Seven Spray Tops Put To the Test

They all claim to be waterproof and breathable, but for such an essential gear item, there is a big difference in even the small details. SW gets the story from the inside of seven different spray tops. From our May 2006 issue.

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The overall best performer was the Musto MPX Race Smock, which rated 5-stars in 3 of 4 categories. For images of the 6 other smocks, please click the Photos link above.Courtesy Musto

Spray tops aren't what they used to be. With better fabrics and designs, and an understanding of the importance of layering, we're getting more from them. As a result, what used to be the garment of choice among dinghy sailors and bowmen is now the most utilitarian piece of wet weather gear anyone on the boat can own. They may be singular in purpose, but spray tops definitely are not created equal. To get a handle on the current range of tops, we outfitted a J/30 crew at Acura Key West Race Week in January, and tested samples from all the major marine apparel players. Lucky for us, we scored perfect conditions. It was windy, wet, and rough for six of seven days, and every day temperatures were cool and dry, which necessitated wearing them all day, every day. We made sure our testers weren't wearing cotton shirts, which negates the whole breathability concept, and for this, Gill provided its Technical Tee, a wicking T-shirt that works extremely well. We also had Martha Parker, the co-founder of Team One Newport, brief us on important design details. She also explained, in layman's terms, what all the fabric jargon meant. There are two basic waterproof and breathable fabric types: two-ply or three-layer laminate. A two-ply fabric is essentially a nylon face coated on the inside with a waterproof and permeable polyurethane coating or membrane that allows water vapor to bleed out through fabric. A water-repellent finish (referred to as Durable Water Repellent) is added to the outside of the fabric. The DWR encourages water to bead up on contact and roll off before it saturates the nylon and hampers breathability. A two-ply top is lighter and less expensive than a laminate top, but one disadvantage is the inside coating lays directly against the skin, sometimes creating a clammy, cool feel. A three-layer laminate is essentially a nylon sandwich with a permeable membrane in the middle. These fabrics are also coated with a DWR. The clear advantage of the laminate is the interior lining, which feels better against the skin and contributes to the top's durability. It also tends to slide more freely over an underlayer. All the spray tops we tested delivered on their waterproofness and breathability-as they should straight out of the box-but it's not completely fair to compare the two fabrics side-by-side, especially considering the cost difference, so we grouped them accordingly and looked at basic, but important details. Neck seal and closure: Many people don't like pullovers to begin with, and if you're one of these people, you'll want a wide neck opening, which also allows you to open up the neck seal for quick ventilation, when you're sailing downwind. The closure system should obviously provide a tight seal. In our sampling, five of seven tops had offset closures, which are better than front closures, because the fabric doesn't bunch up under your chin. Wrist closures: Six of seven tops use polyurethane coated Lycra wrist seals, and one uses neoprene; the PU/Lycra provides a far better seal. Waistband and closure: The waistband is as critical as, if not more important than the neck seal. For dinghy sailors, it's the most likely point of water entry. Five of seven tops have smooth-sided neoprene waistbands, which is an absolute must. The grip of the smooth neoprene provides a better seal, and it prevents the jacket from riding up when you bend over or lean sideways.The wider the band is, the better. Pockets: Chest pockets are ideally accessible from the side, for access when wearing a PFD, and they should drain. An extra arm pocket is a bonus. The Two-Ply Smocks The Gul line is popular overseas and Gul USA, recently started importing select products. For our roundup they delivered the Gul Ballistic Breathable Spray Top. It has a rip-stop nylon outer face, and on the scale it's the second lightest of the group, which, according our tester, was a plus. "The thing was so light I hardly noticed I was wearing it," he said. The offset neck opening is wide. A small Velcro tab on the closure was sufficient, but a larger one would accommodate a better range of neck sizes. The waistband is 2 inches wide, and has the requisite smooth-side for grip. The entire outside face of the front waistband panel accepts the Velcro tabs, allowing for an excellent range of adjustment. There's one deep, front-zippered pocket. Gul Ballistic Spray Top Neck closure: HHH Wrist closure: HHH Waistband: HHHH Pocket: HHH Weight: 15.8 oz./Price: $109.95 Tester comment: It was a little hot, but when the breeze was up, it was fine. The fit was good, non-binding. The pocket was not very watertight, and the addition of an arm pocket would be a plus. Because it's priced in the mid-range it's a great value. www.gul.com Gill has been refining its Dinghy Smock for 15 years, and it is a staple because of its excellent pricing, good quality, and streamlined design. Its two-ply fabric contributes to its low weight (lightest of the group) and easy wear (not stiff). The overall finish is excellent, with taped neck, wrist, and waistband seams. The smooth-side neoprene waistband is 2.5 inches wide, and large nylon side panels allow slimmer sailors to get a tight seal. The neck closure is offset, and Gill was intentionally generous with the Velcro strips for easier sealing, but our tester found the portion sewn into the collar caused serious neck chafing. We checked with Gill on this and when they looked into it, they agreed the Velcro panel had unintentionally "grown" without them realizing it, and they were looking into having it trimmed back. Nylon reinforcement on the collar, however, allows a exceptionally tight seal. At the wrist, long Velcro strips allow a wide range of adjustment. A deep pocket is high and offset, allowing access for a PFD wearer. Gill Dinghy Smock Neck closure: HHH Wrist closure: HHHH Waistband: HHHH Pocket: HHHH Weight: 14.8 oz./Price: $115 Tester comment: "The only drawback was the Velcro patch at the neckline, but otherwise the cuffs, fit, and breathability were very well done. www.gillna.com The Henri Lloyd Breaker 2 is an excellent, well-built smock. Its fabric is a slightly different two-ply, however, in that the coating is ceramic, through which water vapor can bleed. It has a stiffer feel, but not excessively so. Of the two-ply group it has the best waistband and closure system, 3.5 inches wide and smooth on the inside, plus large nylon pull tabs and generous Velcro. The neck closure was also the widest of the bunch. The main pocket is accessed through a watertight zipper, which is a luxury touch. There are many other details, such as the arm pocket and reflective panels on the sleeves. Henri Lloyd Breaker 2 Neck closure: HHHH Wrist closure: HHHH Waistband: HHHH Pocket: HHHHH Weight: 18.7 oz. /Price: $110 Tester's comment: The Henri Lloyd was great. I liked everything about it-kept me dry, warm, cool, and happy. When the sun came out I thought I was going to cook, but I didn't. www.henrilloydonline.com Ronstan is comparatively new to foul weather gear and is understandably a few generations behind the rest with its Ronstan Breathable Smock. The RTech3 fabric itself is a two-ply, but there's a loose mesh lining on the inside, which improves the comfort of a two-ply, but is a feature most have done away with because it adds weight and the liner either bunches up in places or catches on things. With that said, our tester felt the overall comfort was excellent, as was its waterproofness and breathability. Its details, however, need upgrading (we're told they are, in fact, revamping this top). Start with the front-entry zip, which creates a wide opening, but does not provide the best seal. Undersized Velcro tabs on the collar don't provide any range of closure. The elastic on the Velcro wrist tabs is low grade, and won't last long. The waistband doesn't have a smooth neoprene lining on the inside; bare neoprene is a sponge, and without bibs or salopettes, the water will eventually seep into an underlayer. The seams are not taped at the neck, wrist, or waist closures. The pocket is a fold-over flap with Velcro, and there's no drainage hole. Ronstan Breathable Smock Neck closure: HH Wrist closure: HH Waistband: HH Pocket: H Weight: 17.8 oz./Price: $100 Tester's comment: Very light and comfortable, but water did trickle down through neck seal. www.ronstan.com Behold the laminates Slam gear, made in Italy, is new to the United States, and for our test, they delivered the Slam ATS Spray Top, which we're told was developed with the help of Russell Coutts. It's a three-layer laminate that, with the exception of missing tape at the neck, wrist, and waistband seams, is extremely well tailored and finished. The inside lining is soft against the skin, and the breathability, says our tester, is excellent. One great detail is the use of stretchy Lycra panels that run from the top of the shoulder and down underneath the arm. The neck closure is incredibly wide, but one serious drawback-and this is true of the top's wrist seals-is that the seal is neoprene, which doesn't make an effective watertight seal. The waistband is 3.25 inches wide, but would benefit from a longer Velcro strip. Our biggest complaint with this smock is the absence of a pocket. We enquired and were told, "Russell suggested getting rid of the pocket to make it lighter and less bulky." While that might be OK for Russell, the rest of us still require a place to put our stuff. We're told, however, that a new smock is in the works-one with a pocket-and due out this fall. Slam ATS Spray Top Neck closure: HH Wrist closure: HH Waistband: HH Pocket: NA Weight: 21.3 oz./Price: $249 Tester comment: Great fitting top, and really, really comfortable, even downwind when it got really hot, but the lack of a pocket is a real drawback. www.slam.com The Musto MPX Race Smock is the benchmark, the absolute best for wet boats that have nowhere to hide from the weather. But with such a standard there's a high price to pay. Musto uses Gore-Tex fabric and seam tapes, and Gore is the industry giant when it comes to waterproof/breathable fabrics, so that's a big part of the cost factor. But you get a lot for your money-in other words, there's no skimping when it comes to the details. The entire back panel is Stretch Gore-Tex, and when you cross your arms you can feel its subtle give. The offset neck closure is wide and its design eliminates virtually any inside flap when it's closed. There's even a small Velcro tab that holds the closure tab when it's not being used. The waistband is smooth sided and 4 inches wide-the widest of all the tops we tested. Its waist adjustment tabs and Velcro strips are extra generous. The smock has two side-entry waist pockets with watertight zippers, which are great for warming hands between races. It's also easier to get to stuff than with the kangaroo pouches on most spray tops. Musto MPX Race Smock Neck closure: HHHHH Wrist closure: HHHH Waistband: HHHHH Pocket: HHHHH Weight: 21.5 oz./Price: $295 Tester's comment: The MPX I tried was black, so I was sure I was going to overheat when the sun came out downwind, but I was never, ever uncomfortable-and I was wearing a PFD the entire week. www.musto.co.uk The Magic Marine East Coast Spray Top was a surprise gem in the round up-a great value. Magic Marine makes primarily lightweight dinghy gear, so this smock is right from the top end of its line. The fabric is a three-layer laminate that uses a rip-stop nylon for the outer face. We're told by one fabric expert that this type of nylon tends to wear faster because its "hills and valleys" are more exposed, but we'll have to wait and see what happens over time. The offset neck closure worked really well, and with a tapered collar and a relatively short gusset, there wasn't too much bulk when closed. Its ribbed, smooth-sided neoprene waistband is nice and wide-3 inches. The closure system, with large nylon tabs, gave a watertight fit. There's no front cargo pocket, but there is a generous arm pocket. Another worthwhile improvement would be to tape the neck, wrist and waist seams. Magic Marine East Coast Top Neck closure: HHHH Wrist closure: HHHH Waistband: HHHH Pocket: HHH Weight: 20.5 oz./Price: $175 Tester's comment: Seals were non-abrasive, and the material was breathable. The neck opening was better than some spray tops I've had. The sleeve pocket was practical, but a small chest pocket would be a good addition. www.teamvanguard.com