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Old 01-12-2003
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Ben Hilke is on a distinguished road
Personal Shelter from the Elements


When you really need foul weather gear is usually just about when you find out how bad your gear is.
The boat is absolutely screaming. The sails are full and water is breaking over the bow. The skies are slightly hazy with a slight mist in the air, but the sailing is perfect. Everything is just clicking. The right sails are flying and the boat is in perfect trim. There is only one problem—you feel this chill creeping up your spine. You're not freezing, but that slight nip in the air is just making you, well, uncomfortable. The last thing you want to do is go down and yank out the smelly, heavy, foul-weather gear that you forgot to air-dry the two months ago when you got caught in a storm. Not only does it smell, but if you put that heavy thing on you will be overheated, stinky, and unable to move about the boat efficiently.

So as you return to port, cold and miserable but smiling because of the sailing, you take a mental note to stop by the boat store or the outdoor outfitters shop in order to find the perfect jacket. This sounds like a good idea, but when you enter the shop you instantly realize that this might not be so easy. Close to a hundred different jackets line the racks, some claiming to be waterproof, others stating that the jacket is water-resistant and windproof. Then the sales person comes over to help but only furthers the confusion by talking about "breathability, water-resistant zippers" and this stuff called "DWR." It's all just too much and you leave the store realizing that maybe your foul weather gear isn't so foul afterall.


With all the makes and models available, it can be truly confusing to decide what kind of wet-weather gear to get.
With any luck, you venture back to the sanctity of your home, boot up the computer, and calmly surf the web for some advice. Lo and behold you check out SailNet and stumble upon this article. You're in luck because I am here to try and simplify the often exasperating world of lightweight sailing wear. I won't offer any brand name preferences, technical gear-head palaver, or references to how good the jacket will be for ice-climbing; just the basics regarding what distinguishes one kind of garment from another. After reading this article, you should be able to walk into the store with a fairly specific notion of what you are looking for, and you should be able to understand when the sales person shows you the options.

OK, the first thing we need to do is define that that nasty term "waterproof." When you're dealing with outdoor gear, this puppy gets slung all over the place. Of course there are waterproof jackets on the market, and they are normally inexpensive and made of rubber or have a coating that doesn't let anything through the garment. The problem with waterproof garments is that they don't "breathe," meaning they do not let built-up, hot and moist body vapor out of the jacket. Try going for a run in a garbage bag and you will get an idea of what these garments can feel like. Even at rest, your body will produce enough vapor inside of a waterproof jacket to feel wet. Wet is bad, and leads to loss of heat, discomfort and often the chill that we are trying to avoid in the first place. Your existing foul weather gear might fall into this category and if it does, you don't need another foul weather jacket. So we've just eliminated a group of jackets from your decision making in one paragraph, not bad.

"Here's the deal, all waterproof or breathable clothing will eventually leak depending on the amount of pressure behind the water trying to get into the item."
The next group of clothing we have to look at is what you'll usually find under the heading waterproof/breathable. The easiest way to look at this class of garments is to know in the back of your mind that none of the jackets you will be trying on in this category are completely waterproof. Do not tell this to the sales person trying to help you, they will panic and get very, very defensive. Just keep it as our little secret. Here's the deal, all waterproof/breathable clothing will eventually leak water depending on the amount of pressure behind the water trying to get into the item. For the outdoor wear industry's waterproof/breathable star product Gore-Tex, it will take a fire-hose and a ton of pressure to push a droplet through the garment. Gore-Tex is good stuff if you are planning on hanging out in downpours or Force-9 gales.

But even with all its waterproofing, the breathability of Gore-Tex is limited. It does breathe, but if the humidity is high (as it is in many coastal environments), or the temperature is warm (around 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit), the breathability of Gore-Tex or any other waterproof/breathable jacket just doesn't seem to help. The stuff works great for snow skiing because it is usually cold and dry outside. Hot, wet vapor is drawn out by the temperature and humidity difference and the person wearing the garment feels dry and warm. But in a marine environment, the hot, moist inside atmosphere of the jacket is about the same as the warm, moist environment outside, thus the vapor goes nowhere and you will end up damp; then we're back where we started. So for a lightweight cruising jacket or pants you will want to avoid the waterproof/breathable stuff. Eliminating these garments from your decision will drastically reduce the choices of jackets you're thinking about purchasing. So let's take a closer look at what's left.


What most sailors really need, says the author, is gear that's water-resistant and windproof.

This last group of clothing is called water-resistant and windproof. In my opinion, this is what most sailors are looking for though they may not know it. No more afternoon chills, just warmth, dryness, and dare I say coziness. Let the wind blow harder, the sea throw more salt spray, heck even let the drizzle start, it won't matter. You'll be protected by a lightweight garment that is easy to move in, packable, windproof, and nearly waterproof. Unfortunately this group of outerwear can be the most confusing category. Try to keep in mind here that the term water-resistant can mean many things. Some of the garments in this group can keep you fairly dry even in a deluge of rain. Others might have you running for shelter if the slightest drizzle begins, but still protect you from the wind and will breathe like a T-shirt.

Most sailors I have talked to prefer garments that are more water-resistant. These pieces still breathe well enough for most coastal environments, but offer more durability and can handle the demanding conditions that sailing often presents. The key to finding the more water-resistant clothing is determining if it is coated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent). That sounds technical I know, but it really isn't that complicated. DWR is just a treatment that is added to the thread of the outermost layer of a jacket so that when water hits it, the water will bead, or not soak into the garment. This coating and the dense weave of the fabric are what give a jacket or pant its water resistance. And the coating doesn't hinder the breatheability of the fabric in any way shape or form. DWR does eventually wear out, but it is very easy to buy more and spray it on the jacket and it will return to its original ability to repel water.


Bib trousers, a popular item among offshore sailors, should also be able to repel water and wind.

You are now ready to go to the store with the utmost confidence in what you are looking for. You'll find that the prices for this last kind of clothing will run from around $100 to $250. Anything under that you are going to really want to check the tags and ask the store personnel if it is worth the money. Anything over the $250 range and you're probably paying too much in my opinion, unless you're headed offshore for an open ocean crossing where you'll be using your gear non-stop for more than 10 days straight. Good luck, may you avoid the chill, and may the wind and sun be at your back.


Suggested Reading:

Staying Dry and Warm by John Rousmaniere

Cold Weather Clothing by Bob Merrick

The Cruisers' Wardrobe by Sue & Larry

SailNet Store Section: Foul-Weather Gear

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