Dress For Safety And Performance
Our foremost concern with cooler temperatures is safety. Hypothermia is a real possibility in sailing – even in summer. In the water, the body looses heat many times faster than in air which can result in very surprising and significant loss of strength, impaired judgment, and even unconsciousness. We all wear life jackets, and there is always a rescue boat present, but the sailor’s clothing is a critical part of hypothermia prevention,
The second concern with cooler temperatures is comfort and performance. The sailor should be comfortable, and greater comfort leads to better performance.
The best way to think about dressing for sailing is to think in terms of layers. In summer, one layer is sufficient; in March many sailors wear four layers. Each layer performs specific functions, and the various layers are made from different fabrics designed specifically to perform these functions. Each layer adds a degree of protection from cold air and/or cold water.
It sounds complicated at first, but the array of technical fabrics makes sailing comfortable and safe in what many would think are very unpleasant conditions.
Back to top
Cotton Versus synthetics
Cotton is a wonderful fabric when dry, but when wet, it absorbs and retains water, gets very heavy and cumbersome, and rapidly removes body heat from the sailor. It can become dangerous in many situations; it is always part of the problem, and never part of the solution. A simple and universal rule in sailing is NEVER WEAR COTTON. Read on for recommendations on fabrics sailors should wear. In high school sailing, we are either wet or at risk of becoming wet, so we must dress accordingly.
Back to top
Wet Or Dry Approach
There are two basic objectives of sailing clothing:
At times when the coaching staff determines that cold water poses a safety issue, there is an absolute requirement that sailors have either a wetsuit or a drysuit.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. “Keeping sailors warm when wet” is generally considered cheaper, easier to fine tune for medium temperatures, and far more forgiving in the event of any wardrobe malfunction. It has definite limitations in very cold conditions typical of March and early April. Historically, this has been the preference for Sharon High. “Keeping sailors dry in all circumstances” is safer and more comfortable in extreme conditions and allows the sailor to capsize in cold water with virtually zero discomfort. It is more expensive, requires more careful handling and maintenance, and can be too hot in milder temperatures. Drysuits are the overwhelming choice for New England “frostbiters” (those of us crazy enough to sail in winter), college teams, and the upper echelon high school teams.
Short of buying everything, there is no right answer here. Both approaches work with some limitations. For new sailors who are unsure of their commitment to sailing, start with the wet approach. For those who want to go on to college sailing, a drysuit will be worth the investment in terms of comfort and use.
Note from the coach: I have collected all of this stuff over the years, and love it all. Each is perfect in a particular set of conditions. A drysuit makes it possible to go full tilt in the worst of conditions without fear of capsize – you really stay dry and comfortable. A capsize in a wetsuit in March means the end of the day, making for very conservative sailing in those conditions.
Back to top
For the wet approach, there are up to four layers:
- Wicking layer – first optional layer
Wetsuit – insulation from cold water, especially in the event of a capsize
- Wicking shirts and pants are worn against the skin and made from synthetic fabrics that dry very quickly and keep moisture away from the skin.
- Polypropylene is the basic fabric, but many sports companies have proprietary fabrics. Nylon/spandex combinations are common.
- These are not sailing specific; they are great for all sports. Products from sailing companies are not necessarily better than others.
- Favorite products/manufacturers: Techwick by EMS (outdoor sports), Underarmour(all sports), Hydrosilk by NRS(kayaking) , Gill(sailing), Henry Lloyd(sailing), Musto(sailing), Camet(sailing), Zhik(sailing). Click here for more brand and manufacturer details.
Polar fleece – more insulation for extreme cold
- Wetsuits trap water between the suit and the body creating a thin insulating layer of warmwater. They are made from neoprene: 2–3 mm is most popular thickness and minimum for cold weather.
- Wetsuits come in a variety of configurations: shortie– short sleeves and legs; long – long sleeves and legs; and farmer john – long legs and no sleeves. The choice depends on individual tolerance to cold or getting too hot. (We walk in the water to launch the boats, so full leg coverage can provide more warmth, but many kids prefer shorties.)
- Separating bottoms from tops is acceptable, thereby creating more mix and match options, and this is becoming easier with more products on the market.
- Available from suppliers and manufacturers in various watersports – sailing, kayaking, diving, watersking. One of the first two is recommended, but wetsuits from Walmart to West Marine have also been common and sufficient.
Spray gear – external water and wind protection
- Fleece is the fabric of choice to add lots of warmth because it will continue to insulate even when wet. Wool is the only natural fabric with this quality and Merino wool from New Zealand might be another good choice for this layer.
- Fleece is available in pants, tops, or full body suits.
- Spray gear is worn on the outside. It keeps rain and spray out and blocks the wind. Although wetsuits and fleece are great insulators, significant cooling takes place when wind blows over them. Spray gear eliminates this problem. This layer of protection is absolutely necessary when the air temperature is low and / or the wind is high.
- The three major variables in selecting spray gear are water resistance, breathability, and wrist, waist, and neck seals.
- When there is high wind, there is always spray on the sailors, and we frequently sail in the rain. Spray gear should be waterproof, not just water–resistant.
- Breathable fabrics are preferred in sailing as in other active sports. These allow moisture from the body to escape outward and prevent overheating. Gore–tex is the premium fabric of choice because it is the most breathable waterproof fabric on the market. It is also usually the most expensive. Fortunately many manufacturers are producing excellent waterproof fabrics with slightly less breathability, but significantly less cost.
- The final variable is the degree to which spray gear seals at arms, legs, waist, and neck. The tighter the seal the more protection there is in the event of capsize and submersion in water. At a minimum there should be elastic or velco closures at these points. Neoprene seals are better.
- Spray gear should be purchased from sailing gear or kayak gear suppliers.
Back to top
All items of clothing in all of the layers need to allow the sailors to move freely and easily. Wetsuits must be reasonably tight to trap water properly. Wicking clothing may be skin tight or a little loose, but it will be compressed under a wetsuit. Fleece and spray gear are usually quite loose.
When the water is fairly warm, layers are selected on the basis of air temperature and the wind chill effect. In summer, a wicking layer only is sufficient. The next step is usually to add a wetsuit or spray gear, depending on the water temperature and possibility of capsize. Sometimes only a wetsuit is worn. Some combination of these three layers is the correct choice so long as the water is warm.
As the water gradually gets cooler, water temperature is added to the list of factors determining layering. Until the combination of air and water temperatures drop sufficiently, the sailors are free to choose and combine layers to suit their own comfort requirements. All the layers provide insulation against cold air, but the wetsuit is essential protection against cold water. When water gets cold and safety becomes an issue, the coaching staff requires that wetsuits or drysuits be worn. Students may not sail without them in these conditions. This is usually the case from the beginning of October to the end of the season, and from the beginning of the spring season until mid to late April.
For many sailors, the wetsuit is the core of the layering scheme. The wicking layer is added for extra insulation or for comfort if wetsuit / skin contact is uncomfortable. The spray gear is added when it’s windy, raining, or for a small amount of extra insulation. Fleece is worn between the wetsuit and the spray gear when the other three layers are not warm enough.
Sailors continually experiment to match sailing conditions with their layering choices.
Back to top
When using the dry approach, there are usually no more than three layers:
- Wicking layer
- Fleece layer
- Drysuit – complete external protection against water and wind
- Drysuits are totally waterproof and have waterproof latex seals at the ankles, wrists, and neck.
- Breathability is again desirable to reduce overheating caused by trapped water vapor. Gore–tex is again the best fabric, but many others are almost as breathable and much less expensive.
- Most drysuits include booties which go over the feet and keep them dry.
- Some newer and reasonably priced semi–dry suits have a neoprene seal at the neck instead of latex. This allows a little water to penetrate if fully submerged, but many sailors find the neoprene much more comfortable and the risk of submersion small.
- Drysuits depend on sealed zippers to maintain watertightness, and the seals require some maintenance.
- Drysuits can be awkward to get in and out of.
- Drypants and drytops are available as separate items, but both depend on a seal at the waist. These are kayaking products. I have not seen sailors regard this as adequate in winter conditions, but it might be worth experimenting with them in milder conditions.
Drysuits solve the problem of being cold because of being wet or wind chilled, but by themselves provide
virtually no temperature insulation. Therefore, sailors usually add one to many layers when wearing a drysuit.
On cold water / warm air days, a single wicking layer or a single fleece layer may be added. On most days, both
wicking and fleece layers will be worn. Different thickness of fleece items provide more options for temperature control.
Layers should be chosen to accommodate the colder of the water or air temperatures.
Back to top
Protective shoes that cover the toes should always be worn when sailing, regardless of the weather. Protection against cuts and bruises is always necessary. Shoes should have some form of non-slip sole which works wet or dry. Sandals are okay so long as the toes are covered. Sneakers are acceptable, but they will never dry, and the smell can become unbearable.
Sailing boots are the best choice. There are two types: rubber waterproof “dinghy boots” and neoprene “wetsuit” boots. Dinghy boots keep the feet dry until the wearer walks in water and water flows over the top. Neoprene boots offer some insulation value even though the feet get wet. Layering is again a key strategy for better comfort and / or insulation.With either type of boot, various layers can be added.
Wool or neoprene socks will provide considerable warmth – wet or dry. Non–cotton sock liners add another layer for a bit more warmth. Gore–tex or other waterproof socks will keep the feet dry and make them feel warmer. Any or all of these inner layers produce enormous benefits in comfort.
Back to top
Many sailors like to wear sailing gloves to protect their hands from blisters, abrasions, or rope burns. They are fairly lightweight, typically have leather at the wear points, and usually have fingertips cut off to facilitate knot tying and other fine motor tasks.
When the weather turns colder, most sailors are concerned with warmth as well as protection. There are several choices. The first is a full fingered version of summer sailing gloves. This is fine for fall sailing, but not enough for early spring. Another option is a “winter” sailing glove with some neoprene added for more insulation. Many sailors use these, but some find these are still not warm enough. An additional alternative is a combination of ordinary cloth gloves and waterproof rubber dishwashing gloves or latex medical gloves. Despite the unprofessional look of this arrangement, many sailors insist that this is the best option.
Experimentation and personal preferences determine which option is best for each individual sailor.
Back to top
In cold weather, a large percentage of the body’s heat loss is through the head. Wearing a hat keeps the sailor considerably warmer in cold, windy, and wet conditions. Baseball hats provide very little insulation. Wool or fleece beanies are the best choice. In the most severe conditions, the coaching staff will require sailors to wear hats.
Back to top