What Clothing to Wear

Last updated: November 26, 1997

When I started sailing in '71, I used to wear blue jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes. For very wet days, I wore a spray jacket, with a life jacket over it. I didn't even have a wetsuit. Looking back, its a wonder I didn't kill myself from hypothermia - maybe you are just tougher when you are a kid!


I have seen people wearing all kinds of gear in dinghies. Its a free country - you can wear whatever you want, but here are some suggestions.

I think there are four primary considerations for clothing you wear sailing.

The most important thing is to be warm enough. Being cold can cause hypothermia, slows you down and makes you clumsy, slows your thinking down affecting your tactical decisions and boat handling, and isn't fun. Being too hot is also a drag, but isn't as bad as being too cold.

After the cold/hot issue, the next most important thing is that the clothing should not restrict your movements, and should not catch on anything in the boat. Anything that makes it harder to bend your knees, crouch down, or bend forward at the waist, makes is harder to sail the boat. This is particularly true of high performance boats like the 505. Loose clothing that can catch on something could cause a capsize and has greater windage than tighter fitting clothing.

Clothing takes a beating as you slide in and out over the rail, get scraped by the boom, and sit in the beating sun. You want to wear clothing that won't wear out too fast.

You would rather be spending the money on new sails, better foils, and going to regattas; you don't want to spend a fortune on sailing clothes. We want the right clothes, and we want them to last awhile.

Shoes

Some days all you need is a pair of shorts, a T shirt, a hat, and some shoes or boots (sailing a 505 barefoot is not recommended - you may not be concentrating perfectly on flying the chute after stubbing your toe on the CB trunk, or cutting it on something). Any running shoes that can stand repeating wetting-and-drying-out cycles are OK. Many trapeze crews and some skippers wear canvas high tops called Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Maybe white boys can jump out on the wire faster when they wear them. Another popular option is the Douglas Gill or Aigle boot, which gives more support for hiking.

I used to wear ordinary socks, and had cold feet, until my crew told me to wear some of the hi-tech "wicking" materials. I now wear socks purchased from West Marine or Patagoniathat are much better when wet. A bonus is they are thicker, and pad your feet for hiking better than thinner socks.

Wet Suit

Unless both the water and the air are warm and it is a sunny day, you should consider wearing - or at least bringing - a wetsuit. A wetsuit has a much wider temperature range than a drysuit, and apart from keeping you warm, pads you from the worst bumps and bangs you get on a windy day. I would buy a "farmer john" as the first wetsuit. The long legs will keep your legs from getting cold, and the padding is nice for both skippers and crews. Having unrestricted movement in your shoulders makes playing the spinnaker sheets and the mainsheet easier. A "farmer john" wetsuit has kept me somewhat comfortable while I stood waist deep in the Chesapeake Bay in March. A shorty wetsuit is nice for warmer days, but you can sail for years without needing one. Some iron crews prefer the shorty to the long john and wear the shorty almost all the time. I am not that tough!

Polypropylene Top

Only wear cotton if it is warm and sunny. A polypropylene or Patagonia-style long sleeve top is far better when wet. I wear the zip neck Patagonia in all but the warmest conditions. The zip neck allows me to avoid over heating on very warm days. I wear the top inside the top of the wetsuit.

Patagonia makes three weights, light weight, medium weight, and expedition weight. If you are considering Patagonia, buy the medium weight first, it is the most versatile, and the light weight is not that much lighter. The expedition weight is virtually a pile pullover, and is considerably warmer than the light or medium weight. I expect similar tops are available from Musto, and other sources.

Dry Top

Some time ago lots of dinghy sailors wore one piece spray suits either alone, or over wetsuits and drysuits. Eventually, sailors realized that these suits restricted your mobility, particularly in the knees and waist, and people stopped wearing them. The dry top or spray top became popular instead. A dry top is sort of like the top half of a spray suit or dry suit. It should have some kind of neck seal and wrist seals, and maybe something at the waist as well. It will not stop all water from coming in at the neck, wrist and waist, but will stop most of it, and will stop the wind evaporating the water from the wetsuit, rapidly cooling you down. There are a variety of dry tops available. They vary in the extent they keep you dry, quality, and cost. I have used Douglas Gills for years because they are inexpensive. All sailing clothing vendors make them, some have several models. For the 1997 season, I purchased a Gore-Tex Patagonia spray top. It is warmer than the Douglas Gill - actually too hot in some conditions where the Gill is still OK - and has better neck, wrist and waist seals than the Gill. On the other hand it is quite a bit more expensive. Gill probably makes a higher end spray top more comparable to the Patagonia. Another inexpensive spray top is the Murray. Finally, if you had particpated in the 1997 North American Championship, you would probably have acquired a really neat light weight spray top from Mocean, with the 505 logo and the NAs logo screened on.

Shorts

If you do not wear anything over the wetsuit, it will quickly wear, tear and fade where you sit on it. The best protection for the wetsuit - and for you - is a pair of shorts. The shorts are going to take a lot of abuse that would otherwise go to the wetsuit, so they should be sturdy. Many sailors use padded shorts - and some even use hiking shorts that include battens or other stiffening material to help you hike with less pain. I frequently wear RailRider shorts, as they are great shorts, last a long time (I still use my first pair), and because RailRider provide prizes for some 505 regattas. I have also really liked a pair of padded hiking shorts from Sailing Angles. My preference is for the ones without the shoulder straps. If you cannot arrange to win a pair of shorts, just buy them! There are other good sailing shorts. The curved seat tank of the 505 is very comfortable to hike on, but I would definitely use padded hiking shorts on a boat with a narrower rail, especially since the ISAF rule change (passed at the November 1997 meeting, effective January 1st 1998) eliminates the US Sailing interpretation that hiking pants with stiffeners are illegal.

Life Jacket

Though you should be wearing this for safety, a good lifejacket also helps keep you warm, and can provide some padding as well. In my opinion, there are compromises that can be made between the model of lifejacket that provides the best flotation and turns you face up if you are unconscious, and models that are more compact, restrict your mobility less, and are less likely to catch on something. I recall wearing the keyhole style lifejacket in my club's junior sailing program. Though deemed safer by the Coast Guard, all that flotation behind the neck made it much harder to get underneath the boom, and easier to get hooked on something. On one occasion the keyhole lifejacket kept my crew hooked to the boat as it capsized (he freed himself quickly). This is a decision that each person should make after they have thought about it and perhaps tried different models of life jackets. I wear the Extrasport (US Coast Guard approved) and the Musto, which I much prefer, but which is a minimal lifejacket.

I wear the lifejacket over the polypropylene/Patagonia and the wetsuit, but normally under the dry top. Keeping the lifejacket underneath the dry top helps keep you warm, and stops the lifejacket getting caught on things. If it is really windy, a skipper may choose to wear the lifejacket over the spray top so the crew can find handholds as they are washed off the rail past the skipper.

By the way, if you are a trapeze crew, deciding which to put on outside, the lifejacket or the trapeze harness may be a question. A neat solution is to have the lifejacket on the outside at the back, but running the trapezed harness straps over top of the lifejacket in front. This prevents the lifejacket from getting in the way of the trapeze hook on the harness.

Pile Top

On colder days, the Patagonia long sleeved underwear, the lifejacket and the drytop are not enough to keep you warm. You need to add a pile layer between the underwear and the dry top. A variety of pile pullovers, jackets and vests are available to do this. Pick one you like. I wear a pile vest, as it does not get as hot as a sleeved top, and does not restrict my arm motion. The sleeved version would be better on the colder days, but not be as good on the marginal days - you decide.

Dry Suits

If you sail in early spring or late fall, you should consider a dry suit. If you frostbite you should absolutely buy one. The dry suit is supposed to keep you dry, so it is easier to stay warm. It is great in extreme cold conditions, where you would be too cold in the wetsuit. You need to be careful what you wear underneath, as you will sweat inside the drysuit, and need something to absorb moisture and still stay warm. Patagonia and pile work well for this. My experience is that the thinner polypropylene tops saturate with moisture more quickly, and therefore stop keeping you warm part way through the day.

As with the wetsuit, I wear shorts over the dry suit to protect it. Since my Musto lifejacket is compact, I wear it inside the drysuit.

Hats

Given the increasing incidence of skin cancer, a hat is always a good idea. A baseball style hat is nice, though something with an all-round brim will protect you from the sun better. Whatever hat you wear, use a clip-on retainer to clip the hat to your dry top or lifejacket, so that you do not lose it if it comes off your head. In cold conditions a wool, or even better pile hat will keep you much warmer and more comfortable.

While we are talking about protecting yourself from the sun, buy a suntan lotion that won't wash off to quickly, and always have it in the boat. It cannot protect you if you do put it on!

Gloves

While I have not found gloves that I like for frostbiting, I have found a good solution for normal sailing gloves. By the way, if you think you are tough and do not need sailing gloves, your mainsheet, jib sheet and spinnaker sheets are probably too thick and too heavy...

I wear full fingered gloves with the forefinger and thumb finger tips cut away, made by Sailing Angles of synthetic leather. Similar gloves are available from other sources. Four full fingers greatly reduces the skin windows (blisters), while the synthetic leather seems to last longer than natural leather, and does not dry out to be very hard between uses.

Good Sailing!

-Ali
alimeller@aol.com


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