Taking Care of Me

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As well prepared sailors, we often consider how best to prepare the boat, get ready for spring launch, put her away for the winter, or where to head for the best winter cruising. At some point, preparation also needs to include some self-indulgent care and preparation for yourself  (published October 2017)

Shortly after midnight, deep in the Southern Ocean, the wind was picking up. More accurately, things were getting out of control. We would have to change down to the Number 4, and with the sleet and frigid spray blowing across the deck, no one was looking forward to the exercise. To compound the problem, everyone’s foul weather gear leaked! “Hell!” one of the guys muttered. “We’d be better off if we left the foulies below and went forward with umbrellas!”

That was 30 years ago. Conditions still get rough, but times have changed. So has the foul weather gear. I’m still wearing my 10 year old Musto foul weather suit, but the frayed ends and stretched out shoulder straps certainly won’t win any fashion contests. I guess after logging well over 100,000 miles with that gear, it’s time for more than just an oil change. I find that making well-considered decisions onboard partially depend on how well rested, well clothed and well equipped I am personally. If I’m tired, wet, and need to run after every tool to sort out a problem, I’m not very well prepared.

There are better ways of going forward and dealing with harsh conditions than bringing an umbrella along. Certainly, having good foul weather gear is a start in my own preparation. Most of my personal experience has been with Henri Lloyd and Musto foul weather gear. Happily enough, much of it has been provided to me through various campaigns. At one point I calculated that the value of my top of the line foul weather gear exceeded the amount most stock traders have invested in their Armani suits. It has become shockingly expensive to my frugal mind, but consider that in extreme circumstances it can keep you comfortable, and it may even fend off hypothermia, potentially saving your life. Georgio Armani would be hard pressed to claim the same. Of course there are less expensive options, and they too can make your life easier, more comfortable and help to maintain your health and efficiency.

If you’re in the market for foul weather gear, I suggest you start with a list of criteria that you consider important. Do some research prior to shopping, and if you have the luxury of living near chandleries that have a wide selection of sailing gear, you might consult with some of their reputable and helpful representatives. Everyone will have different requirements, and features change from time to time. Fit and preferences will vary between men and women and people of varying sizes, of course. Here are a few things that I try to consider:

• High fleece collar that can keep me warm and dry quickly like the Henri Lloyd and Musto offshore models
• Chafe protection around the mouth and nose with soft fleece or other material as in the Musto suit
• Fluorescent green hood that has easy vision up, and side to side. Henri Lloyd has clear plastic, non-fogging “windows” in the side of the hood.
• Reinforcing in high chafe areas such as seat and knees to extend the life of the suit
• Ample pockets, preferably fleece lined, that will stay dry.
• Good fit—neither baggy nor overly tight and restrictive. Musto has stretchy shoulder panels in the back of their offshore jacket and Slam has draw strings, adjustable from inside the pockets and good fit
• Shoulder pocket for personal EPIRB (complete with hole in the top for the antenna) as on the Henri Lloyd offshore jacket
• Adjustable shoulder straps as on the Atlantis Weather Gear bibs
• High bibs with front zipper that has zipper car at top and bottom for easy access.
• Gill and Atlantis have a nice “hand” to the material
• Internal pocket for cell phone or other things that need protection

If you’re a day sailor or dinghy sailor, your needs will be different than mine. I want a foul weather suit that will keep me dry for days. On one singlehanded transatlantic trip I took quite a few years ago, I didn’t get out of my foul weather gear for 11 days! The material I would use for an offshore foul weather suit will be quite heavy to resist that kind of abuse. An inshore sailor would find that suit far heavier and more cumbersome than necessary or desirable. Heavy is as heavy does. Get the lightest gear that will do the job properly for you, and you’ll be more comfortable and more mobile, more often. Other features that might be of particular interest to women include a drop seat with zippers on the sides of foul weather trousers rather than in the front. Also consider that some manufacturer’s lines tend to fit smaller people or women better than other lines. Slam provides a lot of adjustments and tends to fit some women better.

Foul weather gear, of course is only the beginning of the comfort clothing list. Layering the clothing underneath the foul weather gear continues the quest towards comfort and personal efficiency. A wide variety of clothing manufacturers provide good outdoor clothing that will work well in a marine environment. Patagonia, Helly Hansen, and others add to the list. One thing to keep in mind is that cotton does not dry well in a saltwater environment. Once cotton is wet with saltwater, it will remain clammy until it is thoroughly rinsed in fresh water even if it is hung to dry in bright sunlight.

Of course, boots are also an important part of your foul weather gear selection unless you’re sailing in the tropics. In the last 32 years I’ve owned two pairs of sea boots, both of which are Le Chameau boots, made in France. They’re no nonsense, warm, sturdy boots. The first pair, purchased in 1985, served me well as I logged well over 200,000 miles wearing them on one project or another. Good boots are expensive. But they may last you a lifetime. Since my “new” boots were “only” purchased in 2001, I’ve got well over 200,000 miles on them, as well. I’m pretty sure they’ll be good for another 100,000 miles, clicking that “odometer” over once more. In the meantime, I’ll have warm, comfortable, dry feet. Friends tell me that there are other boots, such as Dubarry that are also at the top of the line. Good boots, like good clothes can be well worth the money.

Once I know that I can safely and comfortably move about the boat, I still want to have personal gear that will help me 24/7 in any conditions. For nighttime use, I have a Petzl headlight, purchased at REI. There are other mountaineering shops, camping stores, and even chandleries that carry headlights now. Some have red bulbs to reduce glare for other crewmembers. Some have LED as well as incandescent bulbs for varying degrees of brightness, color and battery life. Select the model that best suits your needs, but keep in mind that whatever type of light you’re using at night, the helmsman makes the jobs easier for the deckhands. If you blind the helmsman, you put everyone at risk. An accidental gybe at the wrong time can suddenly become a bigger problem than the one you’re attempting to fix.

When you get to that particular problem, you may need a knife or a tool to do the job. I carry both a Myerchin Offshore Safety/Dive knife and a Gerber multi-tool. For tasks that require cutting aramid fibers you will almost certainly need a serrated-edged knife. I find that the Myerchin knife is almost sharp enough to cut someone just by looking at it so use it with care. The power and durability that can be developed from a fixed blade knife easily surpasses that of a folding blade knife. I’ve had it for over 15 years, and it’s still sharp enough to do some serious work—or damage. As a small footnote, I don’t use it to cut cheese. It’s for emergency use only, and it has been used to cut away large Spectra mains on two separate occasions when rigs went down. It was the only knife available that was able to do that, clearing the rig away and saving damage to the hull.

Folding tools certainly have their place, however, and that’s why one is on the same belt with my fixed blade knife. Some folding tools are better than others, and you will want one that not only has the specific tools you want but also which don’t flex when under loads from various directions.

Since all problems aren’t always located at deck level, I usually pack my climbing harness in my seabag, as well. Heading offshore for extended periods of time on boats that may or may not have a safe means of going aloft implies to me that I should be prepared for anything. Bosun’s chairs with hard bottoms can be more comfortable for longer periods aloft, but in a seaway, where one may be tossed about while up the rig, having a proper climbing harness can mean the difference between fixing the problem or something far more serious—falling to the deck.

Of course there are many other pieces of personal gear that make our lives offshore safer, more comfortable and more convenient. Man overboard transponders, personal strobes, life jackets and other items can provide previously unheard of levels of personal safety. Personal communicators such as InReach, SPOT and others can keep us in touch with friends and family from the most remote places. The list is almost unlimited, and there are plenty of resources to help you find out more. Two of my favorite resources are Landfall Navigation (see: www.landfallnavigation.com) and Team One Newport (see: www.team1newport.com). You will find many helpful people and resources at boat shows, as well. There are many others, I’m sure, but I know that the people at Landfall Navigation and Team One Newport are dedicated to helping you be safe, comfortable and competitive when that’s your goal.

There are better ways than using an umbrella when going forward, and the weather is dealing its worst or problems start to crop up. Those options have only gotten better, and they’re available to you in ways that will serve you best.

Bill Biewenga is a navigator, delivery skipper and weather router. His website is www.weather4sailors.com. He can be contacted at billbiewenga@cox.net

Author: Bill Biewenga

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