You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid: Health & Sailing in the Time of Covid.
If you have even casually encountered any of the myriad YouTube channels chronicling the lives of live-aboard sailors, you have probably seen a segment devoted to some aspect of health and first aid for cruisers. And before we embarked on our sailing, health care while sailing was an item we made a priority. So what does staying healthy while sailing look like?
Prevention is as important at sea as on land—more so, given the added distance from medical attention. While studying the ASA sailing manual, one aspect of this was succinctly expressed: “One hand for the ship and one hand for yourself.” That means keeping a steady stance and a hold on something, which is why many boats have plenty of grabbing spots. The idea of “steady as she goes” is applicable to the entire lifestyle, and much of that comes down to diet and exercise.
One thing we learned quickly was that it is important to get off the boat and get moving. Trying to exercise on a 38-foot piece of fiberglass that is bobbing and weaving at anchor is challenging—though it does wonders for your core strength. Getting off the boat may sound counterintuitive to some, but much of a cruiser’s life is spent on a mooring or at anchor. Much of the sailing in the Caribbean islands involves sailing for a day or two to a destination that you stay at and explore.
A lot of the salty old cruisers we first met liked to proclaim that they didn’t need health care because the sea kept them pure, or that “there’s a moat around my boat.” And while sailing is generally healthy activity that promotes good mental and physical results, it is difficult to say if sailing attracts fit people or creates them. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of discarded crutches piled up at the dinghy docks. And many of the crusty old salts we first met bragged about their health while chain-smoking and drinking beer at 9 a.m.
That means that some kind of health insurance is a good idea. But what kind? There are many different options for ex-pat health insurance, and each cruiser needs to decide what level of coverage they can afford. Since Chantal is a French citizen, we were able to purchase ex-pat insurance through France for a reasonable cost.
While we have not had to use the insurance directly, we have had our share of health issues since we began sailing. I smashed my chin into a companionway rail when I forgot the ASA dictum mentioned above. I also dropped a dinghy anchor on my toe, and while I don’t think it broke, it has taken a long time to heal. While on the subject of toes, stubbing toes is real hazard on board, and try as we might we still ding our feet frequently. When we are sailing, the rule is that you need to have proper footwear on.
There is also the issue of skin and sun. People who know me know that my lily white translucent skin—a gift from my Irish forebears—does not like the sun. And I have already had skin cancer. This just makes me more diligent and less frivolous when it comes to skin protection: UV clothing, hats, and robust sun block all go into my skin safety tool kit.
Recently, while in Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Chantal developed a case of shingles. This was not pleasant for her, but she was able to get treatment on shore at the local clinic. A nearby pharmacy was stocked with the medications she needed, and she was able to mitigate it. While we are in Martinique we plan to have a few things addressed, like a skin check for me, and a dentist visit for Chantal.
No discussion about health would be complete in 2022 without talking about Covid. Living out in the open with lots of space between you and your neighbor is certainly a good plan for mitigating the spread of ant virus. But it is not foolproof, and cruisers love nothing more than sharing sundowners with other sailors, either on board and elbowed up to a local bar. Almost all the cruisers we have met understand this and practice the things that help mitigate viral transmission.
In pre-Covid times it was always necessary to suffer the indignities of clearing in and out of countries—indignities that mostly cut into happy hour. But now there are PCR tests that are required for many places, and this gets expensive. We estimate that we have spent thousands of dollars going in and out of Grenada, SVG, and Martinique (though Martinique was the easiest so far). Sometimes I think I’ve got a swab permanently sticking out of my nose.
Minor indignities aside, the sailing experience is a robust, vigorous, and engaging, resulting in the kind of physical and mental stimulation that promotes good general health. And while there is always the chance that you’ll shoot your eye out, doing the things that we should be doing to promote good health in any lifestyle gives us all a better chance and enjoying the things we love.