Healthy Sailing and Boating
by Michael Martin Cohen, M.D.

Consider this: If you are a serious sailor, then you wear two caps.

One cap is obvious and consists of all of the general sailing knowledge you have accumulated over the years; but the second cap is less apparent – that of sailing 'systems engineer'. Why systems engineer?

According to Wikipedia, an engineered system can be defined as a combination of components that work in synergy to collectively perform a useful function.

Dr Michael Cohen

Dr Martin Cohen, author of 'Healthy Boating & Sailing'

A keen sailor for the past 45 years, Dr Michael Cohen is a practicing neurologist.

He is the author of 'Healthy Boating & Sailing' and his sailing-related articles include:

Every time you are ready to embark and proceed through your checklist, you are checking each system component to assure that it is functioning properly.

These systems would include the structural system (hull integrity, through hull fittings), the electrical system, the navigational system, the power system (sails and /or engine), the HVAC, etc.

But it goes beyond a checklist – you understand the'complexities' of these systems. How they work and most importantly how they may fail. 

Unfortunately, we tend to ignore even the most basic information about our human body which is comprised of a number of different systems – many of which are analogous to those of a sail or power boat.

The human body on the water has to deal with heat and cold, structural (musculoskeletal) integrity, an electrical system (brain and heart), a built-in navigational system, a sensitive and vulnerable visual system, etc. 

I believe it is past time for us to understand these systems.

For example, seasickness – undoubtedly the most common systems failure we face on the water – can only be understood by appreciating that it is a systems failure due to information incompatibility from three interconnected information systems in the brain (the visual system, the body position – proprioception – system, and the vestibular balance system). Seasickness is pure and simple a systems failure! 

Another systems-problem is navigation.

Sure, we have GPS (and other high-tech navigational systems)  but anyone who has relied on these programs knows that there are times when we have to override them and navigate using our intrinsic brain navigation system.

Didn't know we had one? Well we do, and while it's not as good in certain respects as some other animal species (think birds and bees) it is an important system to understand. 

What about our HVAC system? If you or a crew member has hypertension you better understand this system. Most of us are aware that we need to replace salt as well as water or we will become dehydrated and risk heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

But what about your crew member (or yourself) with hypertension? Hypertensives are generally taught to avoid salt for fear of worsening their hypertension. What’s a sailor to do? 

We are all cognizant of the regulations concerning evacuation of waste from our vessel in protected waters. But very few of us think about how we can avoid constipation at sea, a common problem due to the ever-present mild dehydration as we move through the air and water at sea and the sometimes-prolonged sitting. 

And what about sleep? We rest our vessels periodically and at least once a year may take them out of the water, if possible, to clean them. We sailors have the same problem, except that our brain needs a rest and cleaning every single day.


'Healthy Boating and Sailing' addresses these issues so that you can keep your human systems in tip top shape. It’s not a first aid text – there are plenty of excellent books on that topic available.

Think of it this way: You probably would not attempt to repair your diesel engine – you would employ a mechanic to do that. But you should understand how it works and how it fails.

Think of this human systems knowledge as 'preventive maintenance' for your brain and body.

And in my personal opinion, that maintenance is long overdue!

Dr Michael Martin Cohen, M.D.


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