Tips On Dressing for Dyer Frostbiting

Frostbiting is not as cold as other winter sports (such as skiing), because the ambient temperature for sailing MUST be above freezing.  However, there is the potential to get wet while sailing—especially on windy days.

Most experienced frostbite sailors start with a layer or two of thermal underwear.  Polypropylene undergarments are particularly good as the layer closest to your skin, because they “wick” sweat away and help keep you dry.  Traditional “long john” underwear is good as a second layer, because it gives you head to toe coverage.

Over this layer of underwear, sailors can add a layer of fleece or a sweater—when the temperature is below 40 or so.  A surprising number of winter days end up above 50 degrees, during our 1:00 to 3:00 sailing window.  Look at the forecast and bring along an extra layer to add, if you need it.

On top of the stuff that keeps you warm, you need a layer of clothing to keep you dry.  Some sailors buy and wear “dry suits.”  These are one-piece rubber suits that cover your whole body.  They have gaskets at the neck and wrists, with some having ankle gaskets and some having booties that cover your feet (and avoid a third set of gaskets).  Dry suits trap air and are very warm—you can subtract a layer or two from the list above, if you wear them.  If you happen to capsize when you are wearing one, you should be able to get back on the water and sail again the same day, if you wish to.

However, dry suits are expensive and they tend to wear out.  Unless you are a standard size, it may be hard to get one that has the right length in the sleeves and the legs—and you may feel you can’t move around as well in them.

The majority of our fleet wears standard sailing foul weather gear, rather than a dry suit.  Most use “bib” pants under a winter-weight jacket.  The high rise of the bib prevents water from seeping in underneath the bottom edge of the jacket and the suspenders keep your pants from drooping as you twist around in the boat.  Some sailors use a “float jacket”—one that has floatation built into it.  This increases the warmth of the jacket and eliminates the need to wear a separate life preserver.  Another suggestion is to wear a fleece neck warmer.  This is less likely to get in your way than a scarf and can be easily unrolled and rolled, to cover as much of your face as you like.

Speaking of life preservers, our fleet rules and common sense dictate that you should wear a good-quality one!  A few people use the ones that have gas canisters and inflate when you enter the water.  The only problem with these is that there is always a risk that you will capsize and that can mean an expensive recharge of the gas canister.  Make sure that whatever life jacket you use fits well and has no straps or edges that can catch on the boom, your tiller extender, etc.

Knee-high sea boots used to be the standard for footwear.  However, an increasing number of sailors are using mid-calf boots.  If the water inside the boat gets above the middle of your calf, you are probably going to get the rest of your body wet!  So, you might as well have something lighter and more comfortable, if you can.  You should wear two pairs of socks.  There are a lot of skiing socks that work well as an inner layer, and a nice old-fashioned thick wool sock works well on the outside.  By the way, some sailors (including male ones) wear panty hose underneath everything.  The warm kind will keep your legs warm and give you a nice first layer of warmth for your feet.

If you don’t think you need a hat, take it along anyway, on the boat.  If you get cold, just put on your nice wool hat.  Use one that doesn’t have a brim—it is amazing how something like the brim of a hat or the hood on your jacket can get caught on your boom when you jibe or tack.

The last item of clothing to consider is your gloves.  You need something that will keep your hands warm and give you a good grip on your main sheet.  (You may have to take off your gloves to adjust your outhaul or forestay—but that is OK, you can do it between races.)  In the old days, some sailors used what was called the “Bluette System.”  You would put on polypropylene under gloves and then put rubber dishwashing gloves (like those made by Bluette) over them.  This was simple, cheap, and when the gloves wore out you could buy another pair.  In the last five years, most of us have converted to using gloves made for lobstermen.  Some Web sites that we’ve used are Ontario Glove, Anderson’s, .and Magid.  If you can find them, gloves with a knit wrist seem more comfortable than ones that are PVC all the way down.

All together, your clothing, boots, gloves, and hat may weigh ten pounds.  Figure in this weight when you are calculating how much ballast you need to carry to match the fleet minimum weight of 200 pounds.  Plan to also carry a wrench or screwdriver to adjust the tension on your centerboard handle (it is a pain to have the handle loose and leaking and an equal pain to have it so tight you can’t lift or lower your board!).  You may find it helpful to have a bottle of water and a Sharpie marking pen, so you can remember which settings on your forestay and outhaul were fast.  Sun glasses seem to be optional.  The winter sun is weaker and lower, so some sailors use them and others prefer to go without.  Don’t forget to put some sun block on your nose, cheeks, and ears.  It is pretty easy to get a sunburn, even in the middle of winter.

Your colleagues in the fleet will offer generous comments (and criticism) of your frostbite gear.  Each of them has his or her own favorite addition or adjustment.  For instance, the author of this piece likes to wear a pair of boxer shorts over his bib pants, so that they don’t wear out as fast (from sliding around on the seat).  Feel free to innovate and experiment.  With more than 30 sailing days each season, you will have plenty of chances to fine tune your gear to your special tastes and needs.