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Sailing, as with most sports, can pose an inherent risk of injury, particularly in professional competitors who push their bodies to a physical extreme, often sailing in high winds and difficult conditions. Studies have shown that the risk of injury is around 2.2 for every 1000 hours spent sailing, and the risk increases to around 8.6 when training.(1)

The most common sites of injury are the lower back, mid back and knee, although this does vary depending on the sailor’s role. Grinders and bowmen are at the greatest risk of injury from repetitive strains, helmsmen most frequently injure their upper-limbs through steering, and mastmen are at greatest risk of acute injuries.  It’s not just sailing that can cause problems either- windsurfers are frequently admitted to hospital suffering from lower back pain from “pumping” the sail.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

High repetition activities, such as hiking, pumping, grinding and steering, are major causes of overuse injury even in experienced sailors.  If ignored, it is easy for these issues to progress into a chronic problem, the possible severity of which could impact on your participation and enjoyment in the sport.

How do these injuries arise?

  • Injuries may result from a lack of general fitness, overuse, overtraining, or macrotraumatic accidents.

  • Muscles are placed at high risk when performing explosive, powerful moves, such as those frequently required when sailing.  If they are not warmed up correctly, structures are at increased risk of injury.

  • Shoulder and arm injuries are common through constant handling of the mainsheet, and the sudden, strong movements in hiking may lead to back and knee problems.

  • Boats can be difficult to navigate around and result in crew members having to adopt awkward positions, often resulting in rotating, hyperextending, locking, or twisting of joints.

  • It is difficult to remember to lift properly even when on terra firma; a moving vessel makes it even more challenging to lift using the correct technique.

  • Postural problems are common in the majority of the population, and these inherent issues can lend themselves to musculoskeletal problems.

  • Poor fitness training may exacerbate common muscular imbalances associated with changing forces on opposing muscle groups while sailing.

  • Lack of warming up, stretching, and cooling down surrounding a race may also increase the risk of injury.

So what can be done about it?
– Specific strengthening of high-risk muscle groups is important to ensure they are able to cope with the repetitive demand placed on them by the sport.

– A robust exercise regime which focusses on all aspects of physical fitness, including cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility training will ensure that crew members are able to cope with the demands placed on their bodies when sailing.

– Regular checkups to ensure joint movement and function is maintained will help reduce the risk of developing injuries and speed up recovery should you become injured.

– How’s your technique? Could it be improved? Progression of physical training as well as technical skill and expertise is important to ensure you are not making yourself susceptible to injury through poor technique.

– Working on your core stability will help your body to absorb the strain of pulling ropes and wrestling with the rudder. Regular stretches to alleviate postural strain, coupled with a good overall stretching routine focussing on the lower back and shoulders will help to reduce the likelihood of an injury developing.

Photo credit: Nick Vine at

Photo credit: Nick Vine at

1. Neville, V., Folland, J.P. (2009) The epidemiology and aetiology of injuries in sailing.  Sports Medicine. 39(2) 129-145.
2. Allen, J.B., De Jong, M.R. (2006) Sailing and sports medicine: A literature review. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 40(7) 587-593.
P McKernan 2014