When it comes to clothing, what matters most is that it prepares you for emergencies, not catwalks
In case you haven't noticed from the boat shows and magazine ads, the proper yachtie must be properly attired. I suppose this trend started in the days when Sir Thomas Lipton wore finely tailored apparel as he bashed about on his Shamrock with British royalty.
Maybe it began much earlier. I seem to remember movies of Cleopatra reclining high up on her "barge," dressed in attire that accentuated certain attributes, even though it wouldn't have been suitable for bending over and picking up an oar. (Or maybe it would.)
Today many yachtsmen must do some of the work that goes into the sport, and for that reason, I suppose, yachting attire has gotten more practical. Take foul-weather gear, for example. When I began "yachting" in my 18-foot skiff I'd go to the hardware store and buy duck-hunting rubber suits to keep me dry when I was stupid enough to be caught out in the rain, which was often.
Later in life, the local NAPA store began to sell rubber suits that were yellow and had hoods. These were for local watermen and were cheap, so I could buy around a dozen pairs for what it would have cost me for a pair of the fancy foul-weather suits that were becoming popular.
But this attire had its problems. The suspenders always stretched and came off my shoulders, leaving the pants to fall down around my feet at the worst possible moments. And, at the other end, the hoods always blew back or to the side, no matter how well I tied the string under my chin. Also, it didn't take much bending and scraping to grow cracks in the waterproofing, which let the rain in and kept it there. So finally I gave up and bought a proper yachtie set of gear that does everything you could ever want.
It has pockets that won't let rainwater in, a hood that stays tight on your head in a gale, the pants legs can be adjusted to fit snugly around your ankles so they won't blow up your leg, and it'll snap around your wrists so you can't see your watch. But what really amazes me is that it breathes and sweats.
I don't think I'd have believed that if the advertisements hadn't told me, but that's what they say. Of course, I breathe and sweat, too, but I guess I can do more of both with this high-tech apparel. If I could find some foul-weather pants that would pee for me I'd really be happy.
But this gear costs so much I'm afraid to wear it. I figure I can only afford one pair in a lifetime. When I get to be 100, I'll probably start wearing it every day. In the meantime I found a nice set of Stearns yellow slickers at West Marine. They don't breathe or sweat, but they do have a good hood and snaps and keep me dry, and they cost less than 20 bucks.
The best part is that the fancy quality brand name "Stearns" is imprinted on the pocket. Brand names are certainly de rigueur when it comes to being a proper yachtie. I can exaggerate and tell people they cost hundreds of dollars.
Boots are next on the list for the properly attired yachtsman. Someone once gave me a Christmas present of some of the very pricey yellow ones with insulation and non-skid soles. These came up to the knees, which wasn't quite adequate because on the boat I had at the time I was usually standing in water over my knees. I've never come across a pair of yellow non-skid hip boots, but I'm still looking.
And even though I've tried many brands of boating shoes, I've never found a pair of non-skid soles that really keep me from slipping on wet decks. This is probably because of the way I walk and my propensity for landing on my backside no matter what I do, but the non-skid yachtie shoes I've tried just haven't worked for me.
So I use what we refer to in these parts as Gwynn's Island Bedroom Slippers, named because many of the watermen on Gwynn's Island wore them daily. You've seen them in your waters, I'm sure. They're white, and the only brand I wear is Red Ball.
These are only shin-high, I suppose, in deference to the fact that more rather than less foot rinsing is good among the true watermen, a fact that definitely applies to me. They don't have fancy non-skid, but for some reason I've never slipped in mine.
Their color is their biggest drawback - sparkling white, clearly advertising that you're a neophyte or someone who just won at poker the night before. But I've never had any trouble getting mine scuffed and scarred up the first day, something you wouldn't dare to do with proper knee-high yachting yellow non-skids.
Of course, boots beg the question of yacht shoes. There are very specific criteria for proper yacht shoes, not the least of which is that they must have impossible-to-replace leather cords running around the top, they must be leather (unless they're cloth), they must be expensive, and they must be grungy. I have a couple of pairs of those, again gifts.
The best thing I can say about them is that it's easy to kick them off after I slip and fall on my backside. I don't like shoes. I once spent a few days cruising around the BVI with some nice folks, never wearing my shoes. A good friend chastised me continuously, saying if I broke a toe or worse I'd ruin the trip for all aboard.
As we boarded a flight out of Tortola, he told me I should never go barefoot on a plane. He was a retired RAF pilot and spoke with authority. He pointed out that if the plane crashed and was burning, I'd have a bloody tough time running out through the fire barefoot.
As he finished telling me about fleeing the burning plane, I kicked them off and settled back for the takeoff. That summarizes my feeling for yachting shoes or any other kind of shoes. But the right kind does come in handy sometimes. I really like to wear my steel-toed work shoes when I work in the engine room. They're just what I need when I want to kick the hell out of whatever I'm working on.
Moving to the opposite end of the target, one reaches the subject of proper yachting hats. They basically come in two styles. There are the white ones with a wide peak over the shiny black bill (the bigger the peak, the more braid you can stick on), and then there are the Greek ones, which are usually dark blue with much less of a peak, if any.
I've noticed more and more of these lately but seldom on the head of any Greek. Perhaps that's because I haven't been to Greece. There seems to be a trend among certain long-range trawler owners toward the Greek version; that's probably because of the international implications. You simply must buy one or the other whenever you buy a boat - especially your first boat. And once you put it on your head, you automatically know all there is to know about the rules of the road, seamanship and your boat. And you aren't shy about telling people of your knowledge and skills.
I got a captain's hat (the white kind) shortly after I got my first skiff at age 9. I haven't had one since then. I found that it didn't work at all for me, none of my friends were impressed, and I began to suspect that the rest of my family was a bit embarrassed. Besides all that, the cap spent most of its time in the river.
At first that wasn't too much of a problem because I only had oars and it wasn't hard to spin around and fetch it. But after I started using motors, the speed of the boat would make it blow off several times an hour, and I wasted too much gas going back chasing it. To make matters worse, the river was muddy, and it soon turned the white cap brown.
I do have a few bill hats that I wear to keep sun from my eyes. They all say prestigious things over the bill and "Made in China" on the band.
These also cost me a lot of fuel and time. By the time I turn around and go back to pick them up, I might as well just buy another one. I've tried using all sorts of hat tie-ons and clip-ons, but the main effect of these seems to be to flip my glasses off my face and overboard as the hat tries to fly off. But I've got no reason to complain about hats.
I had a friend who shared my love for yet another yachting cap - the wool watch cap. I was talking with him on a beach in the Bahamas one day after he'd recently returned from a single-handed trans-Atlantic crossing in his slow sailboat, having departed from the Med.
While over there, he'd found the opportunity to buy a locally made authentic wool watch cap. He'd suffered through a lot of inferior watch caps and jumped at the chance to buy this prize from the local street vendor, who actually pointed out the donor sheep up on the hill.
After he left the coast, a very nice fair wind hastened him far along. He was well into his passage when he began to realize that the problem he had been noticing for some days was not in his imagination or an allergic reaction to all the salt spray or anything else so fortunate. The problem was lice. As it turned out, millions of them.
The source, it soon became obvious, was the wonderfully authentic watch cap. He was in the middle of the Atlantic with the wind now dying and not a drop of delousing remedy aboard. For days and days he slowly crawled across the face of the ocean, itching in agony, alternating between jumping into the ocean and scratching in the cockpit, with recurrent thoughts of abandoning ship and swimming home.
This tragic event ended his days of single-handing. He decided it would have been much better if there had been at least one more person aboard for the lice to share, and soon thereafter he married. After hearing my friend's tale, I purchased my last watch cap from a very chic upscale Banana Republic store.
This brings us to yachting gloves. They illustrate well the fact that there's no end to ingenuity in the yachting apparel industry, as is illustrated by my friend's story. You can actually buy yachting gloves with holes for the fingers so you can scratch your lice. Or whatever else you want to scratch.
He said he had some and was very grateful for them on the cold nights on watch, alone, other than his numerous lice mates. Occasionally I get to go to a yacht club because I'm asked to speak. On one such occasion a small fleet had just finished a race, and they were all wearing gloves with holes for the fingers, just like my friend's scratching gloves. I asked whether they had lice or fleas, or maybe just mosquitoes.
I was asked, with a none-too-subtle hint of hostility, to explain myself, which I did. I was haughtily informed that the holes in the fingers were to enable the true sailing yachtsman to more ably handle lines and that, no, the gloves were not cheaper because their fingers didn't go all the way to the end. I'm proud to say I now have a pair of these sailing gloves because a friend gave them to me. I haven't worn them yet. I'm saving them. Just in case.
I do wear some gloves. I wear rough work gloves to help protect what's left of my hands after a lifetime of boat work. I prefer gloves with a tough gripping surface because they help me get a good grip of whatever I need to turn. I also keep a box of nitrile gloves in the engine room. I wear them for changing oil. Used crankcase oil is pretty toxic. The one problem I've found with these is that they tear really easily (just like my skin), and far too often the rips fill up with oil running down from that damned filter I've just spun off.
No matter what I do, I end up dropping the oil-filled filter, usually in my lap, unless I drop it on my chest so it can roll down to my lap. This brings me to another important subject - yachting clothes.
I wouldn't be caught dead on my boat (although I probably will be) without my Dickies coveralls. (I only wear the deluxe type, please.) Now, in case some of you didn't grow up in the country, these are specially made for getting down and dirty. With my type of yachting (and budget) they're about the best yachting clothes you can find.
One great thing about them is that you don't have to worry about putting on your pants. This one piece of clothing does it all. You just pull it over whatever you have on (or don't have on) and you're good to go, top to bottom. Another good thing is that you don't have to worry about buttons. They use a heavy-duty zipper from top to bottom that zips both ways to accommodate certain bodily needs. And there are pockets all over the place.
With a suit of Dickies coveralls, you hardly need a toolbox. Just stuff your pockets with your favorite tools or parts. The only problem is that there are so many pockets it's hard to remember what you've put where, so sometimes I find myself having to check out every pocket before I retrieve what I want. I've gotten into the habit of doing this in the engine room to avoid the stares.
The best thing about my Dickies is that they're tough, and if you get the all-cotton ones, they're absorbent. When I drop that oil filter onto my chest and it rolls down to my lap, splashing out oil all the way, my good Dickies soak most of it up before it gets to the bilge.
Which brings up the other great thing about these yachting togs: You can strip out of them in a flash. This is great if you want to flash the race committee, but it's even greater if you want to get the hot oil away from your skin before it does a number on you. Just a yank of the zipper, a shrug of the shoulders and they're all at your feet. No more unbuttoning a shirt, pulling it off, undoing a belt and zipper and dropping trousers. And Dickies are made big so you can wear lots of stuff under them to keep you warm or to soak up oil. Also, the legs are so big you can slip them off over your shoes if you happen to be wearing shoes because you're contemplating a fire.
OK, I admit I'm not overly impressed by all the pretty models flaunting about in all the yachtie gear. But there's some stuff I need to talk about that's deadly serious. For example, good, well-
designed and well-made foul-weather gear can save your life. It can do a great job of helping to keep you dry and warm.
The importance of this can't be overstated. It's not just an issue of comfort. Being cold and wet on a passage can cause serious problems, such as hypothermia and deep fatigue. Mere fatigue can
result in loss of the ability for careful observation, loss of good decision-making capability, loss of agility, loss of strength and, overall, a loss of ability to be safe at sea.
Unfortunately, a lot of us can't afford to go out and buy a high-tech set of these foulies every year or so, but the cheaper solutions, mentioned above, when worn in appropriate circumstances, can help you to afford to buy the better gear and use it when you
really need it because you haven't already worn it out prancing around at the boat shows.
Warm clothes underneath foul-weather gear are also important in cold weather. Fleece, sweaters and other traditional clothing can add warming insulation, but they also can add bulk, detracting from agility. The ability to move quickly and effectively can make the difference between going overboard, avoiding a jibe and a host of other mishaps.
High-quality insulated long johns can help considerably with less bulk, but on really cold days at sea, I need more clothing. However, I always worry about how the undergarments will affect my ability to survive if I go over. Fortunately, I've been very scantily attired the few times I've fallen over thus far, but you never know.
Think about going over in cold weather and staying afloat with warm clothing under your foul-weather gear diminishing buoyancy as the clothing becomes waterlogged. Then think about getting pulled back on board with all that extra waterlog weight. You would normally wear your life jacket over everything, so you wouldn't be able to remove the waterproof clothes and then the heavy sodden garments underneath without removing the life jacket - which could easily be fatal.
You can go to the extreme of survival/work suits if you anticipate conditions as bad as that. These are expensive, but there are different grades, some of which are not as expensive as commercial suits. Just to see some examples, type "Stearns" or "Mustang survival suits" into a search engine, and you'll get an idea of what's out there and the pricing. But this type of gear is usually bulky and not what most of us would use in typical pleasure boating.
A less extreme solution comes from diving and surfing. We dive and have several grades of wet suits aboard. In a really bad situation, we can wear lightweight suits under our foulies. It's very uncomfortable but warm, and you have extra buoyancy and more time before hypothermia sets in if you go over. I sometimes wear a thin, lightweight surfer's body shirt that serves some of the same purposes and is less bulky and more comfortable.
I've learned of a very interesting new product marketed for winter sports. But it is also intriguing as a solution to cold-weather clothing on a boat. It could serve well as an outer garment but could be invaluable under foul weather gear.
Klymit Inc. (www.klymit.com) sells vests and jackets of two layers of special very thin, heat-welded fabric that can retain argon between the outer and inner skin. Argon is a noble gas with extremely high insulation values. Klymit says that a 5 mm layer of argon provides the same thermal insulation as 14 mm of the best synthetic or natural fibers.
The insulation, they say, is only 7 to 8 mm thick at typical inflation and 15 mm (roughly half an inch) when fully inflated, and it collapses to paper-thin, less than 0.2 mm, when deflated.
The wearer adds to or subtracts from the amount of gas in the vest as needed for warmth, comfort and mobility. As gas is added, the jacket conforms to the wearer, making a warmer fit, minimizing air flow between the body and the vest and convective heat loss. Because the argon gas is captured, the vest retains its thermal properties when wet. Divers have blown argon into their suits to retain body warmth for years.
Each vest comes with three argon canisters (you can buy replacements), from which you easily add gas, using an included filling mechanism. They are similar in size to carbon dioxide canisters. There is a purging valve to release argon if you get too warm or want greater mobility.
Klymit says the argon molecule is large, and the garment can retain the gas for months or more if the internal pressure is equal to atmospheric pressure and there is little use. Inflation time will vary depending upon usage and the amount of argon pressure. Klymit's small hand pump can be used to inflate the garment with air if you're out of argon. Dry air adds significant insulation value.
These are not designed or intended to be used as flotation devices, but they normally would add to buoyancy rather than detract from it as, say, a water-soaked sweater would. Nor would they interfere with someone hauling you back aboard, as a traditional soggy undergarment would.
These products are not specifically marketed for saltwater use, so metal components such as zippers or grommets should be washed in fresh water after exposure to salt water. There are several styles. The Amphibian style is blue and has reflective tape, rugged waterproof nylon and water-draining mesh pockets.
Over it all comes good life jackets and wearing them when we should. Buying cheap life jackets is like bungee jumping with rubber bands. We prefer high-quality Type I offshore life jackets, even when we're not offshore. We wear them whenever it's appropriate and err on the side of safety.
Offshore PFDs are designed to serve you well for long periods of time and can make a great difference over the cheaper Type II life jackets if you fall over, regardless of whether you're in the middle of the ocean or in a river. They do a better job keeping you afloat in the correct position, and they usually have rings or other features for attaching additional gear.
For situations when the bulk isn't appropriate, more and more boaters are using inflatable PFDs. Inflatables have many advantages, the most significant being that they are comfortable, therefore more likely to be worn, and we also use these. However, as with any product, read the caveats and qualifications from the manufacturer so that you are familiar with their use. Know what they will and will not do, and keep them maintained. Check www.stearnsflotation.com and www.mustangsurvival.com for examples.
But a life jacket, even though it keeps you afloat well, is not very good at helping people find you. A Type 1 should have well-placed reflective tape, but we always attach other attention getters to each person's life jacket. These include strobe lights, signal mirrors, whistles and a personal locator beacon on at least one of the crew.
As an example of what's available, ACR Electronics offers its Aqualink View PLB, which has a digital display so that you can see various functions, such as the testing sequence and the lat/lon of your location.
There is a flashing LED that's active when the unit is operational. A good PLB, as you know, can bring a rescue plane or boat right to you relatively quickly. We also like the Firefly Manual Strobe or Water Bug Strobe activated by the water. ACR also markets the Hot Shot signal mirror kit, with lanyard and a whistle.
Having said so much about proper yachting attire, I should mention the other side of the coin. A number of yachties, particularly in the warmer latitudes, take pride in wearing nothing at all at sea. My pride (or rather, my fear of humiliation) precludes me from joining that group. Obviously there's not much to say about this.
However, in the interest of covering the subject, I understand that very broad-brimmed hats, such as Tilley hats, present distinct advantages for this group. As Tilley's website says, "Sizing is important." These yachties should remember: The smaller the brim, the browner the bum.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat," at www.tomneale.com
This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.