How Fit Should a Sailor Be? - SailNet Community
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How Fit Should a Sailor Be?

Do you know if you're strong enough to spend all day grinding a winch in heavy air and then anchor the boat securely at night? Such concerns have prompted this author to seek universal standards regarding strength for offshore sailors.
Ask yourself: How strong are your arms and legs? Can you do just one pull-up and a few sit-ups? Can you swim 500 yards? Imagine this scenario: your boat is sinking and you decide to launch the life raft. For some reason the raft breaks free of its tether and drifts away downwind. You jump into the water and stroke after it. The water is cool, maybe even cold, and waves are splashing into your mouth, nose, and eyes.

Will you be able to catch up to the raft? I hope you do, but even then, when you get alongside, will you have the strength to pull yourself up and in? Rafts customarily have freeboard measurements that range from one-and-a-half to two feet and to climb up and over you need upper body strength. Yes, I will grant you that modern rafts have inflatable boarding platforms that allow you to slide up and in, but what if the boarding platform fails to inflate, or leaks, or the raft inflates upside down?

If the raft is inverted, you’ll need upper body strength to climb up on its overturned bottom, grab the righting strap, and pull the raft back to its upright position. After which you will then need to climb into the raft, bail it out (there will be a large quantity of water inside), and then assist in pulling your crew (spouse and family?) inside the raft.

Most sailors exert enough energy simply unloading and stowing a life raft, but are all of us up to the task of deploying one and then swimming to it?
Your tasks have only begun, though, for once inside the raft you will need to inflate its floor to prevent hypothermia, rig the canopy, inventory the emergency gear, deploy the drogue (one drogue deploys automatically when the raft inflates but a second is often needed to steady the raft). Are you becoming tired just reading this list of tasks? You need endurance now, not so much the upper body required to enter the raft, but an efficient cardiovascular system that keeps you going hour after hour, day after day until you are rescued.

Let's move away from this emergency scenario for a moment and look at routine shipboard life. Grinding winches, hoisting and reefing sails, raising the anchor, setting mooring lines, and hauling aboard a dinghy all require strength. And, oh yes, the sailing world has been busy delivering electric winches, boom reefing, and hydraulic anchor winches, all to alleviate a need for bodily strength.

These labor-saving devices are not always in our best interest though, for a strong body performs so much better mentally as well as physically that we need to keep our bodies in above-average condition to ensure that we handle our vessels capably. I maintain that if your body is healthy, then your mind will work better, and in critical situations you will make better decisions, which will often prevent an emergency from occurring. Following through on that reasoning, you shouldn’t likely find yourself jumping into cold water and swimming after a life raft that is rapidly drifting downwind!

"So, how do you judge if you are in adequate, or hopefully above-adequate physical condition?"
So, how do you judge if you are in adequate, or hopefully above-adequate physical condition? Well, I have been working on a test that is a compilation and refinement of several other physical fitness tests that are used by the US military and civilian occupations such as commercial diving, the merchant marine, and Outward Bound. I’ve detailed my fledgling fitness test below. Please note that I have made no distinctions based on age or gender. Some tests do, but I have seen individuals in their 60s outperform those in their 20s. And I have seen women outperform men (on a regular basis!). And so this test, I feel, is appropriate to everyone who ventures out to sea on small boats.

Carr’s Minimum Physical Requirements for Going to Sea:

  1. Swim a quarter mile (500 yards) using any stroke in 20 minutes.
  2. Take a 10-minute break.
  3. Do 10 push-ups in one minute.
  4. Take a five-minute break.
  5. Do 20 sit-ups in one minute.
  6. Take a five-minute break.
  7. Do four pull-ups in one minute.
  8. Take a five-minute break.
  9. Run one mile in 10 minutes.
  10. Bench-press 40 percent of your body’s weight five times.

Wrestling with unwilling headsails, sweating up an unruly mainsail, and pulling up a recalcitrant anchor, all of these common duties require a certain level of fitness for the offshore sailor.
Remember that I view this test as the very minimum for adequate fitness. I would hope that everyone taking the test would do better, but it does provide a simple baseline. If you are in good to excellent physical shape then I would aim for this second test, which I will call the Top Gun Physical Evaluation test. This might be appropriate for ocean racing and shorthanded events:

Top Gun Physical Evaluation for Going to Sea:

  1. Swim a quarter mile (500 yards) using only breaststroke in 12.5 minutes or less.
  2. Take a 10-minute rest
  3. Perform 60 push-ups in two minutes or less
  4. 5-minute rest
  5. Perform 80 sit-ups in two minutes or less
  6. 5-minute rest
  7. Perform 10 pull-ups in two minutes or less
  8. 5-minute rest.
  9. Run two miles in less than 14 minutes.
  10. Bench-press 40 percent of your body weight 20 times.

So how do I score on these tests? Personally, I can do the basic test, no problem, and I can almost complete the Top Gun test. I am a little weak in the push-up department, coming in at about 50. I can do the other components of this test pretty well and feel this is a good test when compared to standard military tests used by Navy SEALS and Army Rangers.

The US Coast Guard (as well as other branches of the military) has to ensure that its members are fit for duty. Thus standard tests are devised, and the author has adapted some elements of those for use in his own test.
Here is what I need though: I need other sailors to do both tests and provide feedback to me. Tell me how you did. Tell me what you think of this test. Does it help you in evaluating yourself and your crew? How could these tests be changed or improved? Maybe they are OK just as they are. Just get in touch with me via e-mail (, and let me know.

While I wait for your feedback, I will continue working on my pushups and hopefully be up to 60 soon! Time to get out the Ben Gay!

Suggested Reading:

Fitness for Every Sailor by Dan Dickison

Basic Considerations for Cruisers by Randy Harman

Good Nutrition for Sailors by Carol Bareuther


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Michael Carr is offline  
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