A kind reader of this blog wrote us an email asking an interesting question. How big is Dani? Maybe you’ve wondered yourself? The reason for the inquiry is that his wife is five feet tall and might be wondering exactly how big and strong one has to be to operate a sailboat.

Burning man 2009

I thought I would share our answers here, since it was an interesting question and I’m sure there are other readers and dreamers and bloggers out there wondering about the physical strength and skills required to go sailing.

Dani is what I would consider a small person, though she thinks she is 8 or 9 feet tall at least.

Dani painting bilgekote

In reality, she is 5’5″ and well… (I’ll just say she isn’t fat! can’t risk revealing the weight). I am 6’2″ tall and about 230lbs. When we started sailing Dani was having a lot of trouble hauling in some of the sheets and hoisting the sails. That was when we started. Now she does it all herself. I think in the beginning we hadn’t really “gotten it” yet.

There were some very real other factors due to neglect. The main sail was almost impossible for me to hoist at first. I attribute this to its lack of use. Lots of junk in the track, old sticky winches, no lubrication, neglected mast sheaves, etc. It goes up and down a lot more easily now. To help Dani on the sheets, I installed much bigger jib winches and they provide a lot of power for her to haul in the sheets. We may not have needed bigger winches, but the old ones were so worn that there was no knurling at all left on the barrels, which would make the sheets slip when we tried to pull in. So all in all, I would say most of the physical problems were related to having an old and neglected boat.

That addresses the lines aboard. Another part of the question was about the tiller. This too involved learning. The W32 has a nasty habit of heading to weather (weather helm) when it has too much sail area aft. In a big blow you have to put a lot of pressure to hold her true. Over a long period of time this can be exhausting. Of course the correction for this is reef the main and to tighten the forward shroud. In short, you have to balance the boat, which is something that just must be learned. It took us a lot of practice to get it and we’re not perfect at it yet, but as time has progressed, we’ve made life on ourselves a lot easier.

how big and strong one has to be to operate a sailboat

The third part about sailing is handling the boat itself. I’m just big enough that if I put all my weight up against a piling and push I can deflect Sundowner off. But Dani (and anyone much smaller than me) simply cannot. We’ve had to learn the rules, no body part should EVER go between the boat and anything else. That is what fenders are for, etc. But this isn’t really a problem for anyone of any size since no one should do it anyway. She isn’t like the smaller sail boats we play on, the little 20 something footers that you can manhandle around in a slip. Its more like trying to move a bus.

These days things run much more smoothly. The boat is in a lot better shape and we know a lot more about what we’re doing. Its been a combination of practice, learning, and fixing.

Dani flying the Spinnaker

Something that might encourage anyone, is that the couple that owned Sundowner before us circumnavigated 3 times! The woman who was aboard was named Molly Firey and she is only 5′ tall and weighed very little. Roger (the man) said that men’s jaws would drop when they’d see his little wife sail up someplace handling the sails and the ship. They set out cruising in their 50s and continued sailing for the next 27 years. I believe they were both around 75-80 when they swallowed the anchor. So if 5′ tall Molly Firey could do it well into her 70s I imagine anyone could do it too if they have no infirmities. You can read some more about Roger and Molly’s extraordinary journey’s here: Previous Owners

We aren’t quite sure how the anchoring will work out quite yet. We have an older manual windlass and I know that I can operate it pretty easily. I suppose if it is too hard on Dani we’ll figure something else out, but knowing her, a veritable giant crammed in small frame, she’ll get it.

In the end, man’s greatest power comes from his mind and not his muscles. Fulcrums and levers and leverage are where you get your power from. I recall Bernard Moitessier figuring this out while in the southern ocean. He had bent his long metal pipe bowsprit and it clawed at his soul to see it sticking off to one side like a broken finger. After all his frustration, he realized that using a block and tackle he could bend it straight. Imagine that, a man bending a huge piece of pipe with just some ropes and his brain. I don’t think sailing will be easy, but I think Dani’s got a big ole brain in a little bitty body, and that makes her plenty strong enough.