Selecting Foul Weather Gear

water crashing over the bow of a boat

Foredeck work on a racing sailboat requires top-quality foul weather gear.

By Tom Burden and Tom Farmer, Last updated: 10/4/2019

Foul weather gear has the challenging task of protecting active boaters from rain, spray and rogue waves. But, if these were the only requirements, we’d all be wearing simple slickers. In addition to external water protection, foul weather gear must also offer a wide latitude of ventilation options due to varying exertion levels, must offer freedom of movement for active wearers, must be able to withstand the marine environment (including rough nonskid surfaces, chemicals and salt), and should be comfortable to live in for extended periods of time.

Matching Gear to Your Needs

We classify foul weather gear into five major categories: Offshore, Coastal, Lightweight, Fishing & Rain, Dinghy. So, which type of gear is best for your needs?

Offshore Gear

Gill's OS24 Offshore Jacket features 4-layer fabric, high collar, wrap-around face guard and peaked hood.

Offshore gear is designed for consecutive days or weeks of extended use in extreme climates. This is gear that you live in and depend on, the gear they wear on the Volvo Ocean Race. Fabrics (such as the most advanced GORE-TEX®) are heavyweight and highly breathable as well as durable, and this gear provides the most protection along with top-quality detailing. The hoods, storm flaps, collars and seals are the best available to keep water from penetrating through any opening. Reinforcements are the most extensive, guarding against abrasion from winches and deck gear. If you plan to engage in long-distance racing or cruising—or if your local conditions tend to be nasty, invest in a top-quality suit, like Gill's offshore gear. This style of gear includes:

  • Heavy-duty fabrics for durability, breathability and longevity in harsh conditions, such as GORE-TEX Ocean Technology fabric and proprietary fabrics from Gill and Henri Lloyd
  • Noncorroding, heavy duty zippers with storm flaps; Reflective tape for maximum visibility; Tall, adjustable collars with protective, adjustable hoods

Coastal Gear

Our Third Reef coastal jackets are lightweight, windproof and breathable.

Coastal gear is designed for several days of continuous use in rough conditions, for all but the longest passages. Competent hood and collar systems, multiple pockets and unlined, multi-layer construction make coastal gear comfortable and protective. Coastal foul weather gear includes:

  • Medium-weight fabrics for durability—all waterproof; some are also breathable
  • Reinforced seats and knees, noncorroding, heavy-duty zippers with storm flaps, reflective tape for maximum visibility, fleece-lined hand warmer pockets and collar
  • Tip: For all but the longest passages, coastal-class gear, especially the breathable styles, are very appropriate and substantially less expensive than offshore gear.

Lightweight Gear

Made for daily use in mild to moderate climates with the possibility of light rain, spray and wind. Use this gear for day-sailing and weekend trips in warmer climates. This type is ideal for most types of boating because of its lightweight, good protection and relatively low cost. Some styles offer waist pants instead of bib overalls, and most jackets are short for greater mobility. With lightweight or inshore gear, you get:

  • Lightweight fabrics for mobility and comfort, ranging from water-resistant to waterproof
  • Basic styles at value prices
  • Lightweight gear works great off the boat, whether skiing on mild days, hiking, or wearing it around town
  • It’s less restrictive and clammy than coastal-class products

Salopettes, like these Men’s Pro Salopettes from Gill, are great for inshore sailing.

Fishing and Rain Gear

While most foul weather gear 30 years ago was made out of welded PVC or a similar plastic sheet, most gear is now made out of a nylon or polyester base fabric with a variety of waterproof coatings. But PVC gear is still popular among fishermen due to its slick exterior, which makes it easier to clean up after a day of angling. PVC gear also tends to be the least expensive for short-term or occasional use. Finally, heavyweight PVC gear is the choice of commercial fishermen for its durability and slick surface. Look for Grundéns products on our site. Fishing gear has:

  • Non-breathable PVC fabrics for stain-resistance and easy cleaning
  • Heat-welded seams for total waterproof protection
  • More expensive sets have either cotton or polyester base fabric for comfort
  • Commercial suits have reversible bibs that increase the life of the suit. Suits generally have few outside pockets to reduce the chance of snagging on crab pots or other fishing gear
  • This gear is excellent for guests, or when exploring muddy beaches and bays

Dinghy Gear

Dinghy gear is made for use in very wet conditions, with strenuous activity and the possibility of complete immersion. Very active sailors in planing dinghies, skiffs and beach cats require extreme mobility, tight closures to keep water out and lightweight for comfort. Dinghy gear is generally either a neoprene wetsuit or a simple shell worn over a rash guard or fleece. Although it is expensive, dinghy gear has more features, like the use of stretch fabric, more comprehensive hoods and additional pockets. Gear for dinghy sailing includes:

  • Lightweight fabrics for mobility and comfort; generally unlined so they provide no insulation—all waterproof; some are also breathable
  • Reinforced high-abrasion areas. Wrist, ankle and neck seals prevent leakage. Short-waisted tops allow extra movement.

Waterproofing and Fabric Selection

Breathable fabrics allow water vapor, but not liquid water, to pass through them. Two methods make this water transfer process work; either mechanical passage (through microscopic pores small enough to block liquid water molecules, but large enough for water vapor molecules) or chemical passage through a non-porous coating. When the heat and humidity are greater inside than outside your clothing, a breathable fabric acts like a water pump and transfers moisture to the outside of the garment. The more effective the fabric is in removing moisture, the more breathable the clothing system and the less likely it is that you will feel cold and clammy or hot and sticky.

Laminated micro-porous fabrics have a breathable membrane laminated between layers for strength and durability. The outer layer of the sandwich construction, usually nylon fabric, protects the membrane from both environmental and man-made exposures. The outer fabric is often coated with a silicone-based or other Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating, which prevents water from soaking in. These fabrics, the most efficient in their breath-ability, are found on the most expensive Ocean gear.

Coated hydrophilic fabrics have a waterproof coating compound spread on the inside of the fabric. Hydrophilic, “water-loving” compounds are solid, so there are no pores or holes to facilitate the easy mechanical vapor transfer. Instead, the vapor moves chemically though the molecular structure of the coating from the warm, high moisture vapor concentration inside to the cool, low-moisture vapor concentration outside. They breathe at about 40% of the rate of micro-porous coatings under ideal conditions.

We find that foul weather gear that utilizes breathable fabric is substantially more comfortable when boating in warm climates, or when the boating activity requires exertion, and therefore results in perspiration. After the pace of activity slows down, non-breathable gear leaves you damp and cold, while breathable fabrics keep a layer of dry air next to the skin, keeping you dry and comfortable.