When the Sea Gets Rough

Whether darting across a harbor aboard a sailing yacht for a weekend or a month-long cruise, having foul weather gear with you is invaluable. Generally, poor weather clothing (“foulies” to sailors) consists of jackets, pants, and boots with windproof and waterproof qualities. The right gear can keep the crew safe and even assist in emergencies.  

While foul weather gear is usually a more critical consideration for sailors, power boaters also need to have the type of foul weather gear that matches the climate, expected weather, and passenger needs. Boaters and sailors want the best protection that technology can offer: a dry, comfortable fit in outer garments that are breathable, durable, and warm.

Almost any type of foul weather gear will keep the wearer dry, but not necessarily warm. Warmth comes from layered undergarments, many of which use state-of-the-art fabrics that make sailing more enjoyable, even in the foulest of weather. In extremely hot or cold climates and when exerting lots of effort, breathable fabrics keep the body dry and warm by moving perspiration and condensation outward, making it less likely for the wearer to feel cold and clammy or hot and sticky.

Foul Weather Gear: Jackets

The first defense against bad weather is outer gear (jackets and pants). The keys to comfort are well-fitting jackets and pants that are waterproof, flexible, and roomy enough to accommodate under layers. Generally available in four basic materials, each has different waterproofing, breathability, and durability qualities.

  • Polytetrafluoroethylene (PFTE): Better known as Gore-Tex, PFTE is used to make waterproof and breathable fabric membrane for jackets and pants. Cost is moderate to expensive.
  • Polyvinyl-chloride (PVC): A durable coating that is abrasion-resistant, lightweight, and inexpensive. PVC is very waterproof but collects condensation and perspiration between the skin and the garment that can make wearing it very uncomfortable.
  • Polyurethane: A rubber polymer coating lighter, more flexible, and breathable than PVC, but less durable and less able to repel water. Over time, polyurethane can delaminate.
  • Neoprene: A flexible, durable coating, but also the heaviest and most expensive. Popular in northern climates where sailing/boating is not just wet, but cold as well.

Foul weather gear also includes what landlubbers would call rain suits. This lightweight and inexpensive PVC gear protects well against rain and wind but will not keep the wearer warm, nor does it adequately vent perspiration and condensation. They are likely the best choice for passengers on larger power boats with cabins and provide adequate protection for day sailors and boaters on open vessels who are not overly concerned about keeping warm. 

Features to Look for in Foul Weather Jackets: 

  • Snug wrist and ankle closures. Inner/outer wrist closures keep water out and adjust for ventilation.
  • Large, cargo-type pockets with flaps, Velcro closures, and drain holes.
  • Jacket length should extend from below the seat to just under the chin.
  • Around the neck, an outer Velcro or zipped-closure and an inner, fleece-lined closure that does not touch the skin are critical to comfort.
  • A meshed jacket inner liner, which promotes interior airflow.
  • A heavy-duty, easy-to-grip front zipper that resists rust and corrosion. Gutters and Velcro storm flaps help funnel water away from the zipper.
  • Other features include underarm ventilation holes, fleece-lined hand warmer pockets, and hoods in a zippered collar pocket.
  • Red or yellow hood colors and reflective tape on hoods and jackets make it easier to locate overboard crew members in blue or green water, especially at night.
  • For offshore sailors, jackets with crotch straps, safety harness, and inflatable personal flotation device connection points, and buoyancy chambers offer added measures of safety.

Foul Weather Gear: Pants

Pants with suspenders, called bibs, work best to keep water away from the legs and torso. Velcro closures at the cuffs create a seal around sea boots and reinforced patches at the knees and seat guard against abrasion. The best fitting pants have crossed shoulder straps, which work well in keeping the straps on the shoulder and the pants up. Built-in elastic strips provide more flexibility. Velcro closures on pant leg bottoms help keep boots and feet dry. Chest pockets should be cargo-type, with flaps and Velcro closures. When gearing up, remember that the pant legs stay outside the boot, so rain or shipped water cannot enter the boot.

Sea Boots and Shorties

Sea boots serve two important functions: they keep the feet dry and warm, and they prevent slips and falls on wet decks. Sea boots have soft soles and heels, so as not to damage boat decks. Full-length insulated boots and wicking socks provide the best protection from the cold for coastal and offshore boaters; some sailors also use toe warmers. For day sailors and power boaters, short boots (also called shorties) provide adequate foot protection and allow for ease of movement. They are usually made of rubber. Socks can be layered inside the short boots to adjust for cold or comfort. (There are many considerations in choosing everyday boating shoes too.) 

Layering for Boating

To adjust for weather changes during a cruise, layering is essential. The prudent sailor or boater will take the time to plan what clothing is best for a particular voyage. As weather changes from hot to cold or vice versa, or as sea conditions change from gusty to a dead calm, sailors shed — or add — clothing layers for protection from the elements. Worn next to the skin, the base layer wicks away moisture, allowing the body to maintain its temperature, an important part of staying comfortable. Over the base layer, an insulating layer serves as a buffer between warm skin and cold air, trapping warm air near the body, which reduces heat loss.

What are Technical Garments

The array of layered clothing brands and terminology can be confusing. A relatively new term, “technical garments,” describes the latest in sailing garb worn beneath outer gear. These cutting-edge fabrics provide excellent waterproof, breathability, and moisture wicking, making them far more comfortable than non-breathable garments like cotton. Cotton garments absorb moisture like a sponge and quickly become saturated and uncomfortable. Popular breathable fabrics include micro-porous laminates and those with hydrophilic coatings; both help the body maintain a comfortable temperature. 

Gloves and Foot Warmers for Boating

Depending on climate and weather conditions, sailors and boaters should consider having available other gear to help keep warm and comfortable. Cold weather sailors will often use insulated sailing gloves and hand and foot warmers to keep the extremities warm and wear an insulated stocking cap to prevent heat loss from the head.

Caring for Your Gear

Protecting the significant investment in foul weather gear, which can easily exceed $700 for decent equipment, starts with proper care, which can extend garment life for years. To carry foul weather gear on board and to stow the equipment while underway, a waterproof sea bag roomy enough to handle jacket, pants, boots, and related equipment is a good idea. Preserve both foul weather gear and technical garments by closely following manufacturer care instructions and develop the habit of cleaning the apparel as soon as possible after an outing. 

Trying on foul weather gear and technical garments at marine retailers or boat shows is an inexpensive and fun way to learn about the various types of gear. Also, catalog and web research can help sailors, and power boaters understand foul weather gear features, material, fit, and cost.

Whatever the level of sailing, investing in the right foul weather gear will enhance the sailing experience, keep sailors and boaters dry and comfortable and better able to focus on navigation and safety.