top of page


Older people


"Sailing is a grand game, the best I know, and I have played it all my life. Now I am getting long in the few teeth I have left I am still playing it, and hope to do so for some time yet". Percy Woodcock in 'Looking Astern, a ditty bag of memories' Frederick Muller Ltd, 1950.


As a student, I was taught that geriatrics, or 'gerries' in the vernacular — nowadays rebadged as care of the elderly  — can be summed-up as paying attention to eyes, ears, teeth and feet. How does this work on a boat?


Older people constantly loose stuff, particularly their glasses. So carry a couple of pairs of reading spectacles from Boots, not so good for spotting buoys but OK for reading charts and chartplotters (or two older people could share reading glasses). Can’t do much about hearing aids, the older people will have to look after their own or be deaf to the skipper’s orders, or at least pretend to be deaf. Can’t do much about false teeth either, but these are not easily lost, although they can be — and have been — vomited overboard. Of course rich crew can go for implants at circa £2000 a tooth. As for chiropody, get it sorted before the cruise, and if you can’t bend down to put your shoes and boots on, then bring a long shoe-horn.


However, there are at least three other things to worry about: getting on and off the boat, the male prostate, and constipation.


Of course warn any crew about slippery pontoons in the wet, although older people don’t much like leaping down from the deck even on to dry pontoons, rather they prefer to step gingerly down backwards, so the skipper’s parking skills are important. Getting in and out of the dinghy can be a real problem because so often the older person simply cannot bend their knees and hips enough to step up on to the side deck, or even up over those scoop things on the back of more modern boats. So get a suitable boarding ladder and sort out handholds where necessary. If really stuck, cruise from pontoon to pontoon, or rig up a knotted rope to hang over the side, or even a block and pulley maybe.


As for the prostate, make sure that the worst affected males have a bunk close to the heads or with easy access to the deck at night, but don’t let them do a Robert Maxwell and fall off the back — the rule is to hold on to the boat with one hand and you know what with the other. Another tip for day-time in the cockpit and also night-time use, is a plastic milk or other plastic bottle with a suitably sized (and sanded) hole cut in the side near the top — regular, medium, large and outsize (known as the Penton pisspot). Just occasionally there may be a real medical emergency when the afflicted male goes into acute and very painful retention of urine i.e. the kidneys go on making urine, the urine flows down into the bladder, the bladder fills and fills, but urine flow out of the bladder is obstructed by the enlarged prostate. Result, exquisite pain. Get help quickly, or take a urinary catheter with you to temporarily relieve the situation. It can be incredibly painful, the retention more than the catheter.


Constipation is best dealt with by prevention — plenty of fresh fruit and veg, prunes and so on. I hesitate to suggest you carry some surgical gloves for a manual evacuation but sometimes needs must. Otherwise retire to the heads with a good book and keep trying.


Finally, everyone should wear a lifejacket, and always hold on to the boat with at least one hand whatever they are doing. Balance deteriorates with age, I know. Fortunately decent boats have loads of hand-holds, inside and out. Meanwhile, invest in an electric anchor windlass, and even electric winches when you are really old. In other words, adapt, and don't stop sailing. Like the 92-year-old I met in 2012 at the Kip Boat Show, no reason to stop he reckoned.

bottom of page