Swimming Under Sail

by Adele Woodyard

Boat under sail, in a bosun’s chair off the boom, the author plows across the Florida Gulf waves.

You swing above a caldron of boiling green water, clutching ropes that support a slippery seat until your arms ache. A winch creaks as you are slowly lowered to a churning, foam flecked sea. Then a wave slaps you on the back, runs over your body and tugs at the seat, threatening to dislodge you. You hang on, lean back into it, tasting salt. The boat heels and you plow through the waves, sailing with the boat on an exhilarating, skin soaking ride.

Skipper Charles Marshall steers his 41-foot Cheoy Lee Rhodes Feliant for a good ride.

I sailed with Charles Marshall aboard the Owl, his 41-foot Cheoy Lee Rhodes Reliant, off central Florida’s Gulf Coast. On a day made for rail-down sailing, a ride in a bosun’s chair is somewhat akin to being astride a bucking bronco in a downpour. In a quiet sea, however, this sport is not only relaxing but can be a good way to take a bath when fresh water is in short supply.

“About 30 years ago,” Marshall said, “we were cruising Lake Michigan in a 35-foot sloop. It was one of those hot, quiet days and we wanted to go swimming but didn’t want to stop sailing to do it. So I thought of using the bosun’s chair.”

He pulled a swing-like contraption from the Lazarette. As he set it up, he explained, “I hang a block on the end of the boom, run a line through the block to the chair, then lead the line to another block on the rail. From there I wrap it around the winch to handle the weight.”

If there are just two of you aboard and one is short on muscle, a boom vang can take the place of the single line. This makes for faster ascent and descent of the chair and it better handles the heavyweights. For those who shun all unnecessary labor, and have the equipment, the principle can be readily adapted to an electric anchor winch. The operation then proceeds with no greater exertion than pushing a button. “No matter how much you love sailing,” Marshall said, “cruises do tend to get boring. This is one way to do something different and it’s an enjoyable way to relieve the monotony.”

Athletic souls who like to fly a bosun’s chair from a spinnaker may want to try hanging it off the boom. If swimming seems too tame, you can always stand on the seat and, raised to the proper height, “ski” over the waves.

Adele swimming on a bosun’s chair.

As with any sport, there can be some risk so utmost precaution must be taken and wearing a life vest is recommended. It is best to use a bosun’s chair that has a front and back strap to hold you in place. Perhaps the most important attribute with any chair style is the rider’s common sense. When there’s a steady breeze and a gentle sea, it is truly a safe and pleasant way to swim under sail.

Skipper Charles Marshall developed the method of using a bosun chair to swim while under way while cruising Lake Michigan in the 50’s.