Why Competitive Yacht Racers are Some of the Fittest Humans on the Planet
Competitive yacht racing is the ultimate functional fitness exercise. It provides a constantly varied high-intensity interval workout, requiring participants to push, pull, haul, trim, jump, lift, sprint, and carry.
Indeed, the top yacht racers are some of the fittest people on the planet. Don’t believe me? Watch this “grind off” between the massive players from the Harlequin Rugby Club square off against the crew of Artemis Racing. If you were to take them off the machines and put them on real boats there would be no contest.
What distinguishes the Artemis crew can be summed up as the “human factor” of sailing.
So what’s the secret to effective physical performance in sailing?
While it’s impossible to put the knowledge and experience of a thousand sails into words, the perfection of technique in sailing (as in all sports) boils down to 1) the elimination of all unnecessary movements and muscular contractions (i.e., skill) and 2) the ability to perform a great deal of work, rapidly and without fatiguing (i.e., fitness) .
Beyond a certain point, too much exertion sets a sailor up for early failure.
In adjusting sail trim, a grinder on a winch needs to know exactly when to shift gears down – not too early and not too late. Shifting too early leads to additional rotations without much work being performed, while shifting too late risks fatigue and failure of key muscles before the job is finished.
A related principle is the intelligent transfer of energy from power centers, and proper use of the boat’s various forms of mechanical advantage. Anyone who has used a winch or a pulley can understand the basic concept of mechanical advantage, but our body has its own built in levers and power centers. When hoisting and sweating a rope, deckhands learn to heave all of their body weight against the halyard – dropping their hips for extra force and using the arms only as an extension of the power from the core.
Finally, moving about on a fast-moving vessel involves a particularly fine-tuned proprioception – i.e., an awareness of the position and movement of the body. You must not only balance yourself in precarious situations, but adjust to oncoming waves and the many motions of the boat (surge, sway, heave, roll, pitch and yaw). This requires a strong core and an ability to quickly adjust or reverse any movement to restore balance.
As if “all out” sprints by grinders aren’t difficult enough, the complexity of “motion within motion” makes sailing one of the most physically challenging sports.
Charlie Deist is the Social Media Manager for the Sailing Science Center and a crew member aboard USA 76 (a 2003 America’s Cup contender turned charter yacht) and the Bay Lady (a 90 foot schooner) in San Francisco. He writes about functional fitness at ANaturalMethod.com.