Bracing for Cold and Wet Sailing


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 siginifican’tly. 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 you think we should test, I’d also like to hear your comments. You can also write directly to the editor at [email protected]

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at