What to Wear Sailing: The Best Clothing for Comfort on a Boat

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oman standing on bow of catamaran in sailing clothes

When you’re on the water, you have to dress for the elements and wear clothing you can easily maintain. What you wear sailing must allow you to be mobile while keeping you safe on the boat. 

When living on a sailboat, there are three qualities you look for in clothing:

  • comfort
  • ability to stay dry (and keep you dry)
  • easy to clean

Bonus if it’s UPF 50+ for sun protection.

Below we’ll breakdown some of the best wardrobe choices for boat life and clothes for sailing.


Sailing Apparel and What Works Onboard

There are some clothes that don’t work on a sailboat. Before we get started here are a few things not to bring.

COTTON – I love the feel of Pima cotton, but it’s too heavy and hard to dry in humid subtropical climates. Be wary of 100% cotton. Cotton blends are a good alternative for a comfy and cool garment. Quality synthetics are your new best friend.

SOLID LIGHT-COLORED CLOTHING – if you are moving about doing anything on a sailboat, you are bound to get something on you. Gravitating to garments with patterns, dark colors, or heathered colors is a great way to hide the inevitable stains from your boat life.

DELICATE MATERIALS – materials such as silk, leather, and cashmere don’t have a place on a boat. Keep these beauties in storage to avoid ruining them for good. Although leather isn’t necessarily delicate, it is highly susceptible to mold.


What to Wear Sailing in the Summer

After cruising two summer seasons along the southeast coast, we’ve learned a few things about what to wear to stay cool.

When I was downsizing, I kept a ton of bathing suits, cute tops, and cotton shorts I thought I would wear on the boat. Basically, what you would see in a lifestyle clothing ad. The reality was quite different.

Here are a few things we wear daily on the boat and why they work for sailing clothing.

Swim Leggings

These workout pants turned bathing suit bottoms are my go-to bottoms for my sailing outfit. Swim leggings are easy to wash and quick-dry. They are comfortable, allow you to move around, and (if it’s a scorching day) you are ready to jump in the water to cool off.

woman wearing swim leggings to hammock

Features to Look for in Swim Leggings

  • sun protection (UPF 50+)
  • quality stitching (just like a swim suit, they should be made to handle a lot of stretch)

Personal Preferences to Note

  • tight fit or looser fit – I prefer a tight fit like a bathing suit
  • capri vs. full-length leg – I have both, the only difference is applying a little more sunscreen

All my swim leggings are made by Sea Folly, but they are now harder to find and aren’t UPF rated. I would suggest Coolibar’s swim leggings. Their products are typically high-quality and durable for boat life. You can find the Coolibar Santa Cruz swim leggings here.

PRO TIP: Solid black leggings can heat up fast in direct sun. Opt for a pattern or lighter color if you want to avoid the extra heat.

Cardigan or Wrap

Whether packing for a sailing vacation or creating your liveaboard wardrobe, choose clothing you can layer. A lightweight cardigan is a summer staple while versatile for layering in the cooler months.

sailing lady on bow of boat with wearing sailing friendly clothes

Features to Look for in a Wrap

  • sun protection (UPF 50+)
  • heather or dark color to hide stains
  • synthetic or bamboo blend to stay cool

I fell in love with these sun wraps from Coolibar. Like most of their clothing, this piece is very well made. It is mostly a cotton bamboo blend, which means it is durable while still lightweight. I have a few of these and wear one just about every day on the boat. These hold up incredibly well; after many washes, they still feel and look brand new. See the Coolibar Sun Wrap here.

Performance Shirts

Also known as “fishing shirts,” these long sleeve shirts are lightweight, making them perfect for keeping you cool and dry. They are UPF-rated and are easy to wash. We usually pick these up at marinas or local shops along the coast. Here is a good example of a quality performance shirt.


What to Wear Sailing in Cold Weather

We typically chase warmer temps, but for the cold weather days in the shoulder season, you’ll want a few basics to keep you warm. 

woman on dolphin seat of catamaran wearing cool weather sailing clothes

Pullovers

A lightweight hoodie is great for keeping warm on a chilly day. They layer nicely under a jacket since they aren’t bulky like a traditional sweatshirt.

We love Kuhl’s pullovers. The fitted style, lightweight material, kangaroo pockets, and thumbholes in the cuffs are the most useful features. We’re also a fan of the heather colors for hiding stains.

Check out Kuhl’s Lea Pullover here.

Wool Base Layer

Wool base layers or leggings are a must-have for cooler climates on a boat. They have a snug fit and are usually merino wool for extra warmth. A typical wool base layer will keep you warm. I prefer a legging, which usually has a blend of merino wool, spandex, and either nylon or polyester.

I have a couple of wool leggings (or tights) from Smartwool (see photo above). They can be spendy, but if you can find something similar, I would snatch them up for sailing in cold temps.

It looks like Smartwool quit making their PhD Printed Tight. I was able to find one size left on Smartwool’s website here. This will help you get an idea of what you are looking for.

Beanie

If it’s a chilly, windy day on the water, you’ll want a beanie to keep your noggin warm.

Knit beanies should provide enough warmth on a boat. Look for one with a fleece lining for extra warmth. Brands like Coal and The North Face will have good options.

Wool Socks

After living in the Rockies for a decade, I have verified not all wool socks are created equal. 

Smartwool socks are my go-to when I need my feet to stay warm and dry. Try their PhD Outdoor Light Crew socks for cooler days.

Slippers

I’m cold-natured, and my feet are usually freezing when the temps start to drop on the boat. When we are out in chilly weather, I will sometimes wear my slippers for days. 

Make sure to get some with tread to avoid sliding all over the boat. Slippers in a bootie style will also keep your ankles warm!


What Shoes to Wear Sailing

There are a lot of shoes that can be decent sailing footwear. Depending on what you find comfortable, here are a few things to look for.

  • light-colored soles (avoid dark soles unless they specifically say they are non-marking)
  • easy to walk in
  • dries quickly, even better if they’re waterproof

A pair of water-resistant trainers will usually work for sailing. A lot of folks also like Keens since they have the feel of a sandal and will protect your toes. We often sail barefoot, but we know our boat well.

One of our favorite brands for everyday living onboard is Olukai. Most of their shoes are water-resistant or waterproof. All their boots, slip-ons, and sandals are non-marking. They are known for their drop-in heels that allow you to convert to a slip-on for a more casual feel. Check out all Olukai footwear on their site.

Waterproof Sailing Boots

If you anticipate sailing in cold, wet climates, it would be worth investing in a pair of deck boots.

We haven’t tried these yet, but have heard good things about Xtratuf’s deck boots.


Sailing Outerwear to Stay Warm and Dry

When your living on a boat, it’s kind of like living outside. That’s why layers of outwear are crucial to staying warm and dry onboard. Here are a few must-have outwear pieces we recommend.

Light Raincoat

A light raincoat is a must for summer sailing and exploring. Get something that rolls up small so you can easily take it on shore excursions.

man at helm wearing lightweight rain jacket and waterproof hat

Features to Look for in a Raincoat

  • waterproof and windproof
  • lightweight for ease of packing
  • adjustable velcro sleeves
  • adjustable bottom hem

I like Marmot’s lightweight rain jacket that packs up small but still does a great job keeping water out. If you want something a little thicker, Helly Hansen makes a great raincoat as well. Here is the men’s Helly Hansen Seven J Jacket (it’s available in women’s as well).

Fleece Coat

Do not underestimate the value of a warm fleece coat on a sailboat. It’s one of the most versatile items you can have in your wardrobe on a boat. Whether it’s a chilly morning at the helm or an evening walk, this coat will keep you warm and comfy.

woman wearing fleece coat at helm

Features to Look for in a Fleece Coat

  • a hood
  • a color or color-blend that will hide stains
  • quality stitching for durability

The Patagonia Better Sweater Fleece has been my go-to coat for three years. It’s been incredibly durable and ideal for the boat life.

You can find the Women’s Better Sweater Fleece here. The men’s is available here in the lightweight version.

PRO TIP: Size up slightly to layer a hoodie underneath your fleece on cooler days.

Foul Weather Gear

When you must be out in the elements, foul weather gear is essential. When it’s windy and wet, it can get cold quickly! A durable sailing jacket will keep you dry in heavy weather conditions.

woman in full waterproof jacket looking out over water on boat

Features to Look for in Foul Weather Gear

  • waterproof (it should be seam-sealed to be fully waterproof)
  • windproof
  • adjustable hood
  • waterproof cuffs on the sleeves
  • adjustable bottom hem

There are a few good foul wear gear brands on the market. We like Helly Hansen’s sailing jackets. Even though they are a bit pricey, when you need something to keep you warm and dry, you’ll be glad to have something that works.

We have the Helly Hansen Crew Midlayer Jacket. You can find the Men’s Crew Midlayer here and the Women’s Crew Midlayer here.

PRO TIP: Layer this jacket over your fleece when you need to bundle up.

We also have waterproof sailing pants onboard. I wouldn’t splurge on these unless you are planning to do a lot of offshore sailing. We have the Helly Hansen Voss pants and they’re worth it in cold, wet weather.

Helly Hansen no longer makes the Voss, but the similar Moss pants are available here.


Accessories for Your Head and Face

On the water, you expose yourself to direct sun rays from above and also you’re reflective rays off the surface of the water.

We are usually most exposed to the sun rays from the neck up. Here are a few essential items of clothing to protect your head and face and prevent sun damage.

Wide-Brim Hat

A wide-brim sun hat is a piece of essential sailing gear in the summer on a boat.

woman in hammock on boat bow wearing large wide brim hat

Features to Look for in a Sun Hat

  • good ventilation
  • UPF 50+ for sun protection
  • water-repellent
  • waterproof cuffs on the sleeves
  • an adjustable chin strap

The sun hat that checks all the boxes is the Tilley Airflo hat. It will provide UPF 50+ sun protection, stay in place, and wick water in a summer rainstorm. You can check out the Tilley Airflo here.

If you’re looking for something more affordable, check out the Hemlock Lifeguard hats. These are straw on top, so I prefer to wear a UPF bandana under these hats.

PRO TIP: I highly recommend a hat with an adjustable chin strap. I’ve tried hats with internal drawstrings, but I’ve lost those to a rogue gust of wind. There’s nothing more fun than trying desperately to chase down a hat on your 40-foot sailboat. Spoiler, you probably won’t retrieve it.

Bandana

Some of our most delicate skin is from the neck up and is usually the most exposed to sun rays. UPF-rated bandanas will protect your face, head, and neck.

woman on bow of catamaran taking a selfie

Features to Look for in a Bandana

  • UPF 50+ rating
  • quick-dry (if you’re in a tropical climate, these will get sweaty)
  • breathable
  • large enough to easily fit around your face

I live in the bandanas from Coolibar. They are made of soft, comfortable material and hold up well to boat life. Their 24 x 24-inch size is perfect for a versatile fit on your head, face, or neck. See Coolibar’s bandana here.

During our ski resort days, we wore Buff’s head/face wear. Unlike the Coolibar bandana, these are an infinity loop and fit over your head to easily pull up around your face. You can also wear these as a headband, hood, bandana, and more! See Buff Head/Face Wear here.

Sunglasses

There are two schools of thought when it comes to sunglasses on a boat.

  1. Choosing an affordable pair, so you aren’t out $200 if they fall in the water.
  2. Or purchasing a high-quality polarized pair and taking steps to make sure they stay on your face and out of the drink.

I want to wear sunglasses that provide the best protection and performance when I’m outside on the water.

Maui Jim is my favorite brand for performance, comfort, and customer service. Their sunglasses are polarized with a lightweight glass lens, cutting down on glare and scratches. Costa Del Mar is also a great brand and has a style that might be more appealing to men.

Of course, I don’t want to sacrifice my favorite sunnies to Neptune. So I use a sunglass retainer to make sure they stay attached. If you want to be extra careful, opt for the floating retainer.

PRO TIP: If you opt for a sunglass retainer, make sure the sunglasses are on your face and not hanging on your chest when you are sailing or underway. If you are reaching down in a locker or attaching the anchor bridle, you don’t want them getting hooked on something.

For more guidance on choosing sunglasses, Life of Sailing has a great article on the 7 Best Sunglasses for Sailing.


Bags on a Sailboat

Finding a purse that is both functional and fashionable was a challenge when I moved aboard. Ideally, you want to find a bag with the below characteristics that also fits your personal style.

  • big enough for the necessities, whether you’re at the dock going for a stroll or taking the dinghy to shore
  • stands up to the harsh marine environment
  • hands-free for transferring on and off the boat or dinghy
  • water-resistant (at minimum)

Here are a couple of examples of good options.

Water-Resistant Crossbody Bag

Haiku is an eco-friendly brand that uses recycled plastic water bottles to manufacture its bags. The water-resistant, crossbody style is practical for boat living.

close up of crossbody water resistant bag on woman

Best Features of Crossbody Bag

  • Their crossbody bags pack away a lot for their size.
  • I’m a fan of the front open pouch for easy access to essential items and the backside zip pouch for things I use less.

Haiku makes a few crossbody options. Check out their Revel Crossbody here.

Waterproof Crossbody Pouches and Backpacks

If you are looking for something genuinely waterproof – take a look at Booe. These bags are not just good for exploring on land but also in your kayak, paddleboard, and other water adventures.

black Booe waterproof crossbody bag in sand

Best Features of Waterproof Crossbody Bag

  • Booe (pronounced bouy) makes 100% waterproof bags with a zip opening that are fully submersible.
  • They make various sizes of crossbody pouches as well as backpacks and belt bags that come in many fun colors!

Unlike a typical dry bag, Booe uses a toothless zipper technology that allows you to easily access your items. These bags and backpacks are ideal for boat life. It doesn’t hurt that they’re stylish too!

Check out all the Booe bag options here.


Final Thoughts on Clothing for Sailing

There are a lot of ideas out there about what sailing clothes are essential on a sailboat. Depending on where and how you are cruising will dictate what you can and can’t live without.

woman on front of catamaran in sun hat, swim leggings, and UPF top

On most days, I’m in swim leggings and a swim top with a sun wrap. When we go ashore, I shift to a lightweight skirt and tank or tee with a sun wrap.

Determining what’s most comfortable for you on a typical day will help you keep your wardrobe small and efficient. Add items to protect you from the sun and weather, and you’ll have everything you need aboard.


Want more lists of boat gear for your liveaboard life?

View our guide for lists of essential sailboat gear, galley must-haves, boat tools, and more.


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2 Comments

  1. Hi folks…this is the best article on this topic I have seen. There are tons of posts available on tools, boats etc, but something as mundane as which clothes to keep or select as you downsize to take off are less common. Thanks you for these helpful posts. As an aside, what new rig did you pick and why?
    JEB from Norfolk, VA

    1. Thanks Jeb, we are so glad you found this article useful! And yes, clothes can definitely be something we overlook with all the other aspects of moving aboard.

      We haven’t decided on a rig yet – since we have more experience this go around we are taking our time to find the perfect fit. We’ll definitely do a post or announcement when we make the purchase!

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