Frostbiting Gear Guide

The right gear can make all the difference when battling both the elements and your competitors.

Sailing World
Frostbiting: Laser Fleet 413
Laser Fleet 413 (Newport, R.I.) gets out of the snow and onto the water with the right gear.Courtesy Stuart Streuli

Frostbiting, as the name suggests, can be downright miserable. But with the right gear to keep your digits warm, you can triumph over the bitter cold, sail fast, and get to the bar without blue toes and with some hard-earned bragging rights. We checked in with six frostbiting fleet champions to see how they gear up for sailing in the winter. Your panel of experts includes Erich Hesse (Laser, Potomac River Sailing Association, Washington, D.C.), Michael O'Brien (Seattle Laser Fleet, Shilshole Bay, Wash.), Bill Rothwell (Interclub, Winthrop Frostbite Sailing Club, Winthrop, Mass.), Jim Ryan (JY15 Fleet 38, Snapper Inn Frostbite Fleet, Oakdale, N.Y.), Peter Shope (Laser Fleet 413, Newport, R.I.), and Ross Weene (Frosty Fleet 9, Newcastle, N.H.).

What’s your usual get-up for frostbiting?

EH: Since we usually sail in light air and warmer temps than those in the Northeast, I try to get away with spray gear for as long as I can. I wear long underwear every day with Smartwool socks, Aigle boots, fleece-lined board shorts from ImmersionResearch (I like these a lot, but they're not too good if they get wet), a ball cap (or winter hat if it's really cold), and spray gear.

MOB: The key for me is flexibility. I want various layers to be usable all year. Since I sail a Laser, I favor a wetsuit (the Zhik Superwarm Skiff Suit) instead of a drysuit. On a normal day, I pair the skiff suit with Power Pads (these really help to stay warm), a Zhik hydrophobic fleece thermal layer, a SuperWarm Zhik top, spandex overshorts that prevent my wetsuit from wearing out, Sperry Top-Sider GripX boots, Gill Three-Season gloves with a pair of Under Armour cycling gloves underneath, and if it's very cold, I'll wear a spray top.

BR: I have gravitated over the years to wearing clothes that provide the most amount of flexibilty and range of motion. I wear SEA hiking pants, and my base layers typically include a wicking long-sleeve shirt. I wear Ronstan hiking boots (made of Neoprene) which help to keep my feet warm. Since I'm moving so much in the Interclub (hiking, etc.), I rarely get cold (unless there's a long delay in between races). When the temperature dips below 40 degrees, I always wear a knit hat.

Interclub frostbiting. Photo: mass-frostbite.org

JR: The key is good stuff underneath. Capilene may be expensive, but it's well worth it. I wear that, and if it's cold, I'll add a thin polar fleece pullover. If it's really cold, I wear my Zhik neoprene top. I wear my spray top to keep dry and out of the wind. I wear neoprene dinghy boots with polar fleece socks, and just nylon shorts. My legs never get cold until I'm standing around on the dock, and I try not to do that.

PS: I frostbite Lasers so the gear I wear is tailored to sailing them efficiently. I wear basically the same gear every day that I frostbite so I know that it works, and I'm used to it. On my feet I wear Gill Trapeze boots over thin Titanium-lined wetsuit socks (not too tight). I use a Camero 3mm farmer john wetsuit (the Zhik SuperWarm would be my replacement) over Zhik Power Pads, and a Zhik Hydrophobic Fleece shirt. Body Armor Compression Shorts go over the wetsuit for wear protection. As an outer layer, I wear a Zhik Titanium Top (tucked into my shorts), and if it's really wet and cold, a Gill spray top. On my head I wear a baseball cap on warm days, and a fleece cap with tie strings on the cold ones. A fleece cap with a visor would be nice but I haven't found one yet that I like. (Some caps have a crinkly liner between the layers that make hearing hard.) On my hands I wear Gill Long-Fingered Championship gloves on warm days and DaKine Cold Weather Sailing Mitts on the bitterly cold ones.

RW: I have a Gill drysuit. On cold days, I go with Smartwool's long underwear bottoms and a thermal top, and a wool or fleece sweater. Neoprene sailing gloves. Wool ski socks. Chuck taylors or Zhik sneakers. Wool hat.

Hats all around! The Snapper Inn Frostbite Fleet. Photo: Cady Vitale/Snapper Inn Frostbite Fleet

What piece of gear could you not live without?

EH: My base layer Bergelene/Techwick (breathable) long underwear. Sail every day with them, and yes, I do wash them every week!

MOB: SuperWarm Zhik top and socks.

BR: I would say that the most indispensable gear I have are my gloves. Since I want to be able to have a direct feel to the mainsheet, I had for many years worn fingerless sailing gloves (by Gill or Ronstan). However, on really cold days my fingers would begin to freeze, so three years ago, I switched to the "three full-finger" gloves. These keep my hands relatively warm, but have they have not sacrificed the feel for the mainsheet.

PS: I spent years sailboarding in the winter off the coast of New Hampshire, and the DaKine Cold Weather Sailing Mitts are awesome. The mitts are the one piece of winter sailing gear that is indispensable on the really bitterly cold days.

RW: My drysuit is pretty indispensable for Frosty sailing.

Frosty Fleet 9 brings the heat. Photo: Frosty Fleet 9 Facebook

Beyond gear, what’s your best tip for staying warm on the water?

EH: Some of the people I sail with bring thermoses with warm drinks.

MOB: If your hands and feet get cold, it means your core is not warm enough. If the core is warm, your body will shed heat through the extremities.

BR: If we are in a prolonged delay in between races, my crew and I will stand up and move our arms or do jumping jacks to get the blood flowing. If we sit too long, we can get cold very quickly, which not only becomes uncomfortable but causes us to feel lethargic and tired.

JR: The key to staying warm, more than anything else, is constant movement. When I started my fleet 19 years ago, I told the race committee to start at exactly noon, no matter who’s there, and blow the warning for the next race as soon as the last boat finishes. Course adjustments are made during the race so there's no waiting between races. If you have any down time, practice tacking, hike hard, work hard.

PS: My routine before sailing on the freezing days is to first rig my boat in my warm street clothes—wool socks, long underwear, gloves, and a hat—whatever it takes to stay really warm while rigging. I've kept my sailing gear in the house overnight so it's warm. At some point during rigging, I start my car and blast the heat. I dress in my car, and put my hands and feet against the vents to heat them up and get them really hot. I leave the car with my hat and mitts on, and my whole body feeling toasty. I launch right away off the beach, and try to jump on board quickly to minimize water seepage into my boots. Don't leave the shore cold!

RW: Move around. Bring a flask of whiskey.

More Gear! Find more gear reviews from the editors at Sailing World:
Dinghy Boots
Drysuits
Watches

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