Boating Safely Into The Sunset Years

By Tux Turkel

Why creaky backs, gammy knees, or ticking off years on the calendar don't have to put an end to your enjoyment on the water.

Photo of older gentleman at the helmPhoto: Thinkstock

Shifting shoals on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) near Fernandina Beach, Florida, are a known hazard, so it wasn't a complete surprise to Dick and Barbara Brilhart when their 42-foot Grand Banks trawler yacht ran aground. The Brilharts were cruising on Terrapin, making the annual spring trip north to their homeport on Maryland's Eastern Shore when the mishap took place. Dick Brilhart knew that the bottom was sandy and the tide was coming to dead low, so he waited patiently and, as the water returned, eased Terrapin's throttle into reverse. "If you're going slow to begin with, in most cases, you can back off," he says. "If you haven't run aground on the ICW at low tide, you haven't done much boating."

Brilhart has done a lot of boating. He's 82 years old and he had just left a marina where the experience of older boaters is celebrated and accommodations are made to keep them on the water as long as possible. Fishermen's Village Marina, on Charlotte Harbor in historic Punta Gorda, draws cruisers and liveaboards with its robust shore facilities and broad, well-kept concrete docks. But the 111-slip marina has other amenities that aren't as widely touted.

Photo of an ADA-compliant dockMaking sure your boat has wide side decks and strong side rails makes boating more carefree and safer as we age. So does using a marina with ADA-compliant docks, such as the one above, at Fishermen's Village Marina in Punta Gorda, Florida, with its rugged rails for more stable footing. (Photo: Fishermen's Village Marina)

Although the tidal range is just over a foot, two of the fixed concrete piers feature floating docks connected by ramps. These are a blessing for boaters with bad hips, or for someone who has had knee surgery or is using a cane. The marina allows boat owners to install grab rails on pilings, or set ladders on finger piers, to make access even easier. That's appreciated in a marina where the typical boat is a 40-foot cabin cruiser. Dockhands meet and assist every vessel that enters the yacht basin, and their presence can make all the difference. Eighty-five percent of the marina's seasonal guests are older than 60.

Photo of the dinghy dock at Fishermen's Village Marina, Punta Gorda, FloridaThe dinghy dock at Fishermen's Village Marina, Punta Gorda, Florida. (Photo: Fishermen's Village Marina)

"The issue of getting on and off the boat is a challenge for some people," says Jim Branch, harbormaster at Fishermen's Village. "It's pretty much the determining factor for how long people stay on the boat. If they have difficulty, they may move out of boating."

Photo of Barbara and Dick Brilhart aboard their boatAt 82, Dick Brillhart, pictured with his wife Barbara, is not letting age get in the way of having fun onboard. But he's looking at the bigger picture, too, and to compensate he's giving himself more time to get places.

Sunshine State Leads The Way

This isn't a surprise in Charlotte County, where Fishermen's Village is located. More than one-third of the population is over 65, giving the area one of the highest median ages in the country. It's also generally true of Florida, a mecca for both seniors and boaters. What may be surprising, though, is how this scene foreshadows the future of recreational boating in America, and how it meets the challenge to keep boaters such as Dick and Barbara Brilhart at the helm.

By 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates one in five Americans will be 65 or older. The baby boomers driving this trend are well-known for their determination to sail off into the setting sun, figuratively, and in this case, literally, but there are some hurdles — physical and mental — to be overcome. People 60 or older typically need more than twice as much light to see under dim conditions as a 20-year-old. Past age 50, high-frequency sounds can drop, and more time is needed to react to stimuli.

These shortcomings are widely recognized behind the wheel of a car; and on a boat, we can toss balance into the mix, such as when stepping forward on a pitching deck. Add the need for body strength when tugging a line with a snagged anchor, and it's clear that the effects of aging at the helm of a boat are not without challenge. But thankfully there are solutions, such as those offered by Banana River Sail and Power Squadron in Satellite Beach, Florida.

"I have a firm belief," says Earl Gillespie, the squadron's commander, "that we have a lot of boaters leaving boating because they may have tripped or had a near-accident. They don't need to quit. They need to compensate and do things a little differently."

Last winter, the Banana River squadron hosted what it believes to be Florida's first safe-boating class for seniors. Expectations were modest. A small article in a local newspaper and online promotion attracted 15 people. Some participants had owned larger vessels in their younger years, and all but one couple came from powerboating rather than sailing. Their reasons for attending varied, but no one said they had come specifically because of a mishap.

Photo of couple enjoying life aboard their boatPhoto: Vanquish

"My suspicion is that people don't often think that way," says Bill Veit, the squadron's education officer. "We think we're fine, but maybe I can learn something. It's more generic, not personal."

Never Too Old For Education

Veit taught the class "Senior Boaters of America" and developed a detailed PowerPoint presentation that used a problem/solution format covering everything from lack of hearing, loss of dim-light vision, general organization and memory loss, and how the loss of body strength and balance are due mostly to inactivity, not aging. Veit said the group had a low level of awareness around these issues, which he chalked up to human denial.

"Your lifestyle slows down but it's such a slow progression, you don't notice it," he said. "And I think that's a shock to most people."

Gillespie and Veit found inspiration and distilled information for the class from a recent publication, The Book for Senior Boaters, by James Thomas Eastman, a former Coast Guardsman who grew up boating on the Great Lakes and now spends his winters in Florida. He uses his extensive experience and interviews with senior boaters to identify the issues of aging and boating, and presents recommendations for staying safe on the water.

Veit lays out two choices for those entering their golden age of boating. They can ignore the conditions of aging and hope for the best, or they can be proactive. "We can adjust our boating habits, implement common-sense changes, and look at the way we boat through a wake-up call mentality, which will reduce the high-risk safety issues for you, those aboard your boat, and the boating public." 

Tux Turkel has been exploring the Maine coast in small boats for 20 years, from his home base in Casco Bay.

— Published: February/March 2015

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