Just because you’re not planning on braving the Southern Ocean this summer doesn’t mean that you won’t have some dicey days out on the water. If you haven’t got the right gear, a little rain or humidity can make things miserable. As with all safety equipment, “it’s always better to have protection you don’t need than need it and not have it,” cautions gear expert and former Olympic and America’s Cup sailor Jerry Richards. On the other hand, if you overdo things, you’ll be sweating it out in bulky, heavy (not to mention expensive) gear that you don’t need. Here’s what you should know to select summer gear that’s just right.
Smocks and Jackets
When it comes to tops, you’ll have to choose between a smock and a jacket. Jackets are more popular and usually more comfortable, but if you do a lot of racing, you might consider a smock. Because smocks don’t have a full zipper, they can be more effective at keeping water out, a good option for anyone expecting to get the occasional drenching while doing bow work or dinghy sailing. They’re also cut shorter for increased mobility. The longer length of a jacket, however, may keep you warmer. That said, on a warm day, a smock may be too hot, whereas a jacket can be unzipped to cool down. With this in mind Richards recommends that “On a nice day if it’s not going to rain, the jacket you would want might be a crew jacket. The collar wouldn’t be so tall, it might not even have fleece inside, but that’s a jacket you can wear over or under your bibs.” The versatility of a crew jacket makes it a good lightweight option for casual sailing. If you’re looking for a little more protection, remember this rule of thumb: the higher the collar, the more the jacket is aimed at offshore sailing (and usually the higher the price). Inshore jackets will also be shorter than their heavy-duty offshore counterparts.
Salopettes and Trousers
Richards says many new sailors don’t realize they’ll probably spend far more time in their bibs than they do their jacket. In fact, he recommends always starting the day in pants; it’s much easier to take them off if it gets too warm than it is to dry off if you’re chilly and sitting on a wet deck without them.
You have two main options when choosing pants: salopettes and trousers. Salopettes are higher cut around the neckline, which will help keep your upper body dry, especially when you’re wearing them without a jacket, as Richards predicts you often will. Because they provide full coverage, however, you may find yourself overheating. If that sounds like a deal breaker, Richards says, “You can wear chest-high trousers and you probably won’t be so hot because the waterproof breathable fabric isn’t all the way up over your shoulders like it would be on the salopette.” Note that salopettes are designed with wider shoulder straps which won’t slip down, adding to the coverage. They usually stretch but cannot be adjusted. If you’re worried about fit, it’s another reason to turn to high-waisted trousers as these typically have adjustable Velcro straps.
Unfortunately, female sailors, beware—you probably won’t have much of a choice, as most manufacturers don’t make salopettes designed for women. Helly Hansen is an exception, so you might want to try looking there.
Once you’ve decided what style gear suits your needs, you need to look at construction. You’re probably familiar with names like GORE-TEX but how do these waterproof, breathable materials actually work? The key is a thin membrane with microscopic pores in it. They’re so small that liquid water droplets cannot fit through, but water vapor can. Because this layer is so thin, it has to be protected with other fabrics. Richards says that most damage to foul weather gear is actually due to chafe from the inside, not wear and tear on the outside, which leads you to your next decision: two- or three-layer laminate? Two-layer constructions will include an outer layer, the microporous membrane and a mesh lining on the inside to protect the membrane from abrasion. Three-layer fabrics consist of an outer layer, the membrane and a solid inner layer, or scrim, which are all glued together so that it feels like a single layer. Three-layer fabrics tend to be more expensive but also more durable. Consider whether you’re doing the kind of sailing that actually requires the extra protection. Most true inshore gear will have two-layer construction since you only need a three-layer laminate if you’re doing some serious racing or going offshore.
You also might run into coated hydrophilic fabrics, which employ a different method for waterproofing than the microporous membranes. Instead of having pores, the coating itself chemically facilitates the transfer of water molecules from warm moist areas to cooler, drier areas. These are less breathable than microporous fabric but still much better than a normal raincoat.
Once you’ve decided what style and construction best suit your needs, there are a few final things to consider before investing in your gear.
How do you pick a size? Richards recommends going for a bigger size when in doubt. It’s hard to anticipate just how many layers you’ll want underneath, and there are few things worse the straightjacket sensation of overstuffed gear.
Do you need pockets for your tools? I sail with a woman who likes to have a spare sail tie handy at all times. Whether it’s a radio, sunblock or snacks, think about what you’ll want within arm’s reach and make sure your gear has a place for it.
Does it have taped seams? These days most gear on the market has taped seams, but it’s worth confirming before you buy. Leaky or ripped seams undermine the whole point of a waterproof garment and will make for some miserable sailing.
Do you need reinforced patches over high abrasion areas? If you’re just trying to stay dry when a sudden shower blows up during a lazy afternoon on the water, probably not. If you’re planning on spending a lot of time grinding, then yes, you’ll definitely want those patches.
Do you want a reflective, fluorescent-yellow hood, a two- way zip or adjustable cuffs? Gear that’s properly cared for can last for five or more years, so consider all your options and choose carefully. If you do your research now, it will pay dividends later when you’re warm and safe out on the water.
Helly Hansen hellyhansen.com
Henri Lloyd henrilloyd.com
North Sails webstore.northsails.com
West Marine westmarine.com