ORCV Safety and Training
The physical demands of offshore sailing.
In our second piece from Andrew Verdon, who is the Australian Sailing Team (AIS Squad) fitness coordinator, he is going to provide us with some information on how to train for offshore events. Andrew is currently completing his Masters Degree in exercise and has been the Australian Sailing Team (AIS Squad) fitness coordinator since 2003, including the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Sailing Teams. Should you have any questions? Feel free to contact him at
Racing yachts offshore is one of the most demanding physical activities you can undertake. It is classed in the same category of extreme endurance activities as mountain climbing. Going offshore is a harsh environment, as it's often cold, wet, dark, noisy and puts a large amount of physical stress on the body, while asking for extended concentration and endurance, so as to improve the performance of the boat. Two of the most demanding positions (that impact directly on boat speed) are the driver and the trimmers. If concentration is reduced in these two critical positions, then the boat speed may drop by tenths of a knot and this could be enough to lose time for line honours or a handicap result/decision.
What is the best way to prepare the body (and mind) for this? The obvious answer is to get time in on the water before the race. But what can you do on your own, outside of sailing? There are three main areas you need to work on:
Whole body strength
Follow a program that includes the upper and lower body. Upper body pushing and pulling exercises are an obvious choice, but you need to include lower body exercises in the programs. Exercises like squats, lunges, deadlifts will strengthen the legs and trunk. Avoid machines and work all areas with free weights - dumbbells and barbells, to help the stability in the core and the joints.
High intensity cardio
Offshore races have long periods of inactivity, then short bursts of intense action. Sail changes are a good example. The best way to prepare the body for this, is interval style cardio workouts. Interval just means you work then rest, over repeated cycles and in a structured workout. The best gym machine for this would be the rower, as it recruits the whole body, just as sailing does.
Swimming would be another good option outside the gym and boxing would be a good class option. Running would be a less desirable option.
Flexibility is crucial for good performance and to allow the body to work in strong, stable and safe positions. It is left out of many programs, but is vital to prevent injuries. Aim to complete 15-20 mins of full body stretching, twice across a whole week. It can be done as part of a workout or separately. I get many clients to include 10-15 mins in front of the TV each night, to de-load the body at the end of the day and help them prepare for a good quality sleep.
My offshore experience is limited, so I went to the experts to see what they had to say on the topic, from their own personal experiences and over many miles sailed all around the world. For mainsail trim, I went to Michael Dunstan, who has been completing the East coast racing circuit on the TP52, Wot Yot. For headsail trim, I spoke with Alby Pratt of North Sails, who has won three Hobart’s on Wild Oats XI. Finally, I caught up with Chris Nicholson, who finished second in the Volvo Ocean Race aboard Puma Racing, to talk about helming.
I asked each of them what advice they could provide to help with the physical demands of sailing offshore. Mike and Alby answered it from a perspective of your own body's demands, while Chris suggests some equipment, clothing and nutrition areas to focus on.
Trimming the mainsail during offshore races: Michael Dunstan
The obvious muscle groups are the arms and shoulders. Turning a winch, working the traveller, pumping the mainsheet downwind, pumping a backstay ram. Probably the forgotten muscle group is your core. Top handling a winch, I believe a lot of power and speed comes from your core strength. Your core also is working constantly keeping you stable and balanced, as the boat goes up and down waves whilst travelling upwind.
Michael also sail Etchells with Julian Plante aboard North Star. Image courtesy of Sail-World.
Trimming headsails and spinnakers: Alby Pratt
The most important thing is good core strength and stability, as you are sitting for long periods without any support, on something that is constantly moving and hanging onto a rope, which is sometimes reasonably loaded.
Image of WO XI courtesy of Wild Oats. Alby was also recently aboard another RP penned and McConaghy built vessel, LOKI, the Sydney Gold Coast winner 2010.
Driving during offshore races: Chris Nicholson
Without a doubt, the set up of the rim load on the wheel and the balance of the boat, is key to the performance of both the boat and the driver. Obviously, this will pretty much prevent most injuries and allow the driver to perform better and for longer.
The other thing is to drive for shorter periods of time. One and a half hours is more than enough time behind the wheel and you also need to do the usual things of eating and drinking enough. Comfortable boots or shoes with good inner sole are vital to stop getting a sore back or knees.
Chris (Nicko) is famous for a lot of things, from 18s to being a Watch Captain on Puma, and now Skipper of ETNZ/Camper in the next Volvo Ocean Race (image of the announcement with Kevin Shoebridge is © Richard Gladwell).
The everyday workingman’s plan for offshore race prep
Let’s look at a case study of a male preparing for an offshore race of three days or longer. He works full time, has a wife and kids at home and sails one day on the weekend on the yacht and not a lot of spare time. This is what I would recommend as a basic weekly plan:
2 x 20 minutes of strength training over the full body
2 x 20 minutes intense cardio work completed in interval style
3 x 20 minutes of trunk strength / flexibility
This can be combined into a 60 minutes workout or kept separate and done each day, for 20 minutes per day.
If you liked this, you can also Andrew's first piece - How fit are you for sailing?
Text by Andrew Verdon
Dip. Ex Sci
Grad Dip App Sci
Cert IV Fitness
Level One Strength Coach-ASCA
Mobile 0419 690 121
PO Box 1552 Neutral Bay NSW 2089 Australia
Fax: 61 2 9908 4211
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