Where I live, an especially long, lovely, and sweet-tempered Indian summer is finally giving way before the blasts of gray fall, and the whine of the leaf-blowers is heard in the land. I'm sailing less, and so in free moments find myself taking stock of lessons learned over the summer. This exercise in recollection and letting go has been a habit of mine for years, but the subject matter seems to be changing. I've been thinking less about sail-handling and navigation, more about safety and comforts—those little touches and simple disciplines that can make a maneuver less dangerous or a midwatch more enjoyable.
Some of these thoughts running through my mind originated elsewhere. Speaking with Ed Greeff, who is now retired from the sea, but who first went out there seven decades ago, I heard a rule of thumb that I have long understood generally but have never been able to articulate as clearly as he did. We were talking about handling a boat under sail in heavy weather. "The big mistake that people make when they get into trouble is that they ease the mainsheet," Ed said with characteristic decisiveness. "But if you just trim the sail flat, the boat settles down and the boom doesn't bang around and hit somebody or break." There it is, a nice, simple rule of thumb that, while it may not apply to all boats in all conditions, is something to conjure with if you sail shorthanded or (like me) believe that the most dangerous piece of moving gear on a boat (other than the door to the liquor locker) is the boom.
But, as I say, most of what I've been thinking about concerns comfort, which means staying dry, which (because water conducts heat 25 times faster than air) means staying warm. Anybody who has not thought seriously about such things should do what I did last summer and spend a month sailing in England. There's nothing like a day of 30s and threes in the Solent (30 miles of racing, 30 knots of wind, a three-knot contrary current, and three-foot breaking waves) to make a sailor finicky about foul-weather gear. If banging into that mill race doesn't focus the mind on waterproof pants, jacket, and boots, there's always a Fastnet Race with its long watches in cold, damp dawns off the coast of Cornwall, when you wonder if you'll need a blowtorch to thaw your knees and get them back in operating order.
I once heard the problem nicely defined by a fellow in the foul-weather gear trade. "Say you're on deck in a cold, pouring rain and a rough sea and your cheap gear is leaking like a sieve, OK? Now, exactly how much money would you be willing to spend at the moment to be dry? Twenty-five bucks? Fifty? A hundred?"
In that light, a year or so ago I sprang for a pricey, $600 suit of heavyweight, roomy breathables—top and bottom. Heavyweight means almost sturdy enough to stand up on their own, and with plenty of reinforcement at the knees and seat because active sailors do a lot of crawling and sliding around on deck. Roomy, because I don't want to feel restricted, and because I tend to fill my pockets with enough stuff—Leatherman, flashlight, emergency light, hat, gloves—so that when I go off watch and unload, it's a little like Mad Max checking his weapons at the front desk at Bartertown. Breathables because I knew that I'd be sailing in warm, wet American rain as well as in cold, wet British spray.
There's much more to buying foul-weather gear than simply selecting the good stuff and handing over a credit card. Check that it fits your needs. For one, the safety harness has to go on easily. Observing my recently adopted Grandchildren Rule, I make it a habit to wear a combination safety harness/inflatable PFD in even moderately rough weather. (The Grandchildren Rule says, "I want to live long enough to meet and play with my grandchildren, so I'll do everything I can to keep from downing.") The jacket has to be simple enough so the harness can go on quickly without a wrestling match and without asking a shipmate for assistance.
If the harness or the inflatable is tricky to put on, it won't be put on in a pinch. To my knowledge, the sailor in the greatest danger in an emergency is not the one who is already on deck and properly kitted out. It's the self-appointed hero who, without pausing to put on proper protection, confidently leaps up the companionway to help a shipmate—only to take a tumble and go over without a harness or flotation.
Next, the suit has to fit comfortably over your warm clothes. Everybody has a different layering system, and here's mine for the top in cold weather, going from the inside out: long johns, a pile pullover, a lightweight wind breaker (which holds the heat in wonderfully), and, on the outside, the foul-weather top and harness/inflatable. Everything's synthetic except a neck cloth (a long narrow towel) that I use for keeping out the drips. When shopping for a new suit of foul-weather gear, put on all these layers, then the suit, and then commence to leap around the sales floor hauling imaginary halyards, grinding imaginary winches, and searching for imaginary ignition keys lost in imaginary cockpit lockers. There should be no binding at the knees when you kneel or stand up, and no strain under the armpits when your stretch out your arms.
Consider special features: reflector tape on the shoulders and the top of the hood when it's unrolled so you can be found at night in the water; heavy adjustable gaskets in the cuffs; a double zipper that runs high to cover your lower face and opens at the bottom so you can reach inside. Style counts a little, but functionality counts much more.
Having made this rather substantial purchase, adding a pair of calf-high boots, you take your new outfit on board only to discover that it is indistinguishable from almost everybody else's. Most foul-weather clothing is either yellow or red for the good reason that those two colors can be seen over a long distance. To prevent my extra-extra-large shipmate from exploding my gear, and me from getting lost in his, I color-code the jacket and pants with short lengths of ribbon or colored electrician's tape passed through the loops inside the collar and at the waist. In a crowded hanging locker, it's not enough only to write your name inside; you need a bright flash of coordinated color for distinction.
Properly cared for with an occasional freshwater rinse, foul-weather gear should last, if not forever, at least until, like all good things, it glides to the end of its useful offshore life and must be replaced, like Indian summer with fall.
Cold Weather Clothing by Bob Merrick
Crew Overboard Gear by Tom Wood
Crew's Seabag by Mark Matthews