A couple of weekends ago, I went sailing and was forced to remember how to stay comfortable on the water, lacking as I do the latest in expensive high-tech winter sailing gear.
Saturday was breezy and overcast, chilly without being freezing. The wind chill was biting, though, and the apparent temperature fell lower as the afternoon went on.
We had planned to be out for only an hour or two when we gathered for a test-sail of one new boat against another to help determine relative ratings.
Because of some dockside problems, the other boat wasn't ready to leave when we pulled into Spa Creek, and we had to tie up and stand around for an hour or two before we could all get under way. By the time we were off and sailing, I was chilled from the toes up, despite gear I had thought would be warm enough. After we got back an hour or so later, I was pretty well frozen and it was tough to thaw out again.
The next morning was bright and cold, and a last-minute shortage of crew on a friend's J/24 for the Annapolis Yacht Club Frostbite races that day meant I had to fill in to bring the crew up to the required minimum of three.
Needless to say, after the previous day's icing, I was less than enthusiastic, but duty -- and my husband, who crews on the boat -- called.
This time, I repeated what I had worn the day before, but added a second pair of socks under my sea boots, and layered over my long underwear and sweat pants with a pair of old ski pants.
With all that plus a jacket, heavy sweater, turtleneck and hat, when I got to the dock, waddling like a toddler in a snowsuit, the guys at the club had a field day.
"Think you've got enough clothes on, Nance?" they said, jeering.
I almost gave in to the razzing and peeled off some layers, but as we approached the starting line off the Naval Academy, the sky clouded over and the wind picked up.
"I hope I didn't leave my jacket in the car," somebody said, and I suddenly didn't feel so foolish. In fact, I was comfortable from nose to toes for the rest of the day.
The point is that winter sailing is fun if you're warm, and staying warm doesn't have to be expensive.
Sure, if you sail one-designs in winter you'll need a good dry-suit, and if frostbiting bigger boats is your passion, the high-tech purpose-built gear is probably a good investment. But for those who are new to frostbiting or sail only occasionally in the winter, that kind of expense isn't necessary.
The main thing is careful layering. Think about what to put on, and in what order, to produce the best combination of wicking, insulation and wind- and water-proofing, and remember that staying dry is always warmer.
Also think about how easy it is to get a layer off and back on again in a hurry as needed for thermostat control.
You're likely to get at least a little damp, either from the inside out (perspiration), or the outside in (precipitation, spray or even condensation on the inside of foul-weather gear), so don't put anything next to your skin that will hold moisture.
Wearing cotton, especially next to the skin, is a good way to get a deep, long-lasting chill that's tough to get rid of outside of a hot shower, so leave those nice cottons at home and wear something synthetic -- the more synthetic the better.
It's true that the specialty wicking synthetic long underwear made by all the major outdoor gear companies is the best -- dry and toasty, light, and smooth to the skin -- but it isn't especially cheap unless it's on sale.
Probably the most important difference between Saturday's chill and Sunday's comfort was what I put on my legs and feet. Keeping those extremities warm had an enormous effect.
It isn't hard to find nylon, acrylic or polyester turtlenecks at
discount stores, but long johns can be a different matter, and are nTC probably one of the best places to spend a few bucks on keeping warm, even for only occasional use.
If you have to wear cotton thermals, try a pair of pantyhose or nylon tights underneath to help keep the dampness off of your skin (seriously, guys, who's going to know?).
Inexpensive polyester sweat pants for insulation and my husband's old zip-sided low-tech nylon-and-batting ski pants to tame the breeze got a little damp in the seat but otherwise worked well over mid-weight wicking polyester long johns on Sunday. If it had been more inclement, I could have used foul weather pants as the top layer to keep out the wind and wet.
Socks don't need to be the most expensive of high-tech. I found wearing a pair of those ubiquitous Christmas-gift slipper-socks under an old pair of wool sweat socks was just about right, especially since my boots are square-toed, with room for insulation without cutting off the circulation in my toes.
For the upper body, most of us have a good jacket of some kind, as well as a heavy wool or acrylic sweater and a decent hat. Goose down is nice for playing in the snow, but when it's wet or compressed, it's a chilly liability. Those popular shelled-fleece so-called squall jackets are ideal, and they can work just as well if they cost $40 as if they cost $140.
Cheap imitation polar-fleece-type sweaters are another good buy that can work well in place of a more expensive real thing. Alone, they won't block a breeze, but layered under a jacket or foulies, they're cozy and don't hold water next to the body.
Neckline adjustability is an important consideration, too, since it's valuable to be able to close off a cold draft, or open up and vent off an internal sauna.
In the heat of racing, a lot of extra clothes can be bulky, immobilizing, and even too hot for those doing real work.
But sailing a smaller racer-cruiser under frostbite rules (nobody gets out of the cockpit) often means that the cockpit gets pretty crowded and there isn't enough physical work for everybody on board, so it can still be chilly.
The same goes for a day cruise under the feeble winter sun.
For a more high-tech look at winter sailing wear, check out Sally Heuer's article, "Comfy at Sea," in the February issue of Sailing.