Like most sailors, I have accumulated a wide range of boat-related clothing over the years. And also—like most sailors, I suspect—I still possess almost all of it. The closet in our spare bedroom contains a timeline of key developments in sailing apparel (and unfortunately smells a bit like it, too): assorted jackets of varying degrees of water-resistance and decrepitude, lined and unlined foulweather pants and bibs, and a few items that defy rational description. Heavy-duty offshore gloves that operate and feel somewhat like lobster claws, waterproof socks, knee-high seaboot-and-gaiter-combinations, mid-layer clothing; take your pick.
All this gear has one thing in common; it rarely sees the light of day. Gone are my days of bashing around the North Sea and English Channel at all times of the year, layered up like a red-and-yellow Michelin man to keep the freezing rain and spray at bay, whiskers white with salt. Coastal New England sailing is so much more benign than Old England sailing that conditions seldom call for more than shorts and a T-shirt, or at worst an unlined jacket.
So I resolved to have a bit of a purge and make room for some non-sailing kit by jettisoning every bit of gear I hadn’t worn in the last decade, regardless of its sentimental value. That old offshore jacket that leaked so badly I only wore it once? Out with it, even though it reminded me of a fantastic moonlit voyage to Brittany 23 years ago. Hey, here’s that cutting-edge early-‘90s two-piece sailing suit prototype, Smurf-colored and festooned with ventilating zippers, that I was told I had to wear next to bare skin for maximum benefit. I tried it on a day race and found the zippers had a way of sneaking open, to the horror of my shipmates. What about the $500 leather-and-Gore-Tex boots I wore on a two-week cruise in the Beagle Channel and have hardly touched since—no, they may come in handy one day. Gloves? What fool throws waterproof gloves away? Even if they are just a tad too tight…
And so it went. The closet wasn’t much emptier by the time I’d finished, though my pungent collection of worn-out deck shoes was a little smaller. (I know how to compromise.) But as I worked my way through the decades-old gear to the jackets I had acquired during the last year or two, I couldn’t help but notice how today’s sailing gear is so much lighter, more comfortable and more versatile than yesterday’s. The emergency foulweather kit that lives on the boat consists of a pair of unlined lightweight pants and an unlined jacket that packs away to almost nothing, yet both are at least as waterproof as anything else I’ve ever worn. That’s a real advance, as is the advent of technical shirts and shorts that shed water and dry fast and don’t weigh you down the way wet cotton does or give you the wet-dog smell of damp wool.
All it will take now to make me really happy is for someone to come up with sailing pants that look and feel like denim and are as comfortable as a pair of jeans, but won’t drag you into the depths if you fall in the water. (I covered a few “drowning by denim” incidents as a cub reporter and that was enough for me.) Come on, clothiers, who will accept that challenge?
And while you’re at it, get your shoemaker buddies to come up with boat shoes that don’t end up smelling like rancid cheese by the third time you’ve worn them. Now that would be a service to the sailing community. To say nothing of domestic harmony.