Sailing clothing: protect your body!

Going offshore means that you will expose your body to an environment in which weather conditions and temperatures can rise and fall much more rapidly than they do on land. The reflection of UV light on the water surface can damage your skin and in case you get exposed to cold water, hypothermia can cause a death much more sudden than many people would believe.

To put it in a nutshell: open waters are a special environment for which your body requires to be prepared. The first step in precautions is appropriate clothing and gear to be worn by your body. The variety of modern clothing is enormous due to the use of modern materials and a number of very recent innovations that compete with traditional sailor’s clothing.

Different types of sailing will require specific clothing, keep this in mind when making your choice. A windsurfer will need much better insulation than a dinghy sailor, who will rather put his priorities to flexibility and momentum.

Buying sailing clothing these days is a bit like buying gear for camping, hunting or any other outdoors hobby that is hopelessly commercialized: as a beginner, you will hardly find a way to prioritize what you really need and what is redundant. Most things are the latter and pure gimmicks – which is fair enough, assuming that you like that sort of thing. However, a lot of modern accessories sold these days are overpriced and simply not needed by most sailors.

Checklist of sailing clothes

The best thing you can do is to go on a boat with little gear, talk to people you know that have similar interests and needs with respect to sailing and see yourself what you would like to have and what you don’t really need. However, in terms of clothing there are some general guidelines everybody should consider for the sake of health and safety.

1.) Always expect to become wet – some ships, especially bigger ones, will protect you very well and it might be that in most cases you will go back on shore without a single drop of water on you. But in terms of water you should always expect the worst. However, this is not as bad as it sounds, you won’t have to wear heavy oil jackets for every little cruise. Modern materials such as Goretex allowed the design of light-weighted and still wind- and waterproof jackets that even look nice. They should be your outer layer. If necessary, bring foul weather gear on board.

2.) Stay warm – this is mostly common sense, but essentially you comfort on the boat relies heavily on whether or not you feel warm. Fast-drying synthetic fabrics are to be favored over cotton, which tends to get unpleasantly cold once it gets wet. Wool is a very popular natural material and very traditional, too, but can’t offer the same advantages as synthetic cloth.

3.) Expect changes in the temperature – even if it might be only a “subjective” change when you work hard on board, it is still a change. Wearing layers rather than one piece of clothing is the key to these changes. Again, most modern clothing is designed in a way that you can dismount up to three layers from single jackets. Keep in mind that several thin layers are favorable over a single thick one.

4.) If you go hardcore, wear wetsuits – if getting wet is rather the rule than the exception for you, maybe because you want to do competitive dinghy sailing or windsurfing, layers and waterproof jackets are clearly not the way to go. You will need a wetsuit of neoprene. They are designed in a way that a thin layer of water is caught between your body and the suit. This water is warmed by your body heat and seals the suit to keep you insulated. The disadvantage of wetsuits is obviously that is constrains you comfort and movements.

5.) Keep a cool head – but not too cool: about 20 percent of the body’s heat loss in a cold environment occurs through your head. Keep it protected by wearing appropriate hats. They will also protect you from UV light that can burn you skin. If you have long hair, it will also help you to tie it back and wrap it in order to keep it from getting blown into your view or even the rigging.

6.) Think of the UV – many people don’t realize how aggressive the sun can be on open waters where it is partly reflected from the water surface and hits your face from more than one directions. Make sure to wear sunglasses with a good UV filter and use strong sunscreen (factor 20 or higher) on all parts of your body that are exposed. This is of course particularly important if you are into nude sailing and expose parts of your body that normally don’t see any sunlight at all. Don’t believe that cold wind means that the sun will be too mild to harm you; UV light is not temperature dependent.

7.) Protect your hands – they will do the most important work for you, fiddling with the rigging and pulling ropes. It is important to protect them in the manual labor and keep them warm. There is a variety of specialized sailing gloves available for this purpose. Some are open-fingered and recommendable if you need your fingers for delicate tasks such as the control of electronic devices.

You can of course combine these gloves with thicker, fleece lined ones if you plan on sailing in really cold weather. Keep in mind that you need to balance flexibility and freedom with temperature protection according to you specific needs. It is the same issue as with other parts of your clothing, and the golden rule of the layers applies for gloves as much as it does for jackets or trousers.

8.) Protect your feet – appropriate sailing shoes will keep your feet safe and warm and at the same time provide you with the grip that you need on a wet and moving boat. We recommend sailing shoes that have flat soles with slip-protecting properties, and no heel. As with other clothing, modern materials have changed the design of footwear a lot and led to a diversification of the products available. Try different ones and keep an eye on your specific needs. We don’t recommend to sail in bare feet, as this is a potential cause for injuries and accidents.

9.) Have personal buoyancy with you – you might leave the boat before you want to leave the boat. In that case you should have your buoyancy handy. Once again you will have a choice between a variety of different products. Generally, personal buoyancy should support your body in open water and help to keep your head up. Lifejackets are most commonly used, since they are designed to keep your face above the water surface even if you lose consciousness. Most of them are based on gas inflation. However, they can constrain your flexibility especially if they contain close-cell foam.

Buoyancy aids are a way to get around that issue. They are basically pieces of closed-cell foam that are used as a belt supporting your waist only. As they allow a higher degree of freedom, buoyancy aids are the material of choice for dinghy sailors who often wear them over a wetsuit. Again, think of your specific needs and try to balance practicality with comfort.

Further Reading

Back to "sailing"

Information on Foul Weather Gear

How to choose sailing gloves

Sailing Apparel in the Yahoo! Directory