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Tips For Keeping Safe Aboard As You Age


Making changes to boating habits, altering the boat, or repositioning gear can help compensate for various conditions as we age.

Photo: Vanquish

First off, recognize you’re experiencing a high-risk trait or condition, such as forgetfulness, vision impairment, slowed reaction times, unsteadiness, and so on, and share that information with a spouse or boating buddy. Understand the severity of the condition, possibly through a medical check-up, and carry out specific changes needed to compensate. These might include new boating habits, altering the boat, or repositioning gear. Along with your spouse or friends, plan to monitor your condition to watch for any progression or increased risk.

Smart Solutions

  • Always use notes and checklists — for shutting the boat down, for starting her up, for all important procedures aboard, especially for operating infrequently used equipment.
  • Keep a whiteboard and markers nearby, perhaps mounted near the helm station, to jot down numbers, waypoints, reminders, Coast Guard reports, weather reports.
  • Always bring a mate along to be your ears in hard-to-hear situations, and someone who can operate your boat if need be.
  • Reduce long trips. Leave earlier. Arrive earlier. Don’t push it.
  • Add extra handholds so you can grab one for every step you take on a pitching boat. 
  • Add safety lines, rails, or higher rails.
  • Add nonskid surfaces.
  • Add an electric windlass, one that can be operated remotely. Not only does that eliminate the heavy lifting associated with anchoring, it also allows you to get the boat stopped and settled before you go forward to cleat off the rode or put on a snubber.
  • Remove obstacles from passageways and decks. Add steps where you have to change levels, like going from the cockpit seat to the cockpit sole. If they might turn into shin busters, use the foldaway type.
  • Keep a good pair of binoculars handy to check buoys and distant landmarks.
  • Invest in high-quality prescription sunglasses with UV protection and non-glare lenses.
  • Wear your life jacket.
  • Add a strong, permanently-mounted boarding ladder with nonskid rungs and good handholds.
  • If feeling off-balance is an issue for you, there are exercises you can employ to improve your stability. Ask your doctor or physical therapist.
  • If you’re having trouble hearing your mate on the foredeck, agree to a system of hand signals, buy small walkie-talkies, or have someone at the helm, with better hearing, repeat what’s said.
  • If your night vision isn’t what it used to be, splurge on a night-vision or thermal-vision scope for the helm station and use a red light at the helm to preserve low-light adaptation.
  • Create easy-to-use tackles to help lift gear aboard. A three-to-one tackle attached to a radar pole or dinghy davit can be used to get the outboard up onto the rail or groceries on deck, and, with a webbing strap attached to the end, even lend an assist to someone boarding from the dinghy.
  • Older backs are prone to stiffness and soreness, especially if forced to spend time on hard, lumpy surfaces. If you sleep aboard your boat, invest in high-quality cushions at least six inches thick or, better yet, a custom mattress for your berth. Consider upgrading cushions in your cockpit or salon to add additional padding and, where possible, a bit of lumbar support. If you have a chair that’s more than 10 years old in the cockpit, a replacement will probably be welcome.

Never Too Old To Learn

These and other suggestions above, are good ideas for most boaters, let alone older boaters — and they all made sense to Mark Vance, who took a safe boating class for seniors (see “Boating Safely Into The Sunset Years”).

“It’s a good reminder that I need to move more surely, instead of dancing on the top of the boat, as I used to,” said Vance, now 70. He got his first taste of sailing in 1978 when a friend took him out off Los Angeles, returning in big swells to Marina del Rey. “I remember standing with one hand on the mast with this primal feeling,” he grins. “I was hooked.” Vance now has a 27-foot English-built Snapdragon sailboat, a twin-keel classic named Arwen.

Mark Vance, aboard his 27-foot Snapdragon sailboat, Arwen, says he intends to use his boat as long as he can walk.

Vance said patience was a theme of the senior boating class.

A relaxed frame of mind comes in handy when he sails on the Indian River south of Jupiter, Florida. It’s a congested waterway, which can be stressful in a sailboat. “You have to remind yourself to be deliberate and remain calm. It’s easier to get flustered as you age.”

Vance has already made some concessions to age. Sailing singlehanded, he used to unfurl a genoa, the large foresail, to capture more wind. Now he sails with his smaller working jib, which is fast enough, but doesn’t demand as much strength.

“At this point in my life, I’m more interested in comfort than speed,” he said. How long does he intend to be in his sailboat? “As long as I can walk,” he says.

To Dick Brilhart, patience also means looking at the big picture. He and Barbara can do the trip north from Florida in three weeks, but they now plan on up to five weeks, sticking to the ICW rather than the open ocean. Brilhart, a retired dentist, acknowledges that he tires more easily now, so to compensate, the couple sets off at dawn and plans to be somewhere by mid-afternoon.

“At the end of an eight-hour day, I’m wiped out,” he says. “I used to drop anchor, throw the dinghy in the water, and go ashore. Now if we anchor, we just anchor. And we look for marinas, making it easy to go ashore.” The Brilharts have also taken steps to keep their senses sharp; they work out regularly at the gym to stay strong and flexible. Both have had cataract surgery and Dick wears a hearing aid. Brilhart offers some advice for seniors who want to stay in boating: “The single most important thing is to stay in shape, so you can hop around the boat. Strength frequently means balance.” They say they plan to stay on the water as long as possible. That could mean a smaller boat, at some point. “Even now, Barbara and her friends enjoy weekly outings in kayaks,” he says. “Boating is no more difficult than it used to be, but everything is slower.”

Tux Turkel

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine