How to Dress for Sailing Success

How to Dress for Sailing Success

Apr 17th 2018

Wearing lighter weight, less restrictive, highly breathable garments will keep you warm (but not too warm!) and dry all day in the worst of conditions.

As long as conditions are safe, rough weather should not keep us from enjoying the water. In fact, rough weather days can often be the most memorable—and great for stories at the bar afterward. However, poor quality clothing and out-of-date fabrics can ruin the day for all on the water activities, especially for people who are new to boating.

Knowing yourself and your tolerance to the cold is the most important part of deciding how to dress for sailing or boating. Proper layering and the right outer garments can make the difference between a cold, miserable day on the water and a memorable and exhilarating day.

Base layers

Most people see a base layer as a piece of clothing to keep you warm. But the true function of a base layer is to keep the surface of the skin dry by moving water away from the skin through a process called “wicking.” A good wicking base layer will keep you warmer in cold conditions and help you to stay cool on hot days, especially when wearing waterproof breathable outer garments.

With only moderate exertion, our bodies give off about a quart of moisture vapor in one hour. This is the body’s natural cooling system. To prevent discomfort, this moisture should not be absorbed by fabrics next to the skin but should be able to evaporate or wick to the next layer to keep the skin dry.

Polyester or merino wool fabrics are the best choices for a functional base layer. Cotton is bad on the water! Cotton clothing absorbs moisture up to 400% of its own weight. Damp fabric and the moist surrounding air will transfer heat AWAY from the body twenty times faster than dry fabric and surrounding air. If you are wearing cotton clothing next to the skin, it will absorb the moisture and suck the heat out of your body leaving you feeling cold and clammy, which will eventually lead to premature fatigue

If you find that your old base layer is no longer wicking well, it’s time to replace it. Also—never use fabric softeners on polyester or merino wool fabrics.


mid-layer should be worn over the base layer. Its purpose is to help trap the warm, dry air close to the body—trapped air works like double-glazing in a house. A good mid-layer garment is highly breathable to allow the moisture that has been wicked from your skin to pass through. This is known as moisture vapor transfer.

Fleece or lofted garment similar to a sleeping bag both make excellent mid-layers. The materials used should be non-absorbing. For the same reason as above, cotton is not a good choice.

Mid-layers can also function as a great outer layer in mild weather on the boat andalso look great on shore.

How heavy an outer layer you need will depend on where you're sailing.

Waterproof, breathable outer layer

The outer layer is what protects you from the elements. Look for a garment that is highly breathable and completely waterproof and windproof.

The primary purpose of the outer layer is to stop wind and water from getting in and prevent the warm, dry air within the mid-layer from escaping while allowing moist air to escape (moisture vapor transfer). The latest fabrics on the market are lighter and more flexible than ever before, but still incredibly durable. These fabrics allow greater freedom of movement and are less fatiguing when worn for extended periods.

Outer layers come in a wide range of styles, and with many different features available, you need to consider the kind of boating you will be doing and where you’ll be doing it to choose the right system. The needs on the water in San Francisco Bay are very different to those in Biscayne Bay, Miami. Maybe you never leave protected waters, or do you prefer to undertake long offshore passages? Are you a racer, a cruiser, a fisherman, or a power boater? Regardless of your boating preference, there is a product available to suit your needs. 

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