updated 9/11/16

The Well Dressed Cruiser

The whole trick to living aboard is minimal possessions, especially clothes. Most people contemplating living aboard and cruising already have far more than they need for the cruising life or have room for on a boat.  Except for foul weather gear, deck shoes and sea boots, they will have to get rid of a lot of clothes rather than go shopping for specialized “Boating” gear.  Clothing can take up a lot of room. Packed in lockers, clothes will get damp, smelly and wrinkled.  Hung in a hanging locker on a voyage they will chafe holes in them from the motion of the boat. At sea you will wear sea going gear but we all want to look presentable when we go ashore.  What to do?  Choose the right garments.  Make them do double duty when ever possible and stow them properly.


As for choice of fabrics I recommend you avoid cotton. Anything cotton will soak up moisture and hold it, both in a locker and on your body, ultimately becoming home to mold and mildew colonies with interesting colors and odors.  Wool and modern synthetic active wear have anti microbial qualities that keep the odors down.  Once wet with seawater, any fabric will stay damp until washed in fresh water. Wool and polyester fleece will keep you warm even when wet but cotton will just be cold and clammy.


We used to be big fans of natural fibers, especially cotton in hot weather but modern synthetics have come a long way and the better ones are superior to cotton for most applications. We like wool and polyester fleece when it is cold and rayon Aloha shirts and supplex nylon shorts when it is hot. Cotton is best when it is hot and dry; conditions you are unlikely to encounter on a boat. Nevertheless, some cotton clothes will certainly find their way into your sea bag; Walking shorts, jeans, a favorite flannel shirt, printed t-shirts etc. We try to avoid wearing them at sea and pack them away in waterproof bags before casting off.

This is what works for us:


Small clothes are either light weight base layer merino wool or treated polyester.  In the tropics it is simple. We wear rayon Aloha shirts and surf or walking shorts. Laura has a couple of appropriate casual rayon dresses. For sun protection on the boat we have light weight, water repellant, breathable long sleeve shirts from Columbia Sportswear that are designed for fishing.


When it is cold, we layer up.  Wool or polyester base layers, mid-layers and wool or polyester fleece sweaters and trousers may be worn under wind and waterproof outer layers.  We like Grunden’s product line for reasonably priced, rugged seagoing clothes. Two or three thin layers under a sweater and non-insulated outer wind and waterproof shell will keep you warmer and more comfortable than one thick coat over normal street clothes.


Hats and caps are essential in both hot and cold climates. Call me old school, but I always wear a hat or a cap when out of doors. In the tropics, a broad brimmed hat is best.  It will keep you cool and protect you from sunburn.  Avoid wide-weave straw golf hats. They offer little protection from the sun and none from tropical showers.  You should not be able to see through your hat.  Light hats made of polyester are probably the best choice.  A cheap, floppy polyester hat can be rolled up and stuffed in a pocket or tossed in the washing machine without concern for damage. A good Panama is great but they are very expensive and relatively fragile. A wool felt fedora would be a better choice if that is your style.


Baseball caps are very popular but offer little protection from the sun except for the eyes and forehead. A baseball cap is better than nothing but, in the low latitudes especially, whenever possible wear a hat with a wide brim.  Baseball caps are the best choice in cooler weather in higher latitudes where the sun is lower in the sky, when you are wearing an outer garment with a hood or when it is very windy. The ubiquitous cheap, cotton, strap-back ball cap will get wet, stay wet and feel miserable and chilly. I like fitted Major League Baseball game caps, either in wool or the newer polyester fleece from New Era.  


If you will be venturing into the high latitudes, you may need a warm cap with ear flaps or a watch cap of wool and/or polyester.


The most important piece of kit for any long distance sailor is a good foul weather suit.  There are many quality brands available. Choose carefully and don’t be cheap.  Trust me.  You will regret not spending that extra fifty bucks when your foulies soak through on the foredeck or sitting on watch in a cold downpour at 48 North.  Foul weather gear manufacturers have succumbed to fashion marketing pressures and introduce new colors and detailing every season.  This can work to your advantage if you are willing to settle for last year’s fashion when it is on sale.  Buy quality; the best you can afford, and be sure to choose a size roomy enough for warm layers underneath.


There will be times when you want some protection from spray or light rain but do not need to suit up in full foul weather gear.  A lighter jacket and rain pants may be useful on those occasions or for excursions ashore in wet weather if you have room in your sea bag and they fit your budget.


Happy feet mean a happy crew.  In the low latitudes it is simple: a coat of sunblock on the tops of your feet is all that is required aboard ship.  Ashore, a pair of flip-flops or sandals will do. Shoes will be ok if you keep them clean and dry and stored in a well ventilated locker. We each have one pair of boat shoes, one pair of hiking boots, one pair of runners and one pair of sea boots (Laura has one pair of little strappy sandals with heels for wear with a dress) and we are trying to figure out how to do with less.  Socks should be wool.  We like Smartwool brand Light Hikers for just about every occasion for which socks are required.  We have a few pairs of thick wool socks for very cold weather.

We have both worked regular shore jobs as business managers or sales people (Laura is at work as I write this) so needing an extensive wardrobe for work is no excuse, especially with today's casual dress codes. We get by with two or three pairs of pants and three or four shirts each.  Laura has a few more tops and a skirt or two.  We each have a waterproof bag that holds our shore work clothes when we are at sea.  I even have a blazer and a couple of ties so we are able to get dressed up enough for the dining room at St Francis YC or for a special occasion ashore.

As for actual storage, we roll our shirts, pants and socks Navy style and store them in the lockers. Fleeces, sweaters etc. are stuffed into covers we had made and used as throw cushions. Seldom worn or seasonal clothes are kept rolled in waterproof bags in the hanging locker. We no longer hang our clothes because we are actively cruising and they quickly wear out from chafe if hung while actually sailing. During an extended time in port if we have to dress for the office, we just shift from duffel bags to hangers.


If you choose appropriate items from your existing wardrobe and supplement with a few new, or better yet second hand, purchases you can be well dressed for every situation with a minimum of stuff.  Ideally, everything, excepting foul weather gear and sea boots, for one crew member should fit in one small duffel bag.  The minimum for a man, in my opinion would be:


One pair of boat shoes

Six pairs of light wool socks

Two pairs of long base layer bottoms

Six pairs of boxers or briefs

Six t-shirts (Synthetic or wool)

Four long sleeved base layer tops

Two pairs of surf shorts

*Two pairs of walk shorts

*Two pairs of khakis or jeans

Two pairs of fleece pants

*Three short sleeved sport shirts

Three light long sleeved shirts

One wool flannel shirt

One mid weight long sleeved top

One good wool sweater

One baseball cap

One broad brimmed hat

One warm ski or watch cap

One hooded fleece mid/outer layer top


* For wear ashore when in port


The above will cover you in pretty much all conditions.  The heavier items, of course could be omitted if you plan to limit your cruising to the tropics but it can get pretty cool at sea even in Hawaiian waters during the winter months so a hoodie and fleece pants would  be welcome.  Men may want to add a blazer and a pair of slacks. Women will want to modify this list to suit their personal tastes and needs; a dress or two, a pair of heels for a night on the town etc. but we find that mostly it works for both of us.  Add running shoes, bike shorts and helmets and hiking boots if you like, but the key point is: Keep it to a minimum, bring only what you really need and whenever possible make everything do double duty. This is the ideal, in our opinion. We confess, we are still working on it but we are getting there.