How Old Are You, Really?
On the internet sailing forums, you’ll find people in their 30’s worried about being too old to sail. We can assure you that 30 is certainly not too old for sailing. Sailors are a hardy bunch, and most consider 'old' to mean many different things. At what age do you consider yourself too old to sail? Is it 50, 60, or even 70?
A 72-year-old sailor just completed the 2018 single-handed Trans-Pac race from San Francisco to Hawaii, along with dozens of other men and women over 50. In fact, the most experienced blue water sailors today are over 40, and hundreds of them continue to sail with impressive consistency. Sailing is an all-time favorite retirement activity, but it's not limited to long-distance journeys. If you've ever been to a yacht club regatta, you'll notice people of all ages crewing boats and enjoying a sunny weekend. From day trips to ocean crossings, there’s no age limit.
If you're under 80 and in reasonably good health, there's little reason to think you're too old for sailing. If you're in your 80s, there's no reason to worry either. Jim Boren of Marinette, Wisconsin, purchased a 30-foot Hunter sailboat in 2015—at the age of 90. He proceeded to sail his boat (named Skoal) all year, single-handing the vessel on long cruises and races. He hadn't owned a boat. Boren left a piece of advice for his younger fellow sailors; "Don't listen to anybody that says you are too old for that."
Jim Boren's story is inspiring and shows that age isn't a limiting factor for sailors. However, with age come other issues that may become obstacles for a sailor. We'll go over what you should consider if you think you're too old for sailing.
Eyesight and Hearing
Our senses fade as we get older, which is natural but inevitable for most. The extent of the change is what's important to consider before taking to the seas. Sailors rely on VHF radio communications to stay in touch with the Coast Guard and other boats. If you think you'll have trouble hearing the radio, it'll be best to bring somebody else aboard to keep an ear out. That's not to say that you can't find a solution; after all, there's plenty of entirely deaf sailors who safely navigate the world's waterways. Some systems display vital information like weather warnings and incoming vessels on a screen.
It's an altogether different conversation if you're worried about your eyesight. More than 60% of Americans wear glasses, so vision impairment alone isn't grounds to avoid sailing. Given the turbulent nature of the sea, it's vital to consider what would happen if your glasses were swept (or blown) off your face. Could you continue to operate the boat safely? If not, you may want to consider shorter passages in fair weather or bring a crew you can trust. With the right help, there are still very few reasons why you can't get out on the water and sail. Single-handed crossings might become difficult, but that doesn't mean you can't sail with friends and family!
Consider purchasing a lanyard for your glasses in case they fall off and investigate a water-resistant hearing aid if you need it. We know that glasses and hearing aids are expensive, but you can try and find a cheap replacement to use while on the water. If you're still not confident, just hold on to your hat and let somebody else lend a hand when you need it. The sailing community is full of generous and helpful people who won't hesitate to take you out on the water; all you have to do is ask.
There are no ambulances in the middle of the ocean, which means health problems can be a serious concern at sea. While everyone is at risk of random health problems, people with conditions like diabetes and heart failure may want to avoid long-distance cruising. In coastal waters, bays, and lakes, medical care is often not far away. If you have a serious (but well-managed) health condition, you can still sail closer to land. How far you go is ultimately up to you, but there's plenty of exciting sailing destinations within a short distance from civilization. Just remember to bring your emergency medication, just like you would on any out of town trip.
You can still sail if you're physically disabled. If you can't swim, you should consider adding a harness system to your boat. Most long-distance sailors already use inexpensive and reliable harnesses anyway. Also, there's nothing wrong with taking a crew or crewing somebody else's boat. If you're itching to get on the water but worried about a disability, find a team to join you on the journey. Sailing is not inherently dangerous, and a crew adds an extra element of safety and fun to any sailboat outing.
You don't need to be a 25-year-old to manage a sailboat. Depending on boat size and weather conditions, pretty much anybody can handle the rigging of a sailboat. If you're an experienced sailor who's not as fit as you used to be, it's still entirely feasible to go sailing. The rigging and controls of newer modern boats are lighter, smoother, and easier to handle than they were 30 years ago. Ultralight parts, along with motorized winches make it possible to command larger boats with less effort. These days, some sailing yachts raise and lower the sails with the press of a button, so your hands never touch a rope or cleat for the duration of the trip. Technology made sailing safer, more comfortable, and more accessible to everybody.
Why You're Never Too Old to Sail
Sailing is an activity that anybody can enjoy, no matter their age. It's never too late to learn either. Sailing programs exist in virtually every state with a coastline or big lake. Instructors don't discriminate; in fact, many master sailing instructors are past retirement. Besides, countless senior sailors take to the waves every year for all manner of cruises.
In the end, it comes down to your own personal resources and comfort level. If you don't own a boat and don't want to purchase one, consider joining a local yacht club instead. You can accompany friends and fellow members during outings and hang around the club to socialize with fellow sailboat enthusiasts. You can also join an existing crew on a long-distance delivery or ocean passage. The boat charter industry is enormous, and it's also a great non-purchase option.
If you're retired, don't get discouraged from sailing on the internet or with other people. It's your time, and your choice—if you want to sail, go ahead and sail. Technology changed the sailing world forever. It's now possible to control a sailboat with minimal physical effort, and GPS computers made navigation easier. Redundancy is key however, so it's important to keep somebody else around if you question your ability to control the boat manually. Your health and physical capabilities must be considered when planning a voyage, but it's usually not a deal-breaker. Anything is possible with the right planning and discretion.