In Search of the Perfect Sailing Hat

Posted by at 04:35PM - Comments: (18)

The wide-brimmed straw hat from the local hardware store lasts about a year if my kids don't sit on it.

Ever since October 2011, when the dermatologist announced that I had skin cancer at the age of 46, I’ve been looking for good hats and other accessories to keep my face, in particular, out of the sun. I’m a sailor, and I’m not ready to change my life completely, but I do need to make a diligent effort to prevent this dangerous, but generally preventable and treatable form of skin cancer—squamous cell carcinoma—from becoming more serious. I’ve been cancer-free for the last 18 months, but I’ve now got a nice battle scar running down my right cheek, and I would prefer not to have any more.

As we’ve seen in our past tests of sunscreen, the best defense against UV rays (apart from moving to a cave in Canada) is a physical barrier—preferably UV-protective clothing. And as our most recent hat test showed, there are all kinds of options for covering ears, noses, and necks. Still, I’m having a hard time finding one I like. That’s where you come in.

Hats are such a personal item—think Tom Landry, Bear Bryant, Abe Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin—that I think any straight product test will be of limited help. Sure, we can measure how much shade each hat casts, how well it stays on a head in a breeze, and how well it holds up to weathering. But what good are all these features, if it makes you look like a dork (whatever your private vision of a dork may be)?

Lately, I’ve become attached to wide-brimmed straw gardening/beach hats that I pick up in local hardware stores. The hats cost about $8 and will last a year, if my kids don’t sit on them. They have nice wide brims that provides a lot of shade, and with a tropical headband, they seem appropriate for the task. The trouble with this my current one is that it tends to invert in a breeze, and I really have to cinch it down to keep it on in winds over 15 knots.

I have a few other hats. I’ve got a new Columbia baseball hat made with some sort of new "Omni Freeze" fabric that acts like an air-conditioner and has a French foreign legionnaire-style neck flap; another long-billed hat with a wide brim around the back to cover my neck (an Aussie style popularized by Florida fishing guides); and a canvas Tilly-type hat with a neck flap that I picked up at the Miami boat show. I’ve also got a couple of pull-over “buffs” that cover my neck and cheeks (and nose, if I like) when I’m on the water for a long time. These days, I can’t help but feel like Butch Cassidy on the way to a holdup when I’m out on the water. I expect my eldest son to start ribbing me about this any day: “You keep thinking, Butch, that’s what you’re good at.”

Each of these hats has its pros and cons, and I'm not really attached to any of them. Clearly, my priority is function. It needs to provide plenty of shade in breezy conditions, but I’d prefer it to look halfway agreeable. I like the Tilly hats, but the price is steep, and because my father wore one for so many years, I keep feeling like I age 20 years every time I put it on. (Like I said, hats are a personal matter.)

So, I guess this is a long-winded way of asking for your help. Maybe I’m just too damn picky, but I’d like to know whether our readers have any particular hats they are fond of that PS has not yet tested, or that we may not know about. If you do, just post a comment below. Your help will be greatly appreciated.

Once I get a good list of finalists, we can put together some sort of rigorous comparison to share with the larger readership. We’d also be very interested in hearing what hats women are finding practical for sailing these days. Matter of fact, if you’ve got some other ideas on other apparel for covering up this summer—share those too, so we can pass them on.

Comments (18)

My favorite so far is Tilley's Airflo series, with the synthetic LTM3 being the one I've settled upon. The ventilated strip along the top of the crown does a great job of dumping heat, while the solid sides keep out the sun better than mesh. The tilley strap system is very secure, creates less wind noise in the ears than a standard chin cord, and can be stowed inside the hat when calm. The synthetic material does a good job of drying out. It also collapses completely flat for packing without changing the hat's shape. The only thing I'd change is the brim stiffness -- it's a bit too floppy over ten knots.

Posted by: Mike C | April 22, 2013 9:51 AM    Report this comment

The only safe way to go is a hat with SPF factor built in. The major supplier is Coolibar, and also Solumbra. They both warrrant 50 SPF. But any hat with a wide enough brim is going to flop around on the wind. Solution--a Coolibar SPF cap with a wide peak and flaps down the side, which can be gathered at the bottom to stay in place. Also, SPF 100 sunscreen applied every 2 hours. You may not look like a model in a sailing magazine, but you'll be a lot healthier and safer

Posted by: GARY G | April 1, 2013 1:01 PM    Report this comment

Which Tilly is best for sailing - the ones made from cotton?

Posted by: Randy P | March 25, 2013 8:29 PM    Report this comment

Buy an original Tilly. They are the lowest cost of any hat - period + great value. The originals come with a lifetime guarantee that if you wear it out, they replace it!
I'm about to get my third 'free' Tilly. Yes it cost a lot back 19 years ago, but with a lifetime of use, it is the lowest cost, as well as the best around.
I love the coverage and the string to hold it on, no matter what the wind does.
Brian Kelly

Posted by: PENNY K | March 24, 2013 4:50 PM    Report this comment

For years I had used the white roll up hat simlar to the kind the navy used with the "Bitter End" logo on it. Comfort, stays on (when pulled down tight) but with the narrow circular brim, not much protection. Plus the white gets quite sweat stained. Still love it because it came from one of our trips to the BVI. Last trip to the BVI I bought a "modified" ball cap. You know the big bill in front with the foreign legion neck cover for your neck. Keeps the neck covered and your nose out of the sun. Minor drawback is no strap to keep the big bill from catching the breeze you're trying to catch and the fact that the big bill keeps getting in the way when I am working on something close or working up the mast. You can sew on a string, rope or strap to keep from loosing it but I still have to look up the mast without breaking my neck. I'll look into a Tilley and check out the cream. Same problem with the flourouracil that James mentioned.

Posted by: Dave S | March 23, 2013 4:02 PM    Report this comment

You were on the right track with the Tilly. Never consider price when it comes to your survival. I have bought and worn a lot of Tilly clothing (hats included) over the years and have found that they all wear so well that, even though the initial cost seems high. The fact that they stand up so well, actually makes them very inexpensive if you intend to live for a few years yet. Being in your 40's, I would think that Alex Tilly makes the perfect hat for you. All the best,Always, Jack Burchfield

Posted by: Jack B | March 22, 2013 2:08 PM    Report this comment

I have a Crusher hat that looks like an Outback hat from Duluth Trading Company with lots of airflow. They run about $30 and survive a fall in the drink. The strap is great in high winds, but I still have to learn not to look downwind with the strap loose.

Posted by: Tim C | March 20, 2013 6:06 PM    Report this comment

To know whazt hat works well, look to what the professionals wear. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliarists wear a blue Tilly when out on patrol. The Coast Guard did extensive research and determined Tilly was it dispite the high coast. But if you are on the water eight hours a day, five days a week, often in 45 ft open boats, protection is the major criterion, not price.

William C. Winslow
Staff Officer Public Affairs
Division 014-05
First Southern Region
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Posted by: wcwinslow | March 20, 2013 5:31 PM    Report this comment

Columbia PFG has vented cap for hot summer days and chin strap which is bothersome till it blows good then you love it. Also has neck flap. Mildly dorky but hey its better than death and disfigurement. Long sleve PFG shirts can be found at end of season for 60% off at bass pros and other stores. What canI say; I have a sailboat to plow $ into.

Posted by: Unknown | March 20, 2013 3:46 PM    Report this comment

I love my Tilley airflow hat. However, the brim inverts when the wind is blowing hard. Maybe the standard Tilley would work better, but the vents on the airflow are really nice when it's hot.
Chuck M.

Posted by: Charles M | March 20, 2013 1:52 PM    Report this comment

I have been using the Ultimate Hat from Ultimate Products - original version - for many, many years. I have found this hat to be cool in the heat and sun, the brim is flexible to adjust to conditions, repels the rain well, and doesn't look dorky! When a new hat is warranted, I take the old one home and wear it doing chores in the yard. Highly recommended.


Posted by: BILL V | March 20, 2013 1:19 PM    Report this comment

I would agree a Tilly hat is tough to beat and definitely falls into price vs. value category so I won't go there. Tilly makes several different models and as with everything else, a good fit is paramount. I have a few of them with my last one purchased from Backwoods. I believe LL Bean carries them as well. I noticed you are wearing a guide shirt which is an excellence choice for being on the water. Consider guide shirts that have the Velcro sewn into the back collar or do it yourself. On very windy days I will trap the line behind the Velcro tack so should the wind get the better of me on the foredeck, it won't blow away. Another reason I use mine for sailing and fly-fishing is it can be dunked in the water and put on your head for instant relief from the heat. The hat loves it and so do I.

Posted by: Gerry S | March 20, 2013 12:48 PM    Report this comment

My wife also had squamous cells removed so I'm sensative to this issue.

The best hat is a good bimini to keep the sun off your whole body. I still wear a baseball cap and if on my friends boat without a bimini I'll wear a Columbia Booney hat that has a 360 degree brim and a chin strap.

Like most sailors I have a selection of ball caps. For really hot days my favorite is one I got from Catalina at the boat show. It's made from the same material as the wicking shirts and really keeps your head cool.

I'm also a fan of the Columbia PFG shirts that are SPF rated.

Posted by: Jim M | March 20, 2013 12:36 PM    Report this comment

I just read the PS review of hats that you linked to and it amazes me how they didn't even mention the 3 key criteria: ventilation, sun protection and performance in a breeze. As a racing sailor, I also need something that will stay on my head in the middle of a sail change, jibe or other maneuver. Maybe it's too much to ask. I have tried the Tilley and straw golf hats and they just don't cut it. Baseball-style hats give no meaningful protection. So I have resorted to lots of Bullfrog.

Posted by: TOM M | March 20, 2013 11:52 AM    Report this comment

I most often use a Tilly.

Posted by: William A | March 20, 2013 11:16 AM    Report this comment

Beyond Hats to the subject of squamous cell carcinomas. I was originally diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in 2008, and have had two carcinomas and one precancerous lesion removed. One of the surgically removed carcinomas returned. For treatment this time, I chose Curaderm, a topical cream made from Eggplant and Devil's Apple (a cousin to eggplant indigenous to Australia). The active ingredient is BEC-5, and I found that this non prescription solution to the carcinomas to be a better choice than the prescription I was given by my doctor for Flourouracil. It is all natural and can be purchased at Amazon. Read the reviews for the product there, pretty impressive. I am very satisfied with my results. Big plus, no scarring, where-as there is scarring with flourouracil

Posted by: James D | March 20, 2013 10:55 AM    Report this comment

Australian outback custom made hat

Posted by: donnymac | March 20, 2013 10:35 AM    Report this comment

Watership Trading co. Vineyard hat

Posted by: ERIK W | March 19, 2013 5:33 PM    Report this comment

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