The challenge of bibs design is, not surprisingly, a very different one from that of jacket design. One the one hand, it’s a bit less complicated, because you don’t have things like collars and hoods to deal with. On the other, it’s a lot tougher because of the demands of keeping your butt dry, even after spending a long watch on end out on deck.
“It’s easy to make a jacket or drytop waterproof. It’s the pants that are the real challenge when you might be sitting in a puddle of water for hours,” Helly Hansen’s Ulrickson says. “The pants are where we really put design and materials to the test.” See Helly Hansen's Offshore Trouser as a great example of a pair of bibs that will keep your derriere dry.
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As is the case with bluewater jackets, three-layer fabrics are the norm in the interest of weight, comfort, quick drying when wet and ease of putting on and taking off. The latter, in particular, is of concern with bibs—as anyone who has been launched across the saloon while trying to pull on a pair in preparation for a rough night watch well knows!
Many of the other features found on offshore bibs are the same as those found on bibs used for coastal or inshore sailing. However, on a well-made pair of bluewater trousers the design, materials and construction quality will be much higher to accommodate prolonged, rugged use.
West Marine’s Trysail bibs, for example, include a “storm flap” with a continuous length of Velcro and a large internal gusset made of the same three-layer fabric as the rest of the garment to keep water from getting in through the front zipper. The Velcro cuff flaps are also elastic to create a better seal around your sea boots, and there is an elasticized section under the armpit, again in the interest of sealing out the elements.
The shoulder straps are exceptionally robust and include both a buckle and Velcro in the straps to ensure they don’t loosen up during hard use—there’s nothing more frustrating than having one of your straps slip down over your arm when the boat is on its ear!
Finally, wear patches need to be large, robust and well installed. These are typically made up of a heavyweight “high denier” fabric like Cordura nylon, or SuperFabric, a fabric that was originally used in the abrasion resistance panels of motorcycle gear and has now been adopted by Gill in its top-end gear.
On the Trysail there are even a set of small wear patches on the outer cuffs and cuff straps. Remember, when sailing offshore through a patch of rough weather, your foulies may very well experience more use in a few days than a coastal sailor’s set will experience in multiple years.
In recent years, more and more companies have begun offering salopettes, as opposed to standard bibs for performance sailors. The definition of a salopette appears to be a somewhat nebulous one, with some looking more like high-cut bibs and other incorporating chest panels that transition directly into stretch panels at the shoulders.
However, all good salopettes, or salopette-like trousers, serve to protect your chest and back from wind and spray in the absence of a jacket. They also fit snugly around the chest and shoulders, once again in the interest of keeping those straps from slipping down over your arms, even when working hard at trimming sails in a racing situation. Atlantis WeatherGear’s Aegis Hybrid Bib, for example, includes a set of proprietary “Gator Grip” neoprene shoulder straps with a double-sided Velcro closure for just this reason.
Note that like smocks and other performance tops, garments like the Aegis also typically have smaller chest pockets than their more cruising-oriented counterparts, or none at all, in the interest of weight and breathability. The chest pockets on cruising bibs, on the other hand, are typically lined so they can also be used as hand warmers, something you're apt to use less on a racing boat where you’re continually trimming sail or tending the helm.
The Right Fit
Of course, the best materials and design in the world mean little if you can’t move around easily or feel bound up when sitting on the rail or in the cockpit. Manufacturers do their best to incorporate “articulated” knees, elbows and seats into their foul weather gear as well as plethora adjustments to fine tune fit. But in the end, it’s a question of personal taste and sailing style. There’s also little you can do if the shoulder width and arm lengths of a particular jacket are out of synch with your particular body type—just ask the generations of female sailors who until fairly recently had to get by wearing foul weather gear designer primarily for men. Same thing if the legs on a pair of bibs are cut too narrow for your calves or thighs. And don’t forget, you’ll be wearing these outer layers with a couple of layers underneath as well!
Next time you go gear shopping—or some day when you have a few extra moments to poke around your local chandlery—play around with the various straps and other adjustments for a while to make sure they work well and fall easily to hand.
Bluewater jackets and bibs/salopettes are not cheap and it only makes sense to put them through a kind of dry run. It may be sweaty work, but stretch out your arms, and twist and bend your legs and waist to see how things will feel when you're on the water. Zip or Velcro up the cuffs, collar and hood to see how those fit as well. If you don’t like what you feel, move on to another rack to see how a competitor’s jacket and bibs fit. Take your time, have fun and don’t be afraid to push things a bit. Better to find out a seam isn’t up to the task of holding things together when you bend over at the store than after you’ve handed over your hard-earned cash. You’ll be glad you did when you find yourself using your new purchases for real.