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Sailing and Skin Cancer

Posted by Tom Benedict on 11/04/2012

Someone recently started following my blog who wrote a post back in 2011 about Skin Cancer Month – May. May is coming up fast, so this seemed like a good time to write a post about sailing that doesn’t directly involve our boat, Smilodon.

Back when my wife and I were sailing Schrödinger’s Cat, our Prindle 16, around the inland lakes of Texas, we were pretty careful to wear sunscreen. That was back when we were young and immortal, so thoughts of skin cancer weren’t necessarily at the forefront of my thinking. But it hurt like @$%! to hike out on a wire with a sunburn! Wearing a shirt, using sunscreen, wearing a hat and sun glasses, and wearing sailing gloves meant I got to sail longer, harder, and more often. So that’s how we dressed.

Another one of the cat sailors we knew at that time took this a step further: She either wore a dry suit, or she wore full-length supplex nylon shirts and pants. The sleeves went all the way down to her gloves, and her hat covered the back of her neck all the way down to her collar. She wore neoprene boots, zinc oxide, sun glasses, and everything else necessary to cover every square inch of her body with something. She could’ve been a vampire for all we knew. (Pretty sure she wasn’t. But she was a good sailor!)

At the time we thought that was pretty extreme. But now? These days I’m not so sure…

Some months ago a spot on my son’s back started to change shape, size, color, and texture. Those are the four classic signs of “you must pay attention to me!” when it comes to skin spots. We made an appointment with his doctor, who referred us to a dermatologist. The dermatologist was pretty sure the spot was two overlapping moles, and was nothing to worry about. He gave us two options: watch and wait, and keep a weekly photo log of the spot with a scale in the frame for size reference, or remove it and do a biopsy just to be sure.

I put the question to my son. Keep in mind he’s eleven years old. He thought about it for a bit and then said, “Take it off.” I’m driving him to the dermatologist later today to have it removed and biopsied.

Which brings us back to sailing…

We live in Hawaii. We’re close to the equator. There are places on this earth with higher UV indices, but we’re pretty close to peak. When we go to the beach, we time things so the sun is low enough in the sky for most of the UV radiation to be attenuated by the Earth’s atmosphere. When we can’t do that, we use sunscreen religiously. None of us want to burn. And certainly none of us want skin cancer.

When I’m out flying kites I almost always wear a long sleeved white shirt. The long sleeves protect my arms, and the light colored cloth reflects light and helps keep me cool. My kiting shirts are all cotton. Great for kiting, but lousy for sailing. Once wet, it stays wet. I’m planning to add some long sleeved, light colored nylon shirts to my collection along with some light colored nylon pants. Smilodon isn’t currently rigged for trapeze wires, so I might pick up some neoprene boots while I’m at it to make hiking straps less painful to use. I’ve already got a hat that covers the back of my neck, and I’ll wear the same sunglasses I use for kiting.

Starting to sound familiar? Yep, I’m going to be a vampire sailor. When this question came up at home recently and I described what I had planned, everyone started nodding. Especially my son. We’re all going to turn into little soggy vampires.

So how are we planning to celebrate the month of May? By sailing andnot getting a sunburn.

Stay safe. And wear your sunscreen.

– Tom


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