Don’t let dehydration be the cause of poor sailing performance

Just as a car needs fuel and oil to run smoothly the body needs water and electrolytes to perform all the cellular processes necessary to function and communicate. If their level is too low, the body will not function properly, either physically or mentally. If you are sailing you may find the physical effort of boat handling suffers and you may not be able to make clear, considered decisions. The human body is 60% water. Dehydration occurs when an increase in water loss – urine, sweating, etc. – is no longer offset by a sufficient intake of water. Every day, our body eliminates 2 to 3 litres of water, which is naturally offset by our diet and drinking water. During physical exertion sweating is accentuated, causing us to lose up to several litres of water per hour. Hydrating yourself regularly becomes vital!       

Why do the sailors become dehydrated?     

Dehydration and exhaustion from the heat are sailors’ biggest fear. At sea, physical effort, along with the sun’s exposure accentuated by the effect of its reflection off the boat and sails, as well as the wind accelerating the loss of water, all lead to the phenomenon of dehydration. A typical boating day in the summer causes your body to generate a large amount of heat. Sitting exposed in the sun increases your body heat. As you ride in a boat, your body automatically adjusts to the changing position of the boat. The exertion of this constant adjustment increases body heat. The way the body rids itself of increased heat is by sweating. Increased sweating will cause dehydration if fluids are not replaced. Dehydration will make you more fatigued and more at risk for a boating accident. The best way to minimize the risk of dehydration is to drink plenty of water – before, during, and after any water activities. A good rule of thumb, while you are boating in warm weather, is to drink some water every 15–20 minutes.

You don’t have to drink water per se to get water, you can eat watery foods and that will count. Soup counts, yogurt and watermelon count. An orange is 90% water, salads are a lot of water; so all in all, people get plenty of water through foods and beverages other than water. You should be drinking enough so that you urinate every two to four hours, and that the urine is a light color,” says Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “If you go from 8 a.m. till 3 p.m., and your urine is very dark, that’s a sign that you haven’t had enough to drink.”

What to drink and what not to?

There’s no right or wrong product to drink while sailing, but the best choice will depend on your personal taste and needs, as well as what type of sailing you’re doing and where you’re doing it. Look for the drink that strikes the right balance of sugars, carbohydrates, and sodium and other electrolytes to meet your needs and of course, choose one that makes your tastebuds happy. It is all too easy to become dehydrated on a boat. The reasons for that are numerous, and here are some:

  • If you are busy sailing, racing or short-handed you may not feel that you have the time to go below and get a drink.
  • You may find that drinking water from your tanks doesn’t taste particularly palatable, so you put off topping up.
  • If you are feeling a little queasy you may not want to risk drinking too much and then having to go below to the heads. Similarly, if you are wearing full foulies in bad weather, it is a real pain to have to go below and strip off, especially for females and the “bucket and chuck-it” regime can be rather embarrassing.
  • You may be drinking what you think is an adequate amount, but is it the right stuff? Fizzy drinks and alcohol will not help you stay hydrated.

The most important thing to do is to remind the children and elderly, if there are any on the boat, to stay hydrated, they often forget to drink and in the hot, summer days they can dehydrate fairly quickly, when they say they are thirsty they are already dehydrated.                                                

Treat the dehydration

There’s really only one way to treat dehydration – replace the fluids and electrolytes your body has lost. For a mild case, it should be enough just to drink plenty of fluids. Water is your first choice, but there are lots of special drinks on the market that will help you replace your body’s lost water and electrolytes. If you can’t get a pre-mixed rehydration solution, don’t try to make one yourself. Instead, replace lost fluids naturally with sips of water, fruit juice, crushed fruit mixed with water, or salty soups or broths. If your dehydration is serious, you may need to see a doctor to get treated with intravenous (IV) fluids.

Severe dehydration may require you to go to the hospital. You should get medical attention immediately if you:

  • Haven’t peed in 8 hours
  • Have had a seizure
  • Are disoriented or confused
  • Have a weak or rapid pulse
  • Feel very tired
  • Feel dizzy when you stand
  • Are too sick (nauseated or vomiting) to take in fluids

Surviving in open seas

One can live for weeks even without food, but it takes only three days to die without water or fresh drinking water, to be specific. Surviving in open seas is demanding and depends on the survivors’ ability to apply the required skills and be able to use whatever is available and meant for survival. When at sea and with no help at sight, one can still survive the life-threatening conditions with a little improvisation and a lot of patience.

  1. Our bodies require a minimum of a litre of water every day to stay alive and balanced. Drinking small amounts of freshwater when in a crunch situation can help us to be focussed on our survival, although over-time ingesting less water will weaken the muscles and tissues of our system
  2. Never drink sea in its natural form – Unless there is sufficient fresh water available, one should completely avoid taking in saltwater. Experts say and we agree that drinking seawater will make us all the more thirsty.
  3. Don’t eat any food unless you are sure of the availability of potable water – digesting food requires lots of water and if one is rationing it, eating a minimum quantity of food is the only solution.  Besides, we can survive longer without food than water, so act wisely.
  4. In hot conditions, loss of water from the body which can be in the form of sweat should be avoided as much as possible. Keeping the body temperature cool by being in shade and using seawater to cool-off is advised.
  5. Collecting dew in misty conditions, rainwater in the tropical regions and ice in polar conditions are a few suggested methods to contain potable water for survival.  One can use a sponge or a piece of cloth to collect dew from the crafts hull and this can be done at night in foggy conditions. Plastic bags or other makeshift containers may be used during rainfall for a reserve that will be required later. One thing to remember here is that it is advisable to drink as much rainwater as possible, as it is very much safe. If stuck in the Polar Regions, one can melt the bluish-greyed ice and consume it as potable water. Such ice is normally devoid of salt and is ok to ingest.
  6. Should you feel the need to eat, avoid taking in proteins or for that matter even dried eatables like biscuits as they require lots of water for digesting. Drinking urine should be avoided too at any cost. It is suggested to have fish for its aqueous content also. Bones and eyes of fish are a good source of salt-free water, which can be easily suckled upon.

Improvising on the available survival equipment can save many lives at sea. Moreover, with good knowledge, we can save many lives by finding and conserving water.

For big air sailing or long stretches on the water, a hydrating drink with glucose for sustained endurance is a great addition to your regatta toolbox. In the right formula, glucose is absorbed quickly into your bloodstream without waking up your digestive system. Waking up your digestive system takes blood away from your muscles and brain, robbing you of energy where you need it. The wrong formula will be energy draining. Olympic class sailing poses physiological challenges similar to other endurance sports such as cycling or running, with sport-specific challenges of limited access to nutrition and hydration during competition. As changes in hydration status can impair sports performance, examining fluid consumption patterns and fluid/electrolyte requirements of Olympic class sailors is necessary to develop specific recommendations for these elite athletes.

The continued intake of fluids fortified with carbohydrates and electrolytes during activities lasting longer than one hour has been found to prevent deteriorations in endurance, strength, blood volume and cognitive function. During the competition, sailors can spend anywhere from two hours to six hours on-water, with time divided between warm-up, racing and waiting for changes in wind and weather and cool-down. Participants in the ad libitum design cold weather study were unable to maintain hydration status in any condition due to inadequate fluid consumption. This may have resulted from a reduced desire to drink and/or poor estimation of individual hydration requirements in cold temperatures. In the warm condition study, all conditions improved, urinary markers of hydration and body mass loss. 


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