All photos taken by Tufts Sailing Coach Ken Legler
As hard as it is to believe with the East Coast buried in snow, the spring season for college sailing is only a couple of weeks away. While the spring brings with it the excitement of team racing and the ultimate goal of nationals, it also presents a big weather hurdle for sailors who want to excel. With the first month or more of the spring season being chilly at best and brutally cold at worst, I’ve made a list of things that I have tried to keep in mind after four years of fighting off the frosty New England early spring months.
- Invest in Good Gear: While it is tempting on a college budget to buy the cheapest options in cold weather gear, or to buy the bare minimum you think you will need to stay warm, I sincerely encourage you to do the opposite. Especially if you are an underclassman, the best thing to do is to start out your college sailing career by buying top quality gear that will work and will last you throughout most of your four years.
The best of the best in sailing outerwear to me means a Kokatat dry-suit, rubber boots instead of neoprene ones (originally made best by Aigle, now made by Sperry), and a sturdy pair of gloves (the best cold-weather ones are ones that have a little thickness, but will also allow you to bend your fingers and retain your grip.) Dry-suits are the pinnacle in cold-weather gear, and although they are a hefty investment, having a good one will make sure you stay happy when the water and wind temperatures are barely above freezing. The Kokatat option is most popular with college sailors, because of the excellent quality and lifetime warranty. While it is the most expensive of dry-suit options, Kokatat will also repair or replace your dry-suit for close to free if it starts to wear out.
The best under layers, in my opinion, are made by Patagonia. With most schools offering access to a killer discount, there isn’t a reason not to invest in some of their cold-weather clothing, especially when it works well. My favorite layering options in my sailing bag are my R1 pullover, and Capilene 1 shirts and pants. While Patagonia also makes excellent socks, my favorite socks are made by Smartwool to keep my feet toasty…or at least not frostbitten.
- Know the Tricks: While you can have the most expensive and best looking gear on the water, it is still important to know all the tricks of how to use it in order to keep yourself warm and in peak performing condition.
No matter how good your dry-suit is, there is always going to be exposed skin that needs to be kept warm and dry too. For my head, I like to wear a baseball cap with an ear-warmer or winter beanie overtop of it. This keeps a little extra warmth locked onto the top of your head, and if the hat on the outside gets splashed your head will still stay dry. I try to stay away from hats that are pure wool or fleece, because if they get wet around your ears it becomes very hard to hear. Instead, I opt for synthetic warm hats made by Under Armor or Patagonia, because a lot of them are more waterproof. To keep my hands warm, my favorite glove option (when its unbearably cold) is fleece-running gloves under waterproof dishwashing gloves. Under Armor makes a great pair of these too, they’re light enough that you can move your hands but stay dry so they can provide extra warmth.
It is equally important to know how to dress under your dry-suit. The most important lesson I’ve learned is, when it comes to layers, go for quality not quantity. This is especially important for socks. Putting on too many socks will actually restrict the blood flow to your feet, because they become too tight inside of your boots. Instead, find one pair of socks you really trust and put a foot-warmer on the bottom, like you would for skiing. Just make sure the foot-warmer is inside your dry-suit bootie, because they cannot get wet. I use this same approach when putting on other layers, opting for just one pair of fleece-lined spandex pants and two layers on top, one thin and one thicker. The best way to add another layer, if you need it, is to wear a thin, down or fleece vest over your top layers. This will heat up your core to spread more blood to your extremities, but will keep the amount on your arms thinner so they are easier to move.
- Toughen Yourself Up: Okay, I know this sounds obvious, but stick with me! Half of the battle against the cold is mental, and if you keep yourself physically fit to beat the elements then the mental part is easier to master. It is crucial to try to be one step ahead of the cold at all times so that you don’t find yourself getting beat by it with no more ways to fight back.
There are a couple of techniques I use to try and keep myself in the game, and I’m sure that most of them help more mentally than physically. The first, and my favorite, is the extremely popular “crew shuffle.” It is a fact that crews get more wet than skippers do, just because of our boat-handling and positioning so close to the bow, so it is important to know how to stave off the creeping chill that comes with being constantly soaked. The “crew shuffle” goes like this. Stand up in your boat, jump up and down a few times to force blood into your toes, wave your arms back and forth like a penguin trying to fly, and repeat. This is an excellent tool between sets or races to get your heart rate up slightly and the blood moving around to freezing extremities. Another way to keep the cold away during down time on the water is to stick your hands inside your lifejacket. Your core will be the warmest part of you, and a lot of lifejackets have secret fleece-lines pockets for your poor, shriveled up hands. Will either of these actually make you significantly warmer? Probably not, but mentally the little boost of relief they bring will seem like a saving grace.
Staying sharp in terms of knowing how to keep yourself as warm as possible is also important. I always keep multiple headbands, hats and neck-warmers in my bag so that if one gets wet I can replace it quickly. Sometimes, I will even change all of my under layers during a lunch break or an offset just to mentally feel like I will be warmer with different gear. Odds are, the temperature outside is not going to change, so it is important to know how to make the best of it by constantly replacing wet, worn-out, or broken gear throughout the day. Any off time that you have, try and be in a warm place (i.e. the famous head-warmers in the bathrooms at Navy) or ask your coach to blast the heat in the van for a few minutes. If you are an alternate, stay warmed up as best as you can because you never know when you will need to go in.
These are all of the tricks that I’ve learned throughout my college sailing career, and, while it is still not fun to have your fingers and toes go numb while you endlessly shiver, it is fun to know that you are strong enough to take it. As with any sport, athletes are expected to tough it out, and the more you can tough it out over everyone else, the better chance you have at winning. So, college sailors everywhere, dig out your dry-suits, find all of your layers, and pray for the ice to thaw so we can all get out there and start racing!