Bracing for Cold and Wet Sailing

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 02:10PM - Comments: (11)

Courtesy of Mahina Tiare
Courtesy of Mahina Tiare

The crew aboard Mahina Tiare is well dressed for the elements during a recent Pacific cruise.

Although our office is snugly situated on Florida’s southwest coast, the challenges of winter and three- or even four-season sailing are never far from our minds. Most of our testers hail from icier climates, and a brisk winter sail on our home waters of Sarasota Bay brings enough chill to remind us that staying warm and dry takes a much higher priority on most of the planet than it does here.

For those readers who will soon be facing cooler temperatures, the upcoming November 2018 issue takes a broader look at the essentials of staying warm, focusing on the first principles—under layers, accessories, how to wear them, and what materials stay dry. 

As we've reported in the past, the battle against the elements involves more than just bibs and a jacket. Keeping out the wind and wet begins with underlayers, boots, and gloves—all of which we’ve looked at in recent years. Here is a summary of past reports on cold-weather sailing apparel. 

  • Base layers – Although it has been a several years since we looked at undergarments the materials and technology has not changed siginificantly. These self-wicking, insulating first-layers are especially effective at keeping active sailors warm as they draw sweat away from the body. Several of our favorite wicking undergarments that we tested at back in 2006 are still top sellers today, including our top pick the Nike Dri-Fit Mock (now rebranded as the Nike Combat Hyperwarm Dri-Fit). The other top-rated products from Helly Hansen and Musto are also still available. Subscribers can access the full report in our January 2006 issue.
  • Gloves – Cold weather sailing requires a special class of gloves that combine insulation, waterproofness, and dexterity. In March 2008, we started by comparing two generic types of gloves: a lined, insulated, waterproof glove from North Face that was popular among climbers and a fleece-lined neoprene used by fisherman and hunters made by Glacier Glove. This preliminary test led to a more extensive evaluation that took place in November 2008 (available to subscribers). For that comparison, we narrowed our selection to gloves recommended by those who have spent a great deal of time on the water in cold weather, including Alaskan fishermen, Antarctic charter skippers, and high-latitude sailors.
    The gloves we tested included sailing gloves by Gill, Gul, Henri Lloyd, and Musto; waterproof snowboarding/skiing gloves by L.L.Bean, The North Face, and Zero-in Gloves by Fairfield Line; and specialty gloves recommended by experienced cold-weather sailors. This latter group comprised SealSkinz, a waterproof glove made by Danalco and originally designed for kayaking; Stearns Arctic Water gloves, designed for winter diving; and lined "rubber" (PVC, nitrile, or latex) gloves designed for industrial applications, particularly in freezers and cold-storage areas.
    We ended up with 14 different pairs of gloves from 10 different makers, and when it came down to picking a single multi-purpose contender, the Gill Helmsman rose to the top. However, as we tested and compared the gloves, it became apparent that the gloves fell into four distinct categories: mid-weight, water-resistant gloves; heavyweight, neoprene gloves; insulated gloves; and layered gloves comprising an outer waterproof shell and an inner glove liner. Each of these categories proved best suited to certain conditions, so if you are serious about cold-weather sailing, or are venturing into extreme climates, then you’ll want to read the full report (accessible to subscribers).
  • Boots – One of our longest-running tests at Practical Sailor has been a comparison of sea boots, with our most recent update in October 2009 (accessible to subscribers). Anyone shopping for a new pair should read our comparison of the various types and advice on what to look for in a good boot. This October 2009 test group included 15 pair of mid-calf, knee-high, and three-quarter sea boots from Aigle, Dubarry, Gill, Helly Hansen, Puma, Sperry, Ronstan, West Marine, and Musto. Prices ranged from $50 to $350, and construction materials ranged from simple rubber composites to advanced combinations of leather, Kevlar, and Gore-Tex. The pricey leather Ultima boot from Dubarry rose to the top of the heap in terms of comfort and dryness, but several more affordable contenders were also named in that test. For those who want to make sure their boots make it through as many seasons as possible, we also published a helpful guide to boot maintenance.
  • Foul weather gear - Our most recent report on foul weather gear featured more than a dozen different sets foul-weather from Gill, Grundens, Helly Hansen, Henri Lloyd, and West Marine. Although more expensive kits are available (Musto, for example, offers a wide range of higher-priced gear), this test focused on mid-range, “offshore” kits with a price limit of approximately $500 for a jacket and bibbed trousers. You can also review the previous test of foul weather gear in 2008, and a report on women's foul weather gear in 2009, as well as two sidebars to the 2008 article describing some key factors to consider when shopping for foul weather gear and a handy guide to foul weather gear maintenance that will help you extend the life of your foul weather gear.

If you have any favorite cold-weather tip to share with other readers, please leave a comment below. And if there is a particular category of cold-weather gear that that you think we should test, I’d also like to hear your comments. You can also write directly to the editor at practicalsailor@belvoir.com

Comments (11)

Wool, even wet it keeps you warm. It's still the preferred undergarment of the military in extreme temps.

Posted by: SsgtPitt | October 9, 2018 10:00 PM    Report this comment

Two Years Before the Mast is a great book, as are many others. But if we're going to operate as they did in sailing times gone by, it should also be noted how many "hands" were lost at sea back in the day. Personally I'd like to learn from the past while continually looking to the future for improvements.

Posted by: Midasshadow | October 9, 2018 9:11 AM    Report this comment

Best monies ever spent in 50 years of sailing the world's oceans was for the orange exposure suits worn by the US Coast Guard. Have worn them for weeks at a time.
And cleaning them is not so easy. Coast Guard's, Navy and Commercial sailors the world over wear similar suits. US Navy and other Navies have similar exposure work suits. And then can double as an sleeping bag when required. Good for half an hour if not more when forced overboard. Barring Sea fisherman wouldn't be caught dead without one of these nearby.

Posted by: Piberman | October 7, 2018 4:18 PM    Report this comment

Readers ought read Richard Henry Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast".
Oil skins over wool pants/shirts did just fine. Hands were a problem for ice in the rigging.
Lets keep it simple.

Posted by: Piberman | October 7, 2018 4:12 PM    Report this comment

Readers ought see Richard Henry Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast". Oil skins over wool pants/shirt did just fine. But it was the hands that were the problem in cold weather. Especially dealing with ice in the rigging.

Modern day sailors have it easy. Don't have to sleep in the oil skins to stay dry down below.

Old saw still applies. Real sailors look like real sailors. Scruffy.

Posted by: Piberman | October 7, 2018 4:10 PM    Report this comment

Since the mid-1990s I have owned a Mustang Deluxe Anti-Exposure Suit. It is a Level V US Coast Guard approved life preserver. It is designed to protect the wearer from hypothermia in case of immersion.

I have worn it fishing on the Lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario in the fall, winter, and early spring fishing from boats. I have also worn it sailing in cold, windy, and wet conditions on Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. I found the Mustang Suit kept me warm and dry in temperatures as low as 3 degrees F in windy conditions. I found it comfortable to wear as coveralls. The outerfabric is tough and has reflective patches. I recommend sailors consider the Mustang Suit for cold weather sailing.

Posted by: mark2 | September 27, 2018 10:36 AM    Report this comment

Since the mid-1990s I have owned a Mustang Deluxe Anti-Exposure Suit. It is a Level V US Coast Guard approved life preserver. It is designed to protect the wearer from hypothermia in case of immersion.

I have worn it fishing on the Lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario in the fall, winter, and early spring fishing from boats. I have also worn it sailing in cold, windy, and wet conditions on Lake Erie, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. I found the Mustang Suit kept me warm and dry in temperatures as low as 3 degrees F in windy conditions. I found it comfortable to wear as coveralls. The outerfabric is tough and has reflective patches. I recommend sailors consider the Mustang Suit for cold weather sailing.

Posted by: mark2 | September 27, 2018 10:29 AM    Report this comment

I'm surprised you didn't mention dry suits. Up here in the PNW the dry suit not only keeps you toasty warm but helps stave off hypothermia if you find yourself off the boat and in the water. I have a custom fitted and color selected (matches the spinnaker) Kolatat. Easy to enter and leave, plus a relief zipper so I don't have to take it off to answer the call of nature.

Posted by: LeslieTroyer | September 27, 2018 9:33 AM    Report this comment

Consider wearing the shoulder length trappers gloves.They are flexible,allow layering underneath.They're connected with an elastic strap.You can wear them -underneath- your parka.I also wear my PFD or"float coat" underneath my oil skins[ditto re if I'm wearing chest high waders]

Posted by: leftey3 | September 27, 2018 9:26 AM    Report this comment

Ski Googles. Not just for spray, they help keep the face warm and double as sun glasses.

Balacova. I like the Power stretch middle weight sort. Worn under a watch cap, this seals the hat to the underlayers.

Gloves with separate liners are much easier to dry. Without a special drier one-part gloves stay wet for days on a boat. I also like to have a separate pair of gloves for handling ground tackle; just cheap freezer gloves that dry fast.

Glove Liners. It is a plus if the liners are dexterous gloves worn alone, with coated or leather fingers an palm; for fine tasks you strip only the shell, leaving the liner on the hand. Thin winter bike gloves can be good. My favorites are windbloker fleece with leather palm.

Fleece socks. They can even make ordinary deck shoes acceptably warm on dry bats. There is no substitute.

Storm windows. Replace screens with 1/8" Lexan cut-outs.

Drafts. Many sliders ad companionway covers are quite well baffled against green water, but still allow ventilation. If you are running a sealed heating system (rather than open flame) block these gaps with hotdogs sewn from rolled up towels.

Carpets. Again, insulation.

Water Repellant treat lines. There are products made for ice climbing ropes (Nix Wax Rope Proof). Frozen lines don't run.

And the warnings:

Do NOT bend or even touch vinyl windows when it is below 50F. The chance of breaking increases with age, but below freezing many older plastic, particularly plasticized vinyl products, become quite brittle. Be very careful with sails with windows in cold weather. I've broken both sail and dodger windows.

Carry a wet suit or dry suit. You never know when an emergency could require swimming.

Frosty decks are wicked. Crawling is smart.

Posted by: Drew Frye | December 25, 2014 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Heat loss through an uncovered head in cold weather can be significant. A review of cold weather hats might also be included. I'm partial to a neoprene hat lined with fleece for those cooler days out on the water.

Posted by: Sowwanin II | December 24, 2014 8:41 AM    Report this comment

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