Common Sailing Injuries & How To Avoid Them

Common Sailing Injuries & How To Avoid Them | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

June 15, 2022

One of the worst things that can happen to a sailor is losing a season due to injury. Therefore, it’s important to know how to avoid common sailing injuries.

There are four things that every sailor should do to prevent injury. These include: performing warm-up exercise before every sailing trip (and completing these exercises throughout the year), ensuring a proper ergonomic set-up on the boat, practicing proper sun protection techniques, and staying alert at all times while on board.

While it is true that the rate of sailing related injuries are relatively low when compared to injury rates in land-based activities, there is still a significant risk of injury and even death when sailing. According to Nathanson, “high winds, operator inexperience, and operator inattention are the most common contributing factors for injury.” However, even if you are an experienced sailor and feel that the issues of operator inexperience and inattention are not applicable to you, you may be surprised to find that even at the olympic level, there are high rates of overuse injuries in the back, hands and knees. So regardless of whether you’re an expert sailor or a beginner, there are many considerations to be made to avoid injuries when sailing. In this article, we will review some common injuries seen in sailors and examine each of these items in detail to help you have a successful, injury-free sailing season.

The information provided in this article was compiled by Bennett Richardson, an orthopedic physical therapist who has treated many sailing injuries. Andrew Nathanson, MD, Vernon Neville, other authors and studies are cited heavily throughout this article. All claims will have the proper link to the reference article indicated, so if you would like more information on any topic, just click the links provided. Assume that any claim that does not have a citation, is my own personal opinion and is no substitute for a comprehensive medical examination by a qualified professional. Always consult with your doctor about any planned changes to your health routine and before following any health advice found online.


Table of contents

What are the Most Common Sailing Injuries?

Sailing injuries vary based on the experience of the sailor. For olympic level/very experienced sailors, injuries are generally due to “overuse” and typically affect the spine, knees and hands. These injuries are thought to result from improper technique and inadequate leg strength. This type of injury is most easily avoided with a properly programmed off-season exercise regimen, as well as a properly designed maintenance exercise program during the season.

If overuse injuries are not addressed before they become chronic issues, they can affect performance and ability to sail for the rest of the sailor’s life. Luckily, treatments and solutions are available, such as corrective and maintenance exercise, which we will delve deeply into in the next section.

Amateur sailors, on the other hand, generally tend to suffer traumatic injuries such as lacerations and contusions due to improper set-up and lack of experience. These injuries are generally minor, but can vary in severity based on the extent of the injury. Generally, experience and mentorship are two of the main factors that can help amateurs to avoid these injuries. This type of traumatic injury is usually managed with general first aid treatment, and the sailor can typically return to full participation within a few weeks of the injury.

An injury that affects both experienced and amateur sailors, is that of sun damage. Proper sun protective equipment can not be overvalued. Long-term sun exposure without proper protection can cause skin damage which can lead to cancerous lesions. This is an injury that will not only end a day of sailing or a season, but may contribute to an early death in the sailor.

Refer to table 1 below for a summary of the above points. The preventative treatments for these injuries will be revisited in later sections in greater detail.

Table 1.

What are the Best Exercises to Avoid Sailing Injuries?

Certain injuries in sailing, especially those caused by overuse, can be effectively mitigated by a comprehensive exercise program.  It is a good idea to have a thorough evaluation by a physical therapist or another qualified health expert in order to get individualized exercise recommendations for your own specific needs. However, there are some general recommendations on exercises that should be performed as part of a warm-up before every sailing trip, as well as frequently throughout the year. These will be provided in table 2 below.

As was stated above, very common areas that are injured while sailing, especially in elite sailors, are the spine, hands, and knees. Therefore, let’s break down each of those areas and review some recommendations in terms of how to perform each exercise, how many repetitions to perform, how long to hold each stretch, and how often to perform the exercises.

In addition to the exercises, a general recommendation to limit spinal issues is to use your whole body efficiently with all tasks while sailing. This means that anytime you need to reach for something, step as close as you can towards it. Shortening the distance between you and the object you need to reach will put decreased stress on your back. Additionally, ensure that you are using proper technique and tapping into the immense power of your leg muscles, rather than relying on your back for lifting and moving objects.

As far as knees go, strength training is the key. Your legs need to be strong in order to not become fatigued during the high level exercise they will be performing while sailing. Squats are the perfect exercise for developing muscular power and endurance. What’s more, they can be performed virtually anywhere without the need of extra or specialized equipment. They are also extremely functional and relate to many daily activities that require the use of muscles activated during a squat. Flexibility training for the hamstrings and quadriceps (the two main muscles crossing the knee) are essential as well for healthy knees.

When it comes to hand injuries while sailing, the main concern is avoiding a serious laceration by a sharp, quickly moving part. But outside of that, overuse injuries of the hands can occur as well. This is why it is critical to develop as much hand strength and endurance as possible. Generally, household objects such as tennis balls and rubber bands work extremely well for hand strengthening.

Exercises for all three of these muscle groups are included in table 2.

Table 2.

What is the Best Ergonomic Set-up to Avoid Injury on a Boat?

The answer to the question of boat ergonomics is going to vary slightly for every person and every boat. But in general, the goal is to reduce the chance of injury, so practicing simple, often intuitive measures to reduce trips and falls are incredibly important in injury reduction.

It may be unreasonable or impossible to modify the actual layout of the boat, but one simple ergonomic method to implement is the use of proper, non-slip footwear. Additionally, just keeping a clean and clutter-free deck are simple solutions to reduce injuries. Nathanson recommends practices as simple as closing the hatches and removing the spinnaker pole when it is not in use.

What is the Best Way to Avoid Sun Exposure While Sailing?

In order to adequately protect all areas affected by the sun, one needs to consider in detail which areas are most exposed. Areas most affected by the sun include the arms, hands, feet and head. In a survey from 2016, it was found that roughly 16% of sailors reported having sustained sunburn in the previous year. The fixes for this problem are simple: use sunscreen, wear head covering, and wear protective clothing that covers any areas that would otherwise be exposed to the sun.

What are Some Tips to Stay Alert and Avoid Injury While Sailing?

Sailing should not be a passive activity. The sailor should be aware of everything happening at all times and should be ready to respond to any issues that may arise.

It has been found that roughly 21% of all injuries sustained while sailing are due to being hit by an object (Nathanson). Therefore, it is critical that the sailor keeps his or her head on a swivel and be ready for any projectiles or the boom as it swings, especially in windy conditions.

Communication is key in sailing as well. It’s vital that everyone on board understands commands and is ready to respond if anything unexpected should happen. Injuries can happen due to miscommunication or to someone new on the boat who isn’t familiar with the procedure of the crew.

In addition, there is much to be said for being prepared. Sometimes, things will go wrong and you’ll be knocked or forced off of the boat. In these situations, it’s critical that you have a life vest. They are life saving tools that you’ll wish you had when you find yourself in this situation.

Many of these injuries can be avoided by abstaining from alcohol while sailing. Oftentimes, an injury occurs because someone let his or her guard down after one too many drinks. So save the booze for after the trip. Once you’ve had a successful sailing experience, then you can celebrate.

Common Sailing Injuries & How To Avoid Them
Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

Bennett D. Richardson, PT, DPT, CSCS

Bennett is a physical therapist in the Pittsburgh, PA region who specializes in the areas of orthopedics, ergonomics, and weight loss. Bennett graduated from Slippery Rock University’s DPT program in 2017. He also obtained his BS from SRU in 2014 in Exercise Science with a Gerontology minor. In his work, Bennett has had the unique opportunity to rehabilitate many novice and experienced sailors. The advice he provides is always research-based.

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