April 19, 2011

The perpetual battle to stay dry

A REGULAR READER called Nikolay has asked for advice about foul-weather clothing. He says: “To give you an idea of the intended usage: I'm a keelboat weekend sailor, some multi-day cruises, and the odd 50-100 nautical-mile race.”

I get the feeling that Nikolay is more than a little shocked, as I am, by the price of offshore foulies of the type designed for people who can’t shelter behind a dodger.

I have to say that I personally have yet to find foulies that were completely watertight, no matter what the price. There’s always the wave that smacks you full in the face and lets cold drips run down inside.

I’m told that the answer, in this case, is to wear wool underneath your oilskins, because wool keeps you warm even if it’s wet. I’ve heard the same about artificial fleece, with its alleged “wicking” properties, but I’m still skeptical about that.

In any case, I was interested to read how Robert Crawford fortified himself against the elements when he raced his little 20-footer from San Francisco to Hawaii in the 2008 Singlehanded TransPac. He had no dodger, of course, so he was totally exposed.

In his book, Black Feathers (also the name of his Cal 20), he says he wears several layers, some for warmth and some for dryness.

The first layer must be thin and breathable, he says. It must wick moisture away from the body. (I presume a sporting-goods store can help you here.)

The second layer, usually fleece, provides insulation and needs to be thick enough to be effective.

The third layer consists of foul-weather pants on the bottom, and a thin, breathable, waterproof, shell of a jacket on the top.

Now comes the surprise. On top of all that, Crawford wears a wet-suit hood over his head and neck, leaving just his face peeking out. It’s one of those hoods with extensions over the shoulders.

Finally, he dons the upper foul-weather jacket.

“With this combination I can take continual water splashes in the face without having water penetrate the inner layers,” he claims. “The water goes between the wet-suit hood and the foul-weather jacket. As the water continues downward, it travels between the foul-weather jacket and the waterproof lightweight jacket under the wet-suit hood, and then exits the clothing at the tail of the two jackets. This works very well. You must make sure the second layer is thick enough to keep you warm, however.”

You might think that he’d be looking like the Michelin man with all that stuff on, but there’s a picture of him in the book, clad for action, and he looks surprisingly trim (and dry).

The elephant in the room here, of course, is the price of all this gear. It’s not going to be cheap. But I’ve come to the conclusion that if you simply can’t stand torture by constantly dripping water, you just have to pay the price for good foul-weather gear, specially if you’re going where it’s wet, wild, and above all, cold.

Today’s Thought
It’s grand, and you canna expect to be baith grand and comfortable.
— Barrie, The Little Minister.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #188
How big is she down below? The most reliable indicator of the amount of living room aboard a sailboat is displacement — that is, the actual weight of the boat loaded and ready for sea. Length overall, or length on deck is not an accurate basis for comparison.

Instinct is what allows a man to recognize a mistake the second time he makes it. Experience is what keeps him from admitting it the third time.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Aaron Headly said...

Some quick thoughts on saving money when buying foul-weather gear:

A wicking liner can be really cheap: just look for the thin polyester long undies sold just about everywhere. Happily, polyester wicks pretty much as well as silk (if not better, but let's not start an argument).

Fleece varies a lot in price, but all of it is made from, again, polyester; you don't have to pay top dollar for top performance. I've gotten free fleeces from various equipment manufactures (promo give-aways) that were as good as expensive ones. (And fleece pants are sold as sleepwear - cheaply.)

For the actual rain-gear, look for the stuff sold to commercial fishermen - or, even, the stuff sold to farmers and construction workers. Almost all of it is very sturdy and affordable.

The commercial gear usually doesn't have fancy sealing cuffs. A friend of mine who used to fish out of Dutch Harbor told me why:
The fancy cuffs are a weak point, and they usually fail, so he and his buddies didn't want them in the way. What they did was cut small sections from rubber inner-tubes (making, essentially, big rubber bands). They used these over their wrists and ankles to seal up their foulies when it got rough, but could pull them off easily for ventilation if desired.

They also wrapped old towels around their necks under the coat, but probably would have preferred the wet-suit hood.


Nikolay said...

Thank you for the advice guys!

I'll have to try and keep all that in mind as I research and browse for gear.
In the meantime, I've added Black Feathers to my booklist.

Also, somewhat related, what's your opinion on the trend of companies going for darker colors when making foul-weather gear?
From my reading and experience you want to be seen, and from as far as possible. I think that goes for in the water, and on the water.

Roger John Jones said...

On single handing...

I have sailed about 10,000 NM in the past two years on a Catalina 42 MK II wing keel sailboat. The boat weighs about 11 tons - more likely 12 with all my live aboard stuff. I have sailed the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to Guatemala. With this experience I would add one more criterion to your selection process:

Can you tie up to a dock at night in 20 knot winds blowing you off the dock and 3 knots of current without assistance from anyone else?

Getting tied up to a dock after several exhausting days at sea is for me the most nerve racking part of single handing. The conditions mentioned above may seem extreme but I have encountered them more than once. I have had to abandon the attempt more than once too! Even under more benign conditions that last 5 feet makes my heart pound.

The trade off is speed and sea kindliness vs having to deal with the weight of a bigger boat. On multi-day transits a knot of boat speed can translate into shortening the trip by a day or more. The temptation to go bigger is strong.

I would close by saying that where you sail and when you sail has a lot to do with the "best" boat size. I do open ocean sailing where speed and sea keeping is very important. Even so the Catalina 42 is a handful for me by myself. For someone doing lake or ICW cruising I would be inclined to go bigger as you can control the conditions under which you sail much easier than doing coastal or open ocean sailing.

Fair winds and following seas.

Steve Florman said...

One hint I've found helpful for those underneath layers - although still expensive, waterproof, breathable gear designed for hunters and fishermen is usually less expensive than that designed for hikers and backpackers. Probably says something about the socioeconomics of those respective pursuits, but at any rate, the gear performs the same.