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Hot Weather Safety Advice

This article was originally published on SailNet in June of 2001.

Summer is here, the time to be out and about on the water for so many sailors in the northern hemisphere, but make sure you guard against the double dangers: dehydration and overexposure to UV rays.
Summer is upon us here in the northern hemisphere, and that means not only the beginning of hurricane season, but for most sailors it means they’re outdoors much more regularly than at any other time during the year. So it’s only prudent to take a moment to consider how best to stay healthy during these so-called dog days so that you can enjoy your time on the water for years to come.

The Dreaded UV    At the suggestion of a friend, I went to the dermatologist a few years ago and got myself checked out after spending a good bit of my adolescence and adult life in the sun, mostly unprotected. Before I left, the doctor said I was in pretty good shape, but told me to use sunblock every day. "What if I’m just getting in the car to go to the office," I inquired. "Every day," she said with a cold stare. The message was clear. The same sunlight that makes days on the water so pleasant can also be the agent of skin and eye damage for sailors, and dermatologists aren't fooling when they tell us to use sunblock—every day.

Relatively recent statistics indicate that most people receive roughly 80 percent of the sun exposure they’ll have in their lives by the age of 18. Unfortunately, the statistics are a little different for sailors who end up in the sun more often than, say, people who bowl. Sailors need to shield themselves not only from direct sunlight, but also from the ultraviolet radiation that’s reflected off the sails, decks, and water. All of this adds up to one thing—sun protection is imperative.

Dark shirts, broad brim hats, and sun glasses in addition to sunscreen are proactive approaches to minimizing the amount of harmful exposure you're apt to get while sailing.
I’ve been observing lately that a lot of the people I see out on the water are coming to terms with the fact that the sun can literally be a killer. Several of the crew on the Volvo Ocean Race entry illbruck—who were out in the sun for roughly nine or 10 hours and often longer each day—have long worn long-sleeve shirts for this purpose. Other racing sailors I know have adopted the custom of wearing broad-brimmed hats during the downtime when they’re coiling lines or waiting at the dock for the electronics specialist to finish his work. It’s only sensible; these precautions can help you avoid costly and occasionally painful corrective surgeries later on in life.

Along with the use of sunblock (with a Sun Protection Factor greater than 15), the American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved T-shirts, and sunglasses for maximum protection. (Make sure the sunglasses protect against both UVA and UVB radiation.) For children, the Academy specifically advises avoiding the midday sun. Remember, people who have lighter skin are even more at risk and all of this information applies even more so to them. For sailors who are out on the water for most of the day, an SPF of 30 or greater is prudent. And it goes without saying that you need a waterproof sunblock, not one that will rinse off after the first wave breaks over the bow.

The Importance of H20    One thing scientists know for sure, when the temperatures go up the body tries to compensate and one way in which it does this is perspiration. The good news is that we ultimately cool down when we perspire; the bad news is that we lose fluids in the process. Adequate hydration, as serious athletes will tell you, is not only key for performance, but also for basic health. Whether you’re a winch-grinder on board a grand prix racer or a sedentary passenger on a cruising boat, your body needs to maintain its fluid levels. The American Dietetic Association tells us that dehydration has an adverse effect on muscle strength, endurance, and coordination, and that it increases the risk of cramps and heat exhaustion as well as life-threatening heat stroke. So don’t risk it, just keep the freshwater flowing.

Despite what the advertisments might depict, sailing can be strenuous, and even if it isn’t on a given day, higher temperatures will mean that you’re going to be losing fluids, sometimes at the rate of up to six or eight pounds per hour. In hot and humid environments, the ADA recommends taking frequent but small servings (about four to six ounces) of cool water or another rehydrating beverage. How frequently? Well, that depends on you and your situation, but keep in mind that it’s better to err on the side of over-hydrating yourself than risk the potential consequences mentioned above. Of course anything with alcohol in it will ultimately dehydrate you no matter how refreshing it might seem initially.

Inevitably, when the topic of discussion is freshwater and sailing, those memorable lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" come to mind:

"Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink."

Adjusting your fluid intake in proportion to increased temperatures is vital to keeping cool, but make sure that most of that fluid is water because alcoholic beverages tend to dehydrate you.

There are few sailors who disagree with that 1798 assessment. But in fact one, voluntary castaway, Dr. Alain Bombard who sailed from the Canary Islands to Barbados in 1952 aboard a small inflatable boat, claims that he was able to drink small amounts of salt water frequently throughout his 65-day odyssey. Most others who have spoken out on this matter maintain that drinking saltwater will only serve to pull more fluid out of your body’s cells, ultimately accelerating dehydration. Whatever your outlook, it’s best not to gamble, so make sure that when you’re planning to be out sailing you stock up with plenty of freshwater for drinking (about 64 ounces per person per day according to most experts on the topic) and make sure you remember to drink it. Have a good summer and we’ll see you on the water.

Suggested Reading:

Protecting Ourselves from the Elements by Joy Smith

Heat Emergencies by William Mahaffy

A Cruiser's Medical Plan by Randy Harman

SailNet Store Section: Safety

Dan Dickison is offline  
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