Recently, on a sailing forum, a post came up about buying foul weather gear. That brought up the subject of dressing for foul weather conditions and lead to this post.
First, dressing appropriately for sailing requires a fairly wide wardrobe, especially if you are making a passage from a tropical climate to a temperate climate or the reverse. For instance, last spring’s delivery from Stocking Island, in the Bahamas, to Marion, Massachusetts was a good example of that. The temperatures in the Bahamas were often in the 90s and at night, off of the Delmarva penisula, we were lucky to see air temps above 50 degrees at night.
Also, remember, even in the tropics, a thunderstorm can have rainwater that is near freezing in temperature…. how do you think hail forms? The water in many storms comes from high in the atmosphere, where the temps are often near or below freezing, and it doesn’t warm up much on the way down in the storm.
We’ll start with the clothing needed for the Bahamas and tropics, and work our way north.
The best wardrobe for such a trip will include some long-sleeved sun-protective shirts that have a UPF rating of 30 or 50. These are key to surviving the tropical sun without requiring constant slathering of sunblock lotion. Columbia, REI and several other companies now make UPF rated clothes. These are usually very light-weight synthetics that are comfortable to wear even in fairly high temperatures.
Convertible pants are also a great addition to your wardrobe. They allow you to go from shorts to pants fairly quickly. Many are made of high-tech materials that are relatively water and stain resistant, don’t absorb much water and air dry quickly—all good characteristics for travel clothing. My favorites are those made by Mountain Hardwear.
A good hat is a necessity when sailing. My favorite is the Tilley Hat. The Tilley hats were designed by a sailor and have a lot of good features for a sailing hat. They have a good chin strap to prevent the wind from taking the hat. They float, which makes recovering the hat much simpler if it does blow away. And they have a broad brim to give you fairly decent protection from the sun.
As you head north, you’ll need warmer clothing to deal with the dropping temperatures. The water temperature makes a huge difference on how warm the air temperatures will be. Entering or leaving the Gulf Stream can have a 10˚ change on the air temps fairly easily.
Layering is pretty key to staying warm, especially if you’re actively sailing the boat, rather than motoring. Starting off with a good base layer of moisture wicking underwear like Patagonia’s Capilene or a wool or silk set helps to keep your body dry. Ex-Officio and several others make synthetic underwear for travel that is moisture wicking, fast drying and easily washed and makes a lot of sense when traveling. In colder conditions, you will want long underwear rather than briefs and t-shirts.
Avoid cotton whenever possible, since it absorbs water quickly, holds a lot of it, takes a long time to dry and will suck the heat from your body and leave you thoroughly chilled. It is also almost completely UV transparent, especially when wet, and can lead to a very nasty and unexpected sunburn in warmer climes.
There’s a saying among winter sports enthusiasts that “Cotton Kills” and it is pretty true, since you can easily become hypothermic if you’re wearing cotton and it gets wet. Wearing synthetics, or wool or silk blends, makes much more sense, since these materials will stay warm, in most conditions, even when wet.
The next layer should be a lightweight moisture wicking layer that provides some additional insulation. Lighter versions of fleece are excellent for this, as they provide a fair amount of warmth without much bulk or weight. Some of the better products for this are those developed for the winter running/cross country sports.
In colder conditions, layering heavier fleece shirts over the first layer will give you additional insulation without much weight or bulk. Wool sweaters are also good for this layer.
A fleece vest is a good choice for adding insulation while still preserving your ability to move easily. It helps keep your body’s core warm but doesn’t interfere with your arms or legs moving.
In colder conditions good gloves and a hat are key. The hat should be either wool or synthetic, and fit your head rather snugly. I generally wear a Thinsulate lined watch cap in colder weather. The Thinsulate provides extra insulation without bulk. Considering that about 70% of your body’s heat loss is through the head, covering it in cold weather makes a lot of sense.
For gloves, I usually wear a pair of Seirus gloves. These are fairly light, waterproof and windproof gloves that I picked up for the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. Some models are light enough to be used as liners in heavier gloves. With these tucked over the inner cuffs of my foul weather jacket, and with the outer cuffs snugged down on them, my arms are almost completely waterproof.
Boots are important for two major reasons. First they keep you safely on deck and second they keep your feet warm and dry. I personally prefer the neoprene dinghy boots for wearing on deck. With a good pair of wool socks, these can be quite warm in even atrocious conditions.
Now we get to the jacket and bib.
Get the jacket and bibs large enough that you can wear a couple layers under the bibs and a few under the jacket. The legs generally don’t need as much insulation as the body’s core. Layering is the key to staying warm and comfortable no matter the temperature.
Things to look for in a good foul weather gear set:
- First, get a jacket that is cut so that you can move comfortably. If it is too tight, you’ll be in trouble. Same with the bibs.
- Second, get one that has a high collar and a hood that has an adjuster so that you can keep as small an opening between the hood and collar as possible. This is really key to staying dry in a driving rain.
- Third, get a jacket that has an inner and outer adjustable cuff on the sleeves. The inner one should be PVC, latex or neoprene. This prevents water from running down the sleeve when you reach up to adjust a line or something like that. It really sucks to be nice, dry and warm and then have a trickle or stream of near freezing water roll down your arm to your body.
- Fourth, decent pockets, including a fleece-lined handwarmer set are nice to have.
- Fifth, large retro-reflective tape patches should be located on the jacket’s chest, shoulders, and sleeves. If you go overboard at night, you’ll be glad you have these patches as they make you far more visible.
- Sixth, the bib should be high cut so that if you bend over, you’ll still stay dry. Having a zipper that allows you to pee without dropping the bib entirely is really useful, but most don’t have this for some stupid reason.
- Seven, having legs that can cinch down around your boots will go a long way to keeping you dry, especially if you fall overboard.
The main jacket I use is a Musto MPX jacket, and it looks like this:
You can see the high collar, retro-reflective patches, adjustable outer cuffs and layered zipper flaps. It has a bright chartreuse hood with a velcro adjuster, as well as inner cuffs made of latex.
In really cold conditions, you might consider getting a drysuit. While these aren’t typically used for sailing on larger boats, they’re very commonly found on frostbiting dinghies and kayakers. Kokotat and several others make good drysuits, but the kayaking ones are generally missing some features that the sailing specific ones will have—like retro-reflective patches.
This is a Kokotat drysuit:
and here is a sailing drysuit by Musto:
You can see the retro-reflective patches on this suit that are missing from the kayaking one above. However, you can see that the Kokotat suit has a front-relief zipper opening which is clearly missing on the Musto suit.
One thing to remember is that a good set of foul weather gear is an investment. It will last for years if you take care of it… and getting the cheap stuff generally doesn’t pay off in the long run.