shows by example how easily you can eliminate stress, become more independent, raise your children in a safer environment (while spending more time with them, instilling values not based on the mighty dollar) and avoid the traps of commercialism. Because we live and sail simply, we have been wandering for 11 years with no intention of stopping. This is not a trip for us; it is our life, and I hope to share our success with stories of laughter and tears, as well as how-to tips and DIY projects for preparing, sailing and making a boat a home, so that others can join us.

Back Health Aboard

August 10, 2015

It's a bit ironic, I find, that it took MY becoming bedridden before I write a post about keeping your back healthy while living on board. The fact that my husband couldn't walk for weeks and nearly died in a Panamanian hospital apparently wasn't enough. But let me be stuck on the settee for two days, and it's suddenly the most important thing I can think to share.

It started like any other first sail after sitting for a month. We had been anchored in Jacksonville's Ortega River, soaking up the joys of being back on the hook for the first time in over a year, doing lots of reading, working on my latest book, researching solar dehydrators and trying various kimchi recipes. When the day came to sail to my birthday present (a month at the same marina as our youngest son and only grandchild) I was too excited to sleep. Plus, I knew we had a long morning of work followed by a long day's sail.

After our usual morning chores of grinding coffee, heating water for the French press, eating breakfast, and slathering myself with sunscreen, we attacked the pre-sailing chores. As usual, I prepared the interior for heeling. After 15 years, I've gotten pretty good at imagining everything that could possible end up on the floor when tilted to 20 degrees. While I tucked breakables into corners and under pillows, Dave took off the main sail cover and prepared the secondary anchor to be raised. After sitting in tidal waters for so long, we had thought to untangle the two rodes the night before, so all we had to do was raise them both in the morning. That's all. Except the only way to raise the secondary was to ride directly over it to break it free of the mud. In order to get our bow that far over we had to raise the primary. Dave payed out the secondary rode as I brought in the primary (all chain) rode and 44-pound Bruce. Once it was on deck, we pulled in the secondary rode until we were hanging 1:1, straight over the anchor. With the help of the manual windlass we slowly oozed the 35-pound CQR out of the muck. As soon as we were clear, I dropped the primary back down to hold us while we stuffed the secondary rode into the hawsepipe: not a slow process.

Next came the dinghy. Edey and Duff claimed she weighs 85 pounds, but I call bullshit. There's no way she's under 100 pounds empty. Like we've done 100 (or probably closer to 1,000) times, Dave connected the staysail halyard to the bridle in Eureka and held out the halyard with a boat hook to keep her from scraping up the hull while I brought her up with the winch. Put the water jugs below, tie down the dinghy, verify that the VHF, the GPS, the chart, and my camera with handy, fill our water bottles and coffee mugs, start the motor, and time to raise the primary again.

Through all this activity I had NO indication that there was a problem. I raised the primary, put the chain hook on and cleated the snubber, threw the pawl on the windlass and leaned over to put the tennis ball around the chain in the hawsepipe, and realized I couldn't bend over. So I straightened my back and bent at the waist. Nope, still too painful to bend the few inches to touch the deck from a kneeling position. Screw it, it's the St. John's River, how much water could get in there? I'll do it later.

I stood up to walk back to the cockpit and by the time I had taken those 15 steps I knew we were in deep trouble. Not to bore you with details, let's just say we didn't go anywhere that day. I spent the next two days prone, taking lots of meds, and having Panama flashbacks.

So the question is, "What happened? What did we do wrong." And better yet, "How can we prevent it from happening again?" Many people will choose this opportunity to point to the fact that we don't have davits and that we have a manual windlass as the culprits. I can hear them now. "See, if you had all the luxuries that we do, you wouldn't have hurt your back." But I don't believe that is true. The problem isn't the activity that I did that morning, it's the INACTIVITY of the month before. So how do you keep your back healthy aboard? USE IT!


Walking is one of the best exercises to keep your back healthy. We often see written in cruising guides such silly nonsense as "Groceries are a mile. Too far to walk." Wait, what? The other day we walked 3 miles round trip to the grocery store, realized it was a great day for the beach, walked 4 miles round trip to the beach and swam for hours. Get off the boat, go for a walk, get some exercise. Inactivity is your enemy.


Often we are anchored for long periods of time in places where we can't get to shore. In those instances, we try to row at least every day. Row up a creek, check out the wildlife, take a leadline with you to verify depths so you can maybe get the mother ship further up the creek the next time you are in the area, see what's around the next bend, just enjoy the quiet. And the exercise.


When you are stuck onboard because of weather or if you are underway, you still require exercise. Many cruisers have an offshore exercise routine that they follow in order to not lose their muscle tone when on long passages. One of our favorites comes from a book by Pete Egoscue: Pain Free. We have given this book as a gift to nearly every relative who has ever complained of back pain. It has some amazing exercises that help you sit, walk, and live in a way that keeps your back healthy.


While I enjoy the Egoscue exercises when my back starts to hurt, I prefer yoga for my daily stretching. Any exercise that requires you to move and stretch in ways that you wouldn't otherwise (but may have to when you're sailing or raising anchors and dinghies) will be beneficial. The most important point to remember is that you need to exercise your back in order to keep it healthy.


When you walk two miles to the grocery store, how you bring back your supplies can either help or hurt your back. Too many times we see cruisers lumbering back to their boats carry grocery bags. This pulls unnaturally on your arms, hurts your shoulders, and prevents you from swinging your arms, which is paramount in maintaining a healthy back. Instead, put your bags in a backpack, preferably one with a waste strap to help take the load off your shoulders. And never, ever, for any reason, carry a backpack with one strap on! Put both those straps on your shoulders! Similarly, do not carry a purse on one shoulder. Either don't carry one, or put it across your body so that you are not walking crooked to hold it there. (Watch women who carry purses. Notice how crooked their shoulders and backs are.) Carrying a purse on one shoulder also prevents you from swinging both arms. (Right now, look up at someone walking by. Do they swing both arms? Are their shoulders crooked? What and how are they carrying?)


Finally, when lifting heavy items, you know the drill: lift with your legs, not your back. Better yet, use some mechanical advantage. Since I hurt my back, we have devised a way to raise the water jugs by using the main halyard and the boom vang. (Water weighs 8 pounds per gallon, so a 5-gallon jug into which you can fit nearly 6 gallons weighs 48 pounds.) Any time you can let a block lessen your load, use it.

After nearly six weeks of ever-decreasing pain, I finally had a pain-free 24 hours. I haven't raised a dinghy or anchor since then and I'll admit, I'm more than a little nervous. But I have been walking and exercising and using my back rather than sitting around. Inactivity is the enemy. Now, where's the nearest beach?

MONDAY we'll share one of our favorites from my first book.

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