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How to choose foul weather gear

foul weather gear

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SAILING FOUL WEATHER GEAR

Foul weather gear is designed to do one thing: keep you dry on a sailboat. Simple, right? Until you go shopping for a suit and are immediately overwhelmed by the vast number of options, technical features, and specs – not to mention the price tags!

We’ve had the opportunity to sea trial various types of foul weather gear while sailing over 13,000 miles on our 35-foot sailboat. Read on for our guide to choosing the perfect set of foulies!

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MATCHING THE GEAR TO YOUR NEEDS

Whether you’re weekend-cruising in Washington or offshore racing in the Southern Ocean, foul weather gear is an important piece of kit. However, the suit you choose, largely depends on the type of sailing you’re doing.

Foul weather gear generally falls into one of five classes:

  • Inshore
  • Coastal
  • Offshore
  • Flotation
  • Other waterproof outdoor gear

Inshore

Inshore gear is great for sailing in warmer climates, where you need something to block the wind, spray and occasional rain shower. Its construction makes it comfortable and easy to move in.

 

Helly Hansen Crew Hooded Waterproof Sailing Jacket 

Key features:

  • Lightweight water resistant or water proof fabrics
  • Highly versatile and can be used for onshore activities like hiking and biking
  • Emphasis on comfort over more rigid/durable coastal and offshore suits
sailing foul weather gear

Robin and I sailing to San Francisco in our coastal Henri Lloyd and Helly Hansen foul weather gear

Coastal

Coastal gear is medium weight and versatile, good for anything from multiday cruises to carrying groceries down the dock in the rain. While not as tough sounding as its offshore cousin, coastal gear provides good value and mileage. I used a coastal Henri Lloyd set on an eight-day offshore passage down the US Pacific Coast and it kept me comfortable.

Henri Lloyd Freedom Jacket

Key features:

  • Medium-weight waterproof fabrics
  • Reflective tape and high-vis colors
  • Reinforced seats, knees
  • Fleece lined pockets

    offshore foul weather gear

    Riding out squalls on our Pacific Crossing in my Musto MPX Offshore Jacket. Note the high-vis hood!

Offshore

Offshore foul weather gear is designed to withstand serious abuse at sea. It’s the go-to option for offshore racers and cruisers, sailors planning to spend weeks at a time in their two-piece. After two years of offshore cruising, I finally invested in a Musto offshore suit and I absolutely love the functionality and extra features. It’s definitely a luxury but when you’re spending weeks of every year at sea, it’s well worth it. 

 

Musto MPX Gore-Tex Pro Race Jacket

Key features:

  • Heavy-duty and high-performance fabrics
  • Integrated safety harness
  • Reflective tape and high vis colors
  • Reinforced seats, knees
  • Tall collars
  • Wrist seals
float suit

My trusty Mustang Survival float suit

Float suits

Float suits are made from closed-cell foam, providing flotation and insulation in the event that you fall in. They’re commonly used in commercial settings but many recreational sailors swear by them. They’re bulky and don’t breathe very well, making them a poor choice for highly active sailing (i.e. racing).

Still, you can’t beat a float suit for cold weather. I bought a 1970s era Mustang Float suit at a pawn shop and lived in the thing when we circumnavigated Vancouver Island in the fall. It’s like wearing a sleeping bag all day, which suits me just fine!

Mustang Survival High Visibility Flotation Bomber 

Key features:

  • Closed-cell foam provides buoyancy and warmth
  • One-piece suit or jacket/pant combo
  • Reflective tape and high vis colors
  • Reinforced seats and knees
squawl

Robin in an Arc’teryx jacket (designed for climbing/hiking), steering through a squall enroute to American Samoa

Other outdoor waterproof gear

Do I really need foul weather gear? Can’t I just use my waterproof hiking jacket?

In many cases, yes. Some sailors wear waterproof jackets and pants designed for hiking, skiing, and mountaineering. While you won’t get sailing-specific features like wrist seals and high collars, a waterproof hiking jacket and pants should work just fine for a low-key weekend cruise or even for longer trips in hot climates.

For example, when I cruised in Mexico for a year, I used a lightweight GORE-TEX shell and pants designed for skiing. If you’re just getting into sailing and aren’t ready to invest in foulies, use the waterproof gear you have. After all, people used to go to sea in oilskins, which were basically sail cloth painted with linseed oil and wax!

FIT

Foul weather gear is designed to have a roomier fit than other types of activewear and should leave you with plenty of freedom of movement and space for layers underneath.

COLOR

While traffic cone orange may not be your go-to hue, avoid more neutral tones like blue, gray and black. These colors will make you tricky to spot if you fall overboard. If you really can’t bear going with a high-vis suit, choose a jacket with a high-vis hood or alternatively keep a bright yellow swim cap tucked into your life jacket.

 

FEATURES

High-tech fabrics

Foul weather suits come in various levels of waterproofness, breathability, and durability. Your choice will depend on your local climate, the type of sailing your doing, and your activity level on the boat.

Reinforced knees and seats

From wrestling down a spinnaker on an anti-skid deck to endlessly snagging your clothes on hardware, the sailing environment is brutal on clothing. Offshore and coastal foul-weather gear have reinforced high abrasion areas for extra durability.

Heavy duty, noncorroding zippers.

Sailing brands almost exclusively use noncorroding zippers. If you’re thinking of buying wet weather gear from a non sailing specific brand, look for noncorroding zippers or expect frozen zips and a rusty mess.

Bibs

Coastal and offshore suits usually include bib pants.This is to avoid water rushing up your midsection. If you’re not planning on seeing green water over the deck you can find lightweight waist pant options.

Elasticated waists

Far from being about form or fashion, an elasticated waste helps prevent water from rushing up your suit.

Pockets, pockets, pockets

Foul-weather gear offers capacious pockets. Easily fit your rigging knife, phone, snacks, gloves and more.

Hoods

High-vis hoods with stiff brims are great for seeing and being seen!

Wrist seals

Wrist seals are rubber cuffs that prevent water from running up your sleeves.

Drop seat

Any offshore lady knows the annoyance of wrestling in and out of foul weather gear when nature calls in the middle of night watch. Drop seats, which work much like a fly, are the solution!

We hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to choosing foul weather gear. Questions or thoughts? Let us know in the comment field below.