The English language is blessed with dozens of terms for rain and wind; cloud, fog and damp, but thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream bringing warm air across the Atlantic Ocean, the number of terms for snow and ice are much more limited. In short, the winter in the UK is rarely so cold that it's impossible to go boating. All along the coast and the inland waters, people cruise, race, fish, work and play throughout the winter months. So what is the key to enjoying a day out on the water? Safety is paramount, of course, but without winter clothing for comfort and warmth, boating in the cold is more of an ordeal than a pleasure.
Regular boats.com reviewer, Alex Smith, published 5 of the best winter powerboats last year, and it's certain that the right boat will keep you better protected from the elements. But protection essentially means staying dry and the only surefire way of staying dry is to wear a drysuit.
These days offshore yachtsmen and most of the active members of the rescue services are kitted out in high-end all-weather breathable drysuits. But for a handful of winter weekend days per year, it is not necessary to spend £1,500 to stay completely dry out on the water. Options exist for as little as £200, but it is important to understand exactly what you are are getting for your money.
For example, the zip designs have evolved over the years to become easier to seal singlehanded – there are plenty of drysuits that are impossible to seal without help from someone else! Also, plastic zips, once shunned by serious shoppers, are now giving the all-metal versions a run for their money. Latex was once the only choice for neck, wrist and ankle seals. Now neoprene has emerged as a longer-lasting more comfortable option. Speaking of ankles – should you choose sealed feet or not? If so, what to wear over the top of the drysuit feet and which socks work best underneath?
Under garments are also essential for drysuit wearers. There's no point remaining dry if you wear so little underneath that you get hypothermia anyway. Proper breathable base and mid-layers are essential for comfortable drysuiting, which needs to be factored into the cost of kitting yourself out. For answers to all this and more, see: How to choose the right drysuit.
There are those for whom drysuits are not suitable. Watertight seals are not designed to withstand high-speed immersive sports such as surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing, and without any possibility of protection from the cold while afloat, drysuit failure could be very dangerous in strong conditions. Many other very strenuous water users, such as dinghy sailors, stand up paddleboarders and jetskiers may also find drysuits too cumbersome to wear.
For these reasons, winter wetsuit technology has continued to develop and modern four-season suits are amazingly warm. But when shopping for a steamer, as winter wetsuits are also known, make sure to look into the varying thicknesses of the neoprene on the different panels. 5mm thick neoprene is great for the chest and back, but for the arms and the joints, something thinner is required otherwise it's impossible to flex and move on the water. Again, zipper styles have developed over recent years making new models easier than ever to put on and take off. Plus many companies now employ micro-metallic layers within the neoprene to keep even more of the body heat from escaping. Plus microfleece has also been introduced as a liner next to the skin, making wetsuits more comfortable. For more on this, see: How to choose the right wetsuit.
For the majority of yacht and powerboat crew, a set of winter waterproofs is all that is required. These highly technical garments are designed to protect from the wind, rain and spray but not from total immersion. Typically employing three-layer breathable fabrics, the idea is to repel water and wind, while allowing condensation (sweat) and excess heat to escape. This breathability prevents condensation and dampness from building up inside the garments, which can be very uncomfortable.
There are dozens of details to attend to when choosing foul weather gear – many of which are difficult to gauge sensibly without experience wearing them in cold conditions. Spotting a poorly designed hood, collar, cuffs, pockets, length of the jacket in front and behind is not easy, but time spent in store wearing and playing with the gear is better than ordering based on a written description and glossy photos.
Generally speaking, 'Ocean' clothing can be quite bulky and with the hood up, it can be hard to see and hear very easily. So the temptation to buy more than you need should be avoided. 'Offshore' gear is versatile enough to withstand most winter activity when worn with plenty of layers and good gloves and hats. 'Coastal' or 'Inshore' will leave you shivering in anything approaching real winter weather – but these thinner jackets can be worn as mid-layers for occasional freezing weather.
Read our detailed guide on how to pick the right foul weather gear.
Boots with waterproofed leather are the best for warmth, but they come at a price. For occasional winter boating, rubber or lightweight waterproof fabrics will also do as long as layers of socks are worn. If worn over a drysuit, then gaiters should also be used to prevent water from dripping inside the boots.
Frozen fingers are almost inevitable when sailing in winter. In order to keep them warm, keeping them dry is the most essential thing, but as soon as something needs fastening or unfastening – be it rope, shackle, split pin or buckle – the first thing that happens is the glove comes off. Brand new gloves are great, so for a long cold trip, a small parcel of brand new gloves may be money better spent than a single pair of expensive ones. Some sailors swear by neoprene, others like lined waterproof gloves, but the fact remains that unless you are doing a shift at the wheel, or huddled up in the cockpit (a.k.a. powerboating), wet cold fingers are a way of life.
Find more winter sailing inspirationin our feature here, and read about alternatives for colder weather such as sailing on ice.