Packing light for a transatlantic crossing can seem like an impossible task as these trips take you through a vast range of temperatures and conditions
In November last year I completed my 18th transatlantic so my kit bag is now fairly trimmed down. Here’s a rundown of the sailing clothes I pack when crossing the pond and my pick of what to wear sailing:
- 2 sets of offshore waterproofs
- Sailing boots and deck trainers
- 1 full midlayer + 1 fleece
- 2 full sets of thermals
- 2 long sleeve t-shirts
- 1 short sleeve t-shirt
- 3/4 leggings
- Running shorts
- 4 sailing hats
- 1 sun hat
- 4 sets of gloves
- 3 pairs warm socks, 3 pairs light socks
- 2 sets of sailing sunglasses
- Travel towel
Foul weather gear
On any passage longer than a few days offshore I take two sets of foul weather gear; if one set gets damaged or completely soaked it’s important to have a backup. Taking two sets also allows you to change the weight of your outer layer dependant on air temperature. For a transatlantic crossing in a race boat I wear a full drysuit in the north Atlantic, changing to an inshore smock and trousers as we get into warmer climes.
For most sailors, a full offshore drysuit is never going to be required, but it is my favourite bit of kit. If you sail in the north Atlantic on a wet boat then a good drysuit makes you both more comfortable and more competent.
I find zip-up jackets allow me to regulate my temperature and are easier to get on and off in a hurry than smocks, but water often has a way of getting down collars and up sleeves. I favour zip-up jackets when cruising and smocks for racing, especially when I’m required to leave the cockpit often.
I like smocks with dry seals, however in hotter climates this can be uncomfortable around the neck. A good middle ground is a lighter smock with dry seals on the wrist and a neck collar that does up with Velcro.
Note that if choosing kit with dry seals, care must be taken when putting it on and off: ripping a dry seal will render that piece of kit ineffectual for the entire trip. Wearing dry seals over long periods of time can irritate your skin, causing sores or rashes.
I wipe the seals on my top clean with fresh water every other day to prevent build-up of salt or grime, and I use a barrier layer of Sudocrem around my neck and wrists from day one of a trip.
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Layers and thermals
I take one full mid-layer; jacket and salopettes. A mid-layer needs to be warm but not bulky, waterproof and made of moisture-wicking fabric. Transatlantic I take a second mid-layer top, which is fleece rather than soft-shell; this gives me an extra layer in the extreme cold, but is also a fall-back in the event of soaking my softshell jacket.
Merino wool is my gold standard when it comes to thermals. It is warm, it doesn’t itch and even after wearing it for days on end it does not smell. I take two sets of long sleeve tops and long johns that I rotate every five days. For extreme cold I also add a merino tank top.
Once the sun is warm enough to dry clothing quickly I lose my top waterproof layer during the day and sail in a technical t-shirt. It’s worth investing in these fabrics; they dry considerably quicker than traditional cotton, do not accumulate salt residue and will protect you from the sun. Long sleeves are essential for sun protection. I take two and try to always have a dry one available.
Shorts and leggings
One of the most difficult clothing choices is what to wear on your bottom half during hot days. Do not underestimate how wet and windy places like the Caribbean can be, and even in the full sun you can get cold if you are constantly wet. Options are light foulie bottoms, waterproof shorts or just getting wet with regular shorts.
Personally, I wear running shorts for their quick drying light material, although these offer limited sun protection. If it’s very wet I’ll wear an inshore set of salopettes with light shorts underneath. For night tradewind sailing I wear foulie bottoms with running leggings underneath rather than thermals.
I don’t wear boots very often; only in extreme cold, or extreme wet weather in warmer climates. They’re chosen primarily for warmth so I like the neoprene type with thick soles. I normally wear a size up from my regular shoe size to ensure there’s room for drysuit socks as well as thick socks – your feet will get cold quickly if the fit is tight. Gaiters are essential to stop waves from going back up the legs of your salopettes.
As soon as the weather is warm enough I switch to sailing trainers, this includes over my drysuit. As a runner I know the importance of good footwear and so having a lace up, well cushioned, good grip shoe is just as critical on a boat as on the land. I try to allow my feet to dry out between watches so do take shoes and socks off regularly – but I never go on watch in bare feet.
I don’t like the restricted visibility caused by a jacket hood so accept that my hats will get wet and normally take four on a transatlantic trip, including a balaclava and at least one with a waterproof shell. I take one sun hat with small brim (I don’t like peaked caps as they stop me from looking up easily) and for equatorial sailing I am trying to wear a sun-proof balaclava, made of the same fabric as a technical t-shirt, which protects the whole head, neck and face from the sun.
I’ve yet to find a set of gloves that will keep my hands dry for extended periods, so when it is cold and wet I rotate through my gloves. In truly cold conditions Gore-Tex mittens are great, especially for helming, as they can be quickly removed to do rope work. I don’t use sailing gloves much but always take a pair of full finger gloves with me so if I get an injury on one of my hands I’d be able to protect it while handling ropes.
First published in the April 2020 edition of Yachting World.