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I’ve been living on a sailboat since 2016 and have sailed in a variety of climates: The chilly San Francisco Bay, the windy exterior of the Baja Peninsula, and the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez. What to wear sailing is a conundrum that sailors and visitors alike face.
And the answer is: it depends.
Your sailing outfit depends on the weather, the season, where you are sailing, and if the boat you are sailing on has a shade structure.
With six years of sailing under my belt, I’ve come up with a list of clothes – and fabrics – you’ll want to wear sailing. There’s nothing worse than freezing while out on the water as you’re pelted with wind and sea spray. Sailing can be slow and romantic; we sailors call it champagne sailing, or it can be turbulent and uncomfortable.
Your clothes are your first defense against harsh elements such as wind and sun, and the weather determines what type of clothing you’ll wear.
Table of Contents
Check the Weather Forecast Before Going Sailing
Whether on a sailing holiday, getting on a friend’s boat, or taking sailing lessons, the weather is the most important thing to consider when deciding what to wear sailing. Weather determines EVERYTHING.
If the forecast is for bad weather, such as wind and rain, you’ll want to wear foul weather gear, such as waterproof pants and a waterproof jacket. If you don’t own sailing-specific foul-weather gear, rain pants and a heavy-duty raincoat are fine in a pinch.
If the forecast calls for warm weather, you’ll want to wear clothing to mitigate sun damage, like a sun hat and sun clothes.
Even if you’re technically in a cooler weather climate, you might be surprised and delighted with a warm day. So the first rule of thumb is always looking at the forecast before you go.
What to Wear Sailing in Cold or Moderate Climates
When I first started sailing, we lived on a sailboat in the San Francisco Bay. This meant lots of high wind and cold climate sailing. I had to learn what sailing gear would make our outings safe and comfortable.
Here are my best tips on a sailing outfit for colder climates.
Wear Layers of Clothing
Layers are the first thing you’ll want to consider when choosing your sailing outfit. You never know when you might start to feel hot if the sun comes out or when you’ll need that puffy coat. Think about a base layer made from merino wool. It’s a great idea to wear long johns beneath your pants and a sweater if the weather is chilly.
Pants to Wear Sailing
Some people wonder if it’s okay to wear jeans while sailing. I would NOT recommend wearing jeans as they feel cold and clammy if wet. If the conditions are rough, you can expect a bit of sea spray to get into the cockpit of the boat, which might make your pants wet. For that reason, we don’t recommend jeans for sailing.
However, if the weather forecast is calm, dry, but cold, you can probably get away with wearing jeans as you won’t be dealing with as much swell and spray.
You can wear and/or bring these: a Merino wool base layer, hiking pants, and waterproof pants.
Before purchasing foul weather gear for the open ocean, we wore waterproof clothing from REI that doubled as our backpacking gear.
Shirts and Jackets
I recommend having several shirts and jackets for sailing in chillier climates. In the San Francisco Bay, I would wear a wool pullover, a puffy coat and a raincoat. A raincoat is nice because it also acts as a windbreaker. You don’t need to bring a separate windbreaker for sailing.
If you’re feeling warm, you can wear your base layer with the raincoat and cut out the puffy. I always have a puffy on hand, though, as it is handy when the wind kicks up.
I love my ultra-warm Mountain Hardware puffy coat. This coat both keeps me warm and blocks the wind.
However, cold weather climates might surprise you with a flash of sun in the afternoons. I like to have a sun shirt on hand in case the day gets warm and sunny; always a welcome occurrence!
I recommend wearing rain boots if you’re sailing in a chillier climate. You want your feet to stay warm and dry. I own a pair of waterproof ankle sailing boots.
However, if there is no rain in the forecast, you can probably get away with light-soled sneakers. On cold, sunny days in the San Francisco Bay, I often wore white Converse on the boat.
Tip: Make sure that your soles are tan or white. You don’t want to add scuff marks to someone’s deck!
I recommend bringing a couple of different hats when you’re cold weather sailing. A wool beanie is a great choice, as is a sun hat. We sometimes wear
What to Wear Sailing in Warm Climates
When we sailed our boat down the Baja Peninsula and into the Sea of Cortez, our sailing clothes changed. Now, we hardly ever wear foul weather gear, although the wind and chop in the Sea of Cortez surprises us with its viciousness. We opt for our puffy coats and raincoats in colder temperatures, much like in San Francisco. But the weather in the Sea is typically warm and mild.
Sun Protection is Key
If you sail on hot, sunny days, you might be tempted to wear shorts and a tank top. I would advise you NOT to do that. Sun damage while on a sailboat is real, so you’ll want to take sun protection seriously. We always advise our guests to wear sun clothes; sometimes, they do not heed our warnings and get burnt. Having a burn is not a fun way to spend your sailing adventure.
You should have a sun shirt, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect against harmful UV rays. We get almost all of our sun clothing at REI. I must have 4-5 sun shirts on our sailboat! Lightweight hiking pants with a high UPF rating are good to have on hand.
These Sunday Afternoon Sun Hats from REI cover much more of our face than a ballcap and have a chin strap so they don’t blow off!
Sun Clothes for Swimming
Nobody likes to hear they should cover up when swimming in a warm sea. But we’ve found it so easy to get sunburned in the water. When I swim or paddleboard in the Sea of Cortez, I wear a long-sleeved rash guard and swim pants! I’m probably the only person I have seen who fully covers her arms and legs while swimming off our boat in Mexico.
Jackets for Warm Sailing
You’ll still want a jacket even if you’re summer sailing or going out on a boat during hot weather. You’d be surprised by how cold a windy day can be! I recommend bringing a light jacket or a raincoat that can double as a windbreaker.
If you’re sailing somewhere warm and sunny, a light, breathable raincoat like this one from REI won’t be hot and heavy. It will prevent you from getting soaked by the spray and chilled by the wind.
Many boat owners will tell you to wear closed-toe shoes when out sailing. I will tell you a little secret: I don’t wear shoes in a warm or hot climate. I love the way the decks feel beneath my feet. However, some sailboats have more hazards in the cockpit, where you can stub or catch a toe. Whether you wear shoes or not is a matter of personal preference. You can get some close-toed sandals or boat shoes with a light-colored tread if you want shoes.
What to Wear for Offshore Sailing
If you’re going offshore sailing, it’s an entirely different animal than bay or lake sailing. Ocean sailing tends to be more rugged, so you’ll want to add more items to your packing list. You’ll want some combination of the clothes I mentioned in this article:
- Foul weather gear
- Wool long johns
- Puffy coat
- Sun clothes
- Long sleeve shirt, preferably wool or synthetic materials
- Hiking pants
- Fleece pants
- Wool hat
- Wool Socks
- Sailing boots or rainboots
Weather on the ocean can be unpredictable and range from cold to warm. It’s important to bring plenty of layers and be prepared for different weather conditions. Offshore sailing is fun, but also more dangerous. Make sure you keep your life jacket on at all times!
Other Clothing to Consider When Sailing
Along with the basics we recommend for cold and warm weather sailing, there are some additional items you might also want to bring on your sailing trip.
If you participate in sailing the boat, you’ll want to have sailing gloves that can stand up to handling lines. Rope burn is no fun, and all of us have experienced that horrible feeling when we choose not to wear gloves. Sailing gloves not only keep your hands warm, but protect your sensitive skin from ropes.
While I love sailing, I don’t like the feeling of the wind against my face. Not only does it lead to dry and chapped skin, but it also makes my lips dry. One way I’ve solved this issue is to wear a face buff. A buff will keep the sensitive skin on your face and lips safe from wind and sun. I wear a buff in both warm and cold climates.
If you’re going sailing on a radical day with high winds and heavy seas, you might consider bringing a change of clothes. Just pack a dry bag or a tote with a warm, comfortable change for when you return to the dock. You’ll thank me later.
Depending on who you are sailing with and the weather, you may like to bring a swimsuit on your sailing adventure. I like swimsuits that don’t fall off when I’m playing in waves or leaping from the deck down to the water below.
I always wear a rash guard over my swimsuit in hot climates. This protects my skin from the sun if I’m in the water for a long time. As I mentioned above, I also wear long swim pants for the same reasons.
A Turkish towel
Turkish towels dry quickly and are easy to pack in your sail bag. If you plan on swimming or if you get wet, a Turkish towel will come in handy.
The Best Fabrics to Wear Sailing
When preparing for a sailing excursion, selecting the right fabric is crucial for comfort and safety. The ideal choices are those that provide quick-drying properties and adaptability to changing weather conditions.
Contrary to popular belief, cotton is not recommended for sailing. While comfortable, cotton absorbs and retains water, making it unsuitable for wet environments. It can lead to a feeling of dampness and chill, particularly in cooler weather, which is not ideal when exposed to the elements.
Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon are top choices for sailing attire. This moisture-wicking fabric is lightweight, quick-drying, and water-resistant, making it perfect for both warm and cool conditions. They are designed to wick moisture away from the body, helping you stay dry and comfortable.
We enjoy wearing merino wool in both warm and cold climates. It’s known for its ability to regulate temperature, providing warmth without overheating. Merino wool also retains heat even when wet, making it a practical choice for unpredictable weather.
Blended fabrics that combine synthetic materials with natural fibers offer an excellent balance. These fabrics are engineered to provide the comfort of natural fibers with the performance benefits of synthetic materials, ideal for various sailing conditions.
Choosing the right fabric for your sailing gear is a key decision that impacts your comfort and safety on the water. Opt for quick-drying, moisture-wicking materials, and suitable for the specific climate conditions you’ll be sailing in.
Enjoy Your Experience Sailing
Whether it’s your first sailing trip or you’ve been out several times, I hope you have a wonderful time sailing. Sailing has a feeling like no other. I just love the motion of the boat as it’s powered by nature. There’s no loud engine chug, just you and the elements, nature and the sea. Maybe you’ll fall in love with it like I have.
If you have any questions about sailing clothing, drop a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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