Welcome to the world where the donning of shoes is often considered dressing-up and the term clean shirt takes on a whole new meaning. From our experience through trial and error, maybe we can help you to decide what to keep, what to throw away, and what you'll need to buy to be a happy, safe, and comfortable cruiser.
In the warmer climes, the sun makes each day pleasant and warm; but, if you believe the medical studies regarding skin cancer, it must be respected for the damage it can do. We wear sunblock every day. We also try to wear wide-brimmed hats, instead of the cooler-looking sailor's caps that we like, but which offer very little shade protection to your face, neck, and ears. The inclusion of a couple of lightweight, loose-fitting cotton long-sleeved shirts and pants is also important for days when added protection over the usual T-shirts and shorts is needed. Today, there are even special SPF protection shirts and pants available that also dry more quickly than cotton. Sunglasses are another extremely important part of your everyday wear. Because water tends to make the sun's glare even worse than it is on shore, the eyes could be damaged by too much exposure, and navigational aids may be missed if you're squinting too badly.
When sailing in more northern waters, you'll be greatly affected by the cooler temperatures and will not enjoy the experience unless you have sufficient cold-weather clothing aboard. The invention of polar fleece has been a godsend for the cruising sailor. Not only is it warm, it's lightweight, scrunches up into the tiniest balls for efficient storage, never wrinkles, and still provides warmth even if it gets wet. Larry and I both have fleece hats, scarves, gloves, jackets, vests, pants, and even socks. Basically, some days we can look like big, fuzzy characters out of Sesame Street, but we're warm. (A storage tip for smaller boats is to use the fleece clothing as stuffing in pillow cases for your main salon throw pillows.) Combine the fleece with a wind-breaking foul-weather jacket, and you've got easy, free-moving comfort and warmth.
Nothing makes you more miserable when sailing than being wet—especially wet with salt water. Buy the best foul-weather gear you can afford. We both have good, heavy, offshore-type jackets and pants. These are essential for anyone who is planning any offshore sailing adventures. Good foul-weather gear not only provides the needed protection from the water, but when coupled with layers of fleece is great for any cold weather or windy conditions. Even in the warmer cruising areas, you'll often find yourself wearing foul-weather gear offshore at night. I also have a lighter-weight rain jacket that is mid-calf length and converts to hip-length. Although it's not waterproof in bad conditions, it's great for cutting the windchill and for keeping me dry in light rain or spray conditions. Rubber boots top off our wardrobe in the worst rain or sea conditions.
I mentioned the donning of shoes can be considered dressing up. I'm serious here. Many cruisers simply give up the practice of wearing shoes on the boat. The downside of this is that when you have to wear shoes again, your feet don't know what's happening to them. A cruising friend of ours moved back ashore a year ago and had to start wearing suits and ties again in New York City. His feet hurt him so much that he finally had to step on the back of his $200, leather dress shoes and wear them like slippers. Don't think his land-based working buddies didn't get a kick out of that!
Speaking of dress clothes, before leaving I insisted that we both include a blazer in our wardrobes for whatever occasion came up. Coming from a yacht-club background, I was sure we would need those. Well, after a year, nothing had yet come up. One day, we happened to be sitting at anchor in Camden, ME , the same week that the New York Yacht Club was having its annual summer cruise. All around us, large, beautiful yachts arrived. One even had a helicopter on it. As the cocktail hour approached, we noticed an extraordinary number of blue blazers making an appearance on deck. People were ferrying around from boat to boat making the party scene. Although we weren't included (and didn't expect to be) in any of the high-profile parties going on, Larry ran below and grabbed our blazers out of the hanging locker. We immediately put them on (with our ratty shorts and no shoes), sat in the cockpit with drinks and hors d'oeurvres, and didn't feel left out one bit. This—I have to admit—is the only time we have worn those blazers in our cruising so far.
Basically, if you plan to cruise the way we have been, you'll have very little use for fancy dress clothes. In fact, jewelry, accessories, and makeup pretty much all fall by the wayside for most women. My hair dryer, although not used a single time to dry my hair, has been very useful for a variety of boat-related jobs.
When it comes to storing clothes on board, you may need to take some special precautions. The boat is a very humid environment, and things can mold or get stale quickly, or heaven-forbid, get wet from some new leak that lets water trickle into your cabinet. We store all of our clothes in plastic freezer bags to help keep them fresher. The two-gallon size is very useful. By rolling each item before putting it in the bag, it takes up the least space possible and stays remarkably wrinkle-free. (OK, your standards of what's wrinkled do change a little too.) Hanging-locker space is highly overrated in the buying-a-cruising-boat stage. We hang only a half dozen items, yet knowing we could easily get by without hanging them. However, a separate wet locker for your foul-weather gear, is a wonderful item. Many cruisers convert their hanging locker space into shelves that are able to accommodate a lot more items usefully.
Because laundry is by no means as simple as when you had that big washer and dryer back home, you soon learn that a t-shirt doesn't casually get tossed in the laundry basket after one day's wearing. Quite frankly, there will be times when you're amazed at how many days in a row you've worn one item. Most of us tend to save our clean, fresh clothes for our trips ashore or visits to new friends' boats.
After you've been on the boat a few years, check out a fashion magazine, and you'll think you're looking at people from another planet. Basically, we've discovered that we need a whole lot less clothing on board to be comfortable cruising than we initially thought and are more than happy if we can simply achieve somewhat of an Ernest Hemingway look—adventurous, slightly scruffy, but with an air of confidence. Comfortable, loose fitting clothing tends to be what gets grabbed first when getting dressed in the morning. Rugged, good quality clothes, designed to protect you from the elements will serve you well for many years on the cruise. The best advice we can offer you is that after you determine how many clothes you think you need to bring, halve that amount, and you'll probably find you still have too much.
Basic Minimum Wardrobe Essentials(These clothing recommendations will take you from the Canadian border in the fall, to the Caribbean for the winter.)