Wednesday, January 17, 2018

When It’s Time to Quit

March 3, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

when its time to quit 1

Boating may be your passion, but do you know when to call it quits?

I’m not talking about canceling an afternoon’s outing because of nasty weather — I’m referring to gradual changes in physical and mental capacity that pose challenges. If not acknowledged and addressed, these challenges may endanger the safety of the captain, the crew, the vessel, and others nearby.

when its time to quit 2The last few years have been an epiphany for me after spending most of my life on the water. I started with a borrowed catboat for the summer when I was a teenager; 20 years ago, I built an 18-foot catboat and boldly challenged the waters of Long Island, even sailing solo to Block Island. Now age 80, I am still evolving, but have concluded that sailing, if not motor boating, is a younger person’s sport.

You have to be physically fit to sail a catboat with its heavy gaff rig as it does not sail well upwind. Its big barn door rudder is notorious for creating a weather helm and the huge single sail is tough to control when the wind pipes up. After a 10-hour cruise six years ago, I suddenly realized how bone weary I was, so I sold the cat and bought a Cornish Crabber, a 28-foot English boat. Its full keel and two roller-reefed headsails made sailing a little easier.

Time kept marching on, and after another 10-hour close-haul slog in choppy seas, I was totally wiped out. My knees ached from long hours on a single tack and the pressure of the tiller, and I thought, hey, do I need this at 80-years old? I answered my own question in the negative and bought a trawler — that’s what sailors do when they are not quite ready to surrender to the rocking chair!

The signs that lead you to reconsider your boating experience crop up in two broad areas; you should be aware of both physical and psychological/mental changes and decline. Operating a vessel is physically demanding; the yardstick by which to measure strength and fitness is easy.

Is getting on and off the boat difficult?

Do you feel exhausted pulling up the anchor?

Are your legs unable to brace on a pitching deck?

Do you find it a challenge to dock nimbly?

Are you capable of reacting quickly should something break?

A physical slowdown, even if it happens gradually over a number of years, is relatively easy to acknowledge. When you can no longer get into and out of your boat gracefully and skillfully, there should be no shame in conceding your body just can’t reliably handle boating anymore.

William Winslow and Nelson on boatA change in one’s mental state and competency is much trickier to plot and worse to admit. There are checklists and questions to ask, but it goes beyond knowing who the president is and what year it is. Instead, I’ll share an example. Years ago, I thought it a hoot to surf down big waves in the catboat. For me, part of the thrill of sailing was the risk factor! But I gradually grew more conservative as I aged. I annually sail on a 34-footer with a friend. Though 87, and with a first heart attack behind him, Nelson is still at the top of his form. Last summer, we were beating into Kingston, Ontario with just a single jib up. The winds were gusting to 35 knots when suddenly the drum that winds up the sail on the roller reefing jammed. I was on the helm and Nelson clawed his way up to the bow, clipped to his safety belt and wearing a life jacket. He manhandled the sail down on a wildly gyrating foredeck while I just lost it, paralyzed with fear about what would happen if Nelson couldn’t subdue that flapping canvas. Worse, I had no confidence that I could save him if he went overboard.

Thanks to my friend’s superior seamanship and long years of experience, we made it to port safely. However, it was quite an anxious day for me, especially as it came on top of an unsettling “senior moment.” Out of sight of helpful flagpoles on shore, I couldn’t remember how to figure out which direction the wind was blowing. “Look at the direction of the waves!” Nelson screamed, peeved at my momentary lapse of seamanship.

Frankly, I couldn’t wait to get home after that trip, as all sorts of alarms were going off in my brain. Everyone is different, and if we’re lucky enough to grow older, we’ll all reach our boating finish line at a different time. If and when your mental demons appear, it’s time to take a reality check for your safety as well as that of others. Would you really be happier and feel safer on terra firma or on someone else’s boat? If so, adjust your sails accordingly.

The author is the Division 5 – Staff Officer Public Affairs, First District Southern Region, for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the all-volunteer, non-military arm of the Coast Guard, teaching boating safety education and conducting search and rescue operations. Visit to join the Auxiliary or for class information.

By William C. Winslow


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