quite loudly “Ah mr x you’ve come about your sore ear” and i said equally loudly “no doc i’ve come about my dripping cock again”. He of course had a huge guffaw while people in the waiting room either did hilarity or acute embarrassment.  Turns out that the doc was a locum and by chance was the former head of medicine at CTC Lympstone (commando training centre) and knew a thing or 2 about muscle injuries.  Talk about falling on my feet as this guy knew exactly what i needed to do : had i any military connection at all and he would have sent me up there for rehab…as it was he was able to tell me in detail what to do. this happened to be just before Christmas one year and the critical thing was to find a local gym with a pool that i could be helped into and out of so that i could walk around in the pool with very little weight on the leg.  Turns out that the only gym that would be open was the ‘posh’ country club style one so i winced a bit at the cost and signed on and it was worth every penny : open every day, parking, trainers, even decent food at the bar.  Within a couple of weeks of going there and just doing the pool stuff i hobbled upstairs one day to the main gym for a poke around and met one of the trainers with whom i had a long discussion about the injury and he started my technical rehab .   Long story short but within a few weeks of mainly doing rehab stuff i started on free weights training and never looked back.   Here’s a side story : my boss of course was deeply pissed off about my absence for such a ‘trivial’ injury (like not being able to walk) and referred me to the so-called occupational health department.  I won’t go into the amazing row that transpired but that the nurse who dealt with me and asked what i was doing to rehab and recover strength in that leg actually said “well its alright for some” when i explained that i had joined the admittedly expensive private gym over the road….extraordinary bad attitude….my time, my money and my effort and no chance of NHS treatment and she was offended by me spending that money….FFS.

Story aside i learnt a hell of a lot about physical fitness for middle-age , which i guess at nearly 60 i am now and how essential muscle bulk, muscle strength and overall fitness is for this stage of life.  Its obviously been the case that i spring-boarded from gym-fit the work-fit here with this project but due to my own laziness i guess i have run out of that capital again now.  It is without doubt far harder to get back to a stage of high fitness at this age especially with a background problem like a dodgy back and things like dodgy knees and ankles but i feel it has to be done given that my aim is to be fully fit to sail in demanding situations again….and physical fitness does really help.

I have often thought that to study and learn something then its often easier to look at a thing in its extreme form and see what demands and requirements that makes of us, this might not be true by the way but its one way that my mind works.  Thus i look at the extreme end of sailing and see how people such as IMOCA drivers prepare for their events : and there is a correlation there i believe, ok so i don’t sail a physically demanding and violent boat but i am out there solo (often) of short-handed with an inexperienced partner so the onus for safety (real safety) seamanship and handling the boat is all on me…and its the same environment….we don’t get an easier sea just because we sail small and moderate boats.  Ok so i don’t sail my Liberty in the big chilly-bin and can choose to not be out there when its blowing old boots sideways but i still need to take on the hard conditions with the easy and deep experience tells me that physical fitness with a high degree of firm-mindedness and endurance are the things that win the day.

For the sailor mind and body are connected, its no point just being a knuckle-dragging ,winch winding piece of rail-meat but essential to have physical and mental endurance and agility…even to be a bit tougher than the average ‘soft-sheep’ of everyday society.  Admittedly the IMOCA sailors train physically hard and not just physically hard…..some time i will tell you about accidentally bumping into and bouncing off one of the IMOCA skippers ! but prepare mentally as well.   There is a saying that i know some despise but still works for the sailor so i will leave that one as a thought for you today ”

Mens sana in corpore sano

That just happens to be the motto of the Royal Marines physical training instructors and thats back to the lympstone connection where i am also told that there is a famous sign over the door that just says “it will come” and i guess the simple meaning is that if you give it honest work it will happen and you will get there. If this sounds all a bit odd and extreme : these things have also been distorted into national-socialist thought then also consider that physical fitness in older age is one thing that definitely makes old age better and more bearable….just not having falls because of muscle weakness and posture are all things that can be modified upwards at middle age.

Ok so i have convinced myself again : the ketttlebell and olympic bar wait patient out on the deck for when my back is sufficiently recovered to allow me to stand for longer than 10 minutes at a stretch.


  1. Good call Steve, as we get older its even more important to remain at a reasonable level of fitness I need to improve mine as well and particularly my flexibility. Diets the other big thing as well.


    1. I’m trying to work up a plan right now that would work and its not easy, need to find some way that i can slot in some serious exercise on an everyday basis rather than what i did a few years back which took 3-4 hours out of the day whenever i went to the gym.


    2. Sitting here with a back injury (again) and not even being sure that i can get through the next 2 days at work isn’t a great starting point so i am having to think a lot more about how realistically to proceed. The problem with what i did before when i got very very fit indeed is that i threw lots of time at it….3 or 4 hours wasn’t unusual between walking to the gym, the warm up and workout and then a swim, cooldown and food in the bar. The results (on me) were electrifying : i didn’t just lose flab which is easy but packed some muscle back on and what was there all worked….at the end i could rip a 300lb weights and bar straight off the floor…and then run a mile in 10 minutes. The logical thing to do would be to rejoin that gym as its just over the road from the bum-factory and go there before a shift : i am always in early and a fast concentrated high intensity workout could be done in about 40 minutes (if it didn’t kill me). If i do it i will post it !


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