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How to Pack Like a Pro for an Ocean Crossing

When it comes to sailing across an ocean, Quantum Pacific’s Will Paxton says less is more.

Sailing gear for a long-distance ocean crossing.
What to pack - This picture contains just about everything you need to race to Hawaii. And it all fits inside that 50L Helly Hansen bag.

With some 20 Pacific crossings under his belt, Quantum Pacific’s Will Paxton knows a little something about what to take—and what not to take—when packing your bag for an ocean race. And, Paxton says it can all fit into one carry-on bag.

“It’s eat, sleep, sail. You’ll find out pretty quickly there’s not much time for anything else,” he says. “I brought a book with me the first couple times to Hawaii, and I never opened it once.”

Paxton says a good pair of padded shorts is the most important thing to bring, and make sure you invest in a fancy pair of thick, breathable socks. You’ll spend most of your time either sitting on a hard surface or standing and you’ve got to protect your feet. Dry socks can make or break your ability to sleep when it gets cold at night, so bring an extra pair.

You get two pairs of footwear: boots and deck shoes. Leave the flip-flops at home. “If it gets light and warm, you can go barefoot, but I’ve seen a lot of foot injuries over the years. Keeping your feet in your shoes, that’s tradecraft,” says Paxton.

A digital watch with a light is also a must—“What time is it?” is a popular question when life revolves around a three-hour shift schedule. A headlamp is also crucial for any type of overnight sailing. This is an easy item to keep on you at all times, whether you stick it in your pocket, wear it around your neck, or on your hat. Night tends to creep up quickly and you don’t want to start your shift unprepared. Be sure to choose a headlamp with a red light setting so you don’t blind your crewmates at night. You should also bring two pairs of sunglasses, especially if you wear prescription. “If you only bring one and you lose it, you’re handicapped the rest of the race.”

Sun buffs and fleece neck gaiters can be a game changer. Sun buffs are excellent for long hot days in the sun and they’re lightweight, breathable, and pack down easily. Fleece neck gaiters help protect against wind and waves in colder conditions and are especially nice when trying to fall asleep. Always toss one of each into your offshore bag.

On most boats, you’ll be hot bunking, and often, but not always, the boat will provide the sleeping gear. Check in with your boat as to whether you should pack a sleeping bag. A small, lightweight quick drying pack-towel or chamois is great to mop up yourself, your bunk, or wear as a neck towel in a squall to keep water out of your foulies. Other things like toothpaste, sunscreen, spare AAA headlamp batteries, and charging cables for your mobile devices, may also be shared and provided. 

An eye mask can be helpful for sleeping, especially during the day, but earplugs are a no-no. “An iPod is okay, because normally after you fall asleep your playlist will usually run out. You need to be able to hear what’s happening on deck, if someone is calling for help or if there’s an all-hands call, you don’t want to be the last one up,” says Paxton.

Of course, every race is different. Know your course—a North Atlantic crossing will require more cold-weather gear than racing the Transpac or Pacific Cup to Hawaii, while the Chicago-Mackinac Race normally requires a little bit of each. And, know yourself. If there’s something you need, like a second set of underwear, bring it. You’ll race better if you’re comfortable and feeling good. But if you can live without it, leave it at home.

Will Paxton’s Packing List:

  • Carry-on size, water-tight bag

  • 1 pair padded shorts

  • 1 set fleece underlayer

  • 1-2 pairs thick, breathable socks or seal socks

  • Sea boots

  • Deck shoes or sneakers

  • Watch hat

  • Hoodie

  • 1 long sleeve technical t-shirt (white) (tech hoodie is a great option)

  • 1 short sleeve technical t-shirt (white)

  • Mid-layer sailing jacket

  • Off-shore foul weather jacket

  • Off-shore foul weather bibs

  • 1 pair breathable underwear

  • Wide brimmed sun hat or visor

  • ​Sun buff/ fleece neck gaiter

  • Knee pads

  • 2 pairs polarized sunglasses

  • Digital watch

  • Eye mask

  • Headlamp with red light

  • iPod and headphones

  • 3 tubes Chapstick, one for every pocket

  • Inflatable PFD with tether and leg straps

  • AIS beacon

  • Knife*

  • Small water-tight box for personal electronics and chargers

  • Razor—you might get a bucket shower and a shave half way there

*Pro tip: Buy an inexpensive but sharp knife with a serrated edge that you can give away before you fly home.

While this packing list may be more minimal than that of the average pro-am racer, it’s a good place to start.

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The Discussion

Bill Wheary
Bill Wheary

A LOUD whistle worn around your neck 24/7 should at or near the top of the list. Bill Wheary Norfolk

Steve Liroff
Steve Liroff

A rescue whistle is a must as is a personal strobe and a personal gps locator device (some are part of an AIS unit). I would carry a waterproof flashlight and spare batteries. Also, for those of us who wear glasses, a back-up pair and an eyeglass tether. A rebuild kit for the inflatable pfd would be a reasonable addition. I have not ocean raced but on the Great Lakes I prefer waterproof knee high socks to boots. Not many boots have traction as good as racing shoes and socks weigh a lot less. Don’t forget a supply of any medications that you take. Spare hat and gloves. Steve Liroff, Detroit