Why modern sailors need physical fitness too

The best sailors in the world used to have amazing seafaring skills, a penchant for strategy and a tactical mindset. These days, competitive sailors need all of the above, plus fitness. Yep, we’re talking good old fashioned, run of the mill, fitness.


Last month, New York Times boating expert David Schmidt published a great read on the benefits of being fit for sailing success. We’ve broken down the important bits here.


Boats are faster and more athletic

Schmidt says racing yachts at Grand Prix level are complex, with powerful hulls, which have continued to evolve over time. More recently, competitive yachts feature carbon-fibre masts that almost touch the clouds, as well as ‘…powerful thermomoulded sails, which exert thousands of pounds of force.’


All in all, the yachts we know today move at greater speeds and are more agile than the models of the past. Sailing these more athletic race boats isn’t just mentally demanding, it’s physically difficult too. Competitive sailors are required to perform highly complex manoeuvres, with limited notice, so physical fitness really matters.


Sailors need to be athletes too

Ryan West, the head of Athlete Performance at Bella Mente and American Magic told Schmidt that modern competitive sailors needed to be athletes.


“Being an athlete is needed, and sailing is moving that way,” he said.

“We look at sailors as individuals, and we treat them in a holistic manner, including nutrition, hydration and loading, both on and off the water.”


When it comes to world class sailing, Schmidt say there is ‘zero patience’ for individuals who don’t make the yacht go faster.


When a manoeuvre is announced, more agile crew  rush to the deck. The grinders, who are the larger sailors, take point powering the manual winches, which trim the sails according to conditions.


According to Steve Wilson, who’s on the design team for Bella Mente and American Magic, Grinders can be at it for short bursts, or for longer time periods at lower intensity levels. The smaller crew are cardio-driven, while the larger crew do both cardio and weight bearing.


Training matters

West said that sailors participate in a yearly training program, which is adapted according to the training phase they are in. Rest is an important element of the program too, as it allows sailors to recuperate and adapt to their new load.


Grinder Cooper Dressler told Schmidt that physical training can be quite challenging.


“There’s not [sic] time off,” he said.

“You can’t take a week’s vacation because you’ll lose your fitness fast. We basically have to maintain peak fitness all the time.”


That means hitting the gym for twenty to thirty hours per week, which is pretty close to a full-time job. Of course, only world-class professional sailors are likely to have this level of time and support available for physical fitness.


However, if you are inspired by the best sailors in the world, then consider taking their lead. Even dedicating just a small amount of time per week to building your cardio and weight bearing abilities will make a difference to your overall sailing fitness.


Even better, grab a mate and make them come along with you!


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