I joined this world renowned Fireball fleet at the Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club (TS&CC) three years ago. It has been a wild experience! The members of the fleet are an incredible group sail makers, regatta organizers, sailing coaches, boat makers, boat sales people, boat rescuers, boat painters, and some of them are even skilled sailors.

I learned quickly that in order to excel in the sport you had to know how to fix anything associated with the boat in order to even throw the boat in the water and expect it to float. Then you enter the next phase of training balance and boat handling. Somewhere in the middle of this intense Fireball training is where my contribution to the Fireball fleet began. No I am not an experienced boat builder, or skilled sailor, however I do take pride in fixing the skilled sailing bods!!

Who And Why?

There are a known seven out of 25 boats at TS&CC who have at least one crew or helm who has had a nasty bout of low back pain. The onset of pain in typically in the boat building phase where you are doubled over the boat, assuming unnatural, almost contortionist positions to fit for example the nut on a mast step. Fireballers do this for hours on end, for months at a time in the fury of prepping for the sailing season.

It is no wonder that you find yourself with a nagging low back pain. The pain typically comes on while you are in the bent over position and intensifies as you straighten up to stretch. If you stay in the upright standing position the pain will eventually go away. Over a period of time: weeks to years, this back pain will continue intermittently, usually associated with being double over a boat or sitting for long periods of time. The back pain can eventually spread in to the buttock and even down the entire leg to the toes. Of course at this point the pain and potential injury has worsened.

Disc Pain

The scenario just described above represents one kind of back pain usually referred to as "Disc Pain". Disc pain is the type of low back pain which typically occurs in approximately 80% of cases. If you were going to take a wild guess as to the type of back pain you have, a safe guess would be disc pain. There are several discs which are located between the vertebrae or bones of your spine.They are often referred to "shock absorbers" and allow flexibility of movement in your spine. The discs are composed of a gel like material with external fibers to hold the gel in place. A simple analogy is the jelly donut. The movement of the gel in the disc is the same as the jelly in a jelly donut.

If you bend forward the bones put pressure on the gel in the disc causing the gel to migrate backwards and bulge. This is the same as when you put pressure or squish the front of a jelly donut; the jelly moves to the back of the donut causing the donut to bulge. When the disc bulges backwards it will irritate the pain sensory nerves causing low back pain. With frequent bending over a period of time the bulge can become larger, causing the pain to peripheralize or move into the buttock and spreading down the leg.

The Simple Solution

This would lead you to believe that if you have low back pain you should not bend forward. This isn't true. You must simply straighten up to a standing position or arch your back to bring the gel back to a neutral position in the disc, thus removing the pain. The pain does not go away permanently. It will recur again with frequent or extended bending. You must balance the position of your back by arching backwards several times before and after bending to prevent or eliminate low back pain. You must also stop bending when the low back pain comes on and arch backwards keeping the pain under control (ie : keep it from spreading into the buttock or leg). If the pain does extend into the buttock or leg the solution is the same. You will experience a "centralization" of your pain, meaning the pain will travel upwards out of your leg or centrally out of your buttock to the center of your back. In effect the pain has been centralized and is located in a smaller overall area. The pain may feel more intense as it is located in a smaller more concentrated area. Continue doing the back arches until the pain is under control or completely abolished.

What Do You Do When You Are On The Water


The helm tends to have more frequent and intense low back pain on the water as naturally you are sitting or in a crouched position which sailing. Even when you are hiking you are still bent forward. Being bent forward is anything forward of a neutral standing position. It is almost impossible to arch your back while you are racing. There are only two opportunities to arch your back. While sailing in a close hauled position in light air, get your crew out on the wire, sit with an arched back stick your bum out and push your shoulders back, looking forward or up at your main. You will get some temporary relief this way. The second opportunity is between races stand up and arch your back. Continue to stand during the entire time between races. Of course if you are the last boat this is very brief but better than nothing. Trust me I know!!


This is the one situation where the crew has a very definite advantage over the helm in terms of comfort. If you have this disc pain and you get out on the wire (assuming you are using good form), you are in effect arching your back in a neutral "non-bending" position. This is the real reason why Mona is always out there before anyone else with excellent form to boot!!

Facet Pain And What To Do

There is in fact a second type of low back pain which represents approximately 20% of the general population, which currently represents 0% of the TS&CC fleet members. It is probably worth mentioning in the rare case that it does occur. This pain is typically referred to as "Facet Pain". The facet pain is the complete opposite of the disc pain. This one comes on with frequent or extended periods of arching your back or standing. The typical occupation that experiences this is that of painters, particularly those who paint ceilings or the bottoms of large cruising boats! The pain is relieved and abolished by bending over, touching your toes or simply sitting in a slouched position. This is to suggest that those "cruising sailors" who spend their winters painting the bottom of their boats should really be sailing Fireballs!!

Cindy Welsh
CAN 14462