Having spent many years sailing in England, where there is no climate as such, just weather (as the Brits love to say, with just a touch of bitterness), transitioning to coastal sailing in the United States came as a pleasant surprise to me. It took a year or two before I stopped toting my ocean-grade foulweather gear around and became acclimated to sailing in shorts, T-shirt and (sometimes) a light jacket. I’ve so seldom worn long pants on the boat that when I sailed in jeans the other week it felt decidedly unnatural.
Of course, pride precedes an inevitable fall, and after a couple of years of fair-weather daysailing I had been lulled into such a sense of false security that when invited to race from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, I packed only the lightest of gear, the dog days of summer having brought 95-degree temperatures to the coast. The first night out, with the sea temperature in the 50s and the air temperature in the 40s, I’m sure the chattering of my teeth kept my shipmates awake.
That was a lesson re-learned. Later that year, delivering a boat to Bermuda in mid-October, I packed the full British summer regalia—thermals, fleece midlayer, wool socks and heavy-duty oilskins, as the English call foulweather gear—and was glad of it, even though by day three I was back in shorts and T-shirt.
Of all the things that can happen to you at sea, over-exposure to heat and cold are possibly the most insidious. I’ve been close enough to heat exhaustion on a boat to believe the stories of sudden death from heatstroke, and as for cold, well, hypothermia is no joke either and tends to sneak up on you. I’ve sailed with a few people who showed pre-hypothermic symptoms and who usually denied it; in fact, I think I may have been one of them.
A quarter-century ago I proudly wore my first-ever set of Musto Ocean gear, a canary-yellow suit so heavily built that it almost stood up on its own. No raindrop would have dared sneak through its triple-welded and taped seams. It would have served me well around Cape Horn, but heaven forbid you should ever try to swim in it. It set the standard for its time, but since then boating gear has become lighter, more waterproof, more wearable, more stylish and more comfortable. The new generation of artificial-fiber gear keeps you warm and/or cool and, as importantly, dries quickly; cotton may not kill, but when it’s wet and salty it can sure give you an enduring case of baboon butt.
Great jackets for all climates, shirts, T-shirts, underwear, fleeces, hats, shorts: the new wave of technical gear caters to all requirements except one; I still haven’t been able to find a pair of sailing pants that combine the comfort, look and wear of denim jeans with the light weight and fast-drying qualities of tech fabrics. You have to choose between looking as though you’re about to step onto a Volvo boat, or wearing oddly cut things with multiple pockets and zip-off legs of the sort sported by elderly gents on cruise ships. Whichever manufacturer comes up with jeans for sailors will be hailed as a sartorial savior. Who will rise to the challenge?