Top 10 Cold Weather Sailing Tips

If your body is using energy to stay warm, focus and performance can suffer. Quantum sail consultant and pro-sailor David Gerber shares his top-ten tips for staying warm during cold-weather sailing.

My experiences in cold-weather sailing are from several years of springtime practicing and racing in the northern regions of North America. I’ve also sailed one of the coldest races, the 338-nautical-mile Trans-Superior on Lake Superior, a couple of times. Here are my top-ten tips for staying warm during your next cold-weather sailing adventure:

1. Stay dry – get reliable outer gear

Dry equals warm. The fastest way to ruin cold-weather sailing is to get wet. Fortunately, there is a lot of great gear available in a wide range of prices and styles including spray-tops, offshore jackets, waterproof bibs, dry-suits for dinghy sailing, and gear designed specifically for women. Personally, I like the Musto foul weather gear and Dubarry sailing boots. From top to bottom, the right gear is essential for staying dry and for cold-weather sailing success. Invest in outerwear that will not only keep you warm and dry, but will last for more than one sailing season. Talk to sailors in your area to see what they recommend. They will be a valuable resource for not only picking out gear that suits your local sailing conditions, but also knowing where to find the best bargain.

2. Base & Mid Layers

It is one thing to stay dry, but if you don’t have the right layers to keep you warm, you will also be miserable. Keep in mind that the cold air over the water can feel a lot different from the cold air over land because the excess moisture in the air makes it harder to escape the cold. Make sure you have the necessary pieces: merino wool or synthetic blend base layers, wool socks, insulating mid-layers, stocking cap, mittens, and maybe even a heavy layer.

One item I always bring is a good old fashioned wool sweater. It’s warm – wet or dry – and cozier than a synthetic top. Because of the nature of wool and how the fibers are arranged, it has greater bulk and can retain more heat. It’s also moisture-wicking and can absorb a third of its weight before it feels wet. I recommend avoiding cotton against the skin. You need to stay dry from the inside out. Cotton is not moisture-wicking, so as you begin to sweat, you want to keep that moisture away from your skin to keep it from making you cold.

Bonus tip: Vests keep your core temps up and help your extremities stay warm. Relatively new to the market is high-loft water-resistant / hydrophobic feather down. They’re a lightweight and incredibly packable option for a very warm mid-layer.

3. Disposable toe and hand warmers

You can grab disposable hand warmers at your local hardware or sporting goods stores. The toe warmers are ideal because they have a sticky back on them. This allows you to stick them in other areas, like your neck and chest, but don’t ever stick them directly to your skin. Instead, put them inside a neck gaiter or stick them to your shirt. Other eco-friendly options for reusable warmers include a safe burning fuel stick from Zippo, USB chargeable heat packs, and a chemical reaction from EZ Heat that magically warms a gel pack. Follow the guidelines of each and they’ll help keep you warm. 

Bonus tip: Dry hands are also warm hands. Commercial grade insulated rubber work gloves, 3mm neoprene dive gloves, or insulated leather utility gloves from the hardware store are some warm alternatives. Try a pair of dish or latex gloves under your sailing gloves for an economical way to keep your hands dry and warm.  

4. Neck/face guard

Those sun guards that go around your neck have increased in popularity and can be found on the Quantum website or at local sporting goods stores. Not only is this a nice item to keep the sun off your neck and face, it will also help keep your face warm during a cold sail. Keeping the spray off your face will keep you dry, and, you got it – warm. If the air temps are low as well, the bite of the cold wind combined with the moisture can easily lead to frost bite on any exposed skin. Try a synthetic pack-towel or chamois cloth wrapped around like a scarf tucked under the collar of your spray-top. Once wet, wring it out and tuck it back in dry, saving you from a chilly trickle down the back. 

5. Protect your eyes.

Cold air and wind will make your eyes water. Aside from making your face wet (and cold), it’s also uncomfortable and hard to see. If your sunglasses aren’t enough, or it’s not super sunny, ski goggles are great for protecting your eyes, and they’ll also cover exposed skin. During the day, try a pair with colored or polarized lenses. They add dimension to flat light and help you see the different winds coming on the water. Ski goggles with a clear lens are great for keeping your eyes from watering at night (when the colored lenses could be more of a hindrance). Regardless, if you don’t have tears running down your face, you will stay warmer and be more comfortable.

6. Sleep in your gear

The best way to get rid of the moisture is to simply leave your clothes on when you sleep. Remember, your body runs at 98 degrees – that is a great drying agent. Stay warm and dry by sleeping in your gear.

Bonus tip: Put on a pair of dry, warm socks when you go to sleep to help retain body heat.

7. Avoid eating large meals

Eat a lot of little snacks. A big meal takes more energy to digest, and this will make you colder. Keep your energy levels high with small snacks that are high in protein and are digested more slowly. Stuff an extra bar in your pocket and earn crew bonus points if you bring one up from the galley for the others on the rail.

8. Empty your bladder

If you have to pee, then pee. Your body uses energy to keep the liquid in your bladder warm. Go when you have the urge, and it will help you stay warm.

9. Drink warm liquids to stay hydrated

Lots of warm beverages are good. Even if you’re not a coffee drinker, there are plenty of other options that are easy to make on the water. One drink I particularly like is hot-Tang. Not only does it taste good, but it’s loaded with vitamin C. Grab a thermos and fill it with a hot beverage of your choice. If you’re on the boat overnight, cuddle up with a Nalgene full of hot water in your sleeping bag or under the covers (just make sure it’s closed tightly!). 

10. Stay active

Whether you are cruising or racing, if you stay involved in the sailing and/or racing of the boat, it will help keep you warm.  Most times you get cold when you’re sitting around and not exerting any energy. Help your body stay warm by keeping your blood flowing. Luckily, in our sport you can always strive harder to make a boat go faster.

Stay dry, stay warm, and sail fast!

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