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Evolution of sailing clothing doesn’t wash

2007 February 17
A clothing catalog arrived in my mailbox from Team One Newport, with a gorgeous sailing photo on the cover that caught my attention, although it wasn't hard to catch since I'd do anything to keep from facing the bills that arrived in that same stack of mail. I leaned back and started leafing through it.

It didn't take long to realize that I was way out of my sartorial depth. Between the great sailing photos were page after page of jackets, pants, foul weather gear, shirts, shorts, vests and even underwear. What surprised me was that the clothes weren't just intended for sailing, but for specific types of sailing.

There were jackets for dinghy sailors and jackets for big boat racers, outfits for the helmsman and others for the foredeck crew. Take gloves, for example. There were offshore gloves, helmsman gloves, deckhand gloves, long gloves, short gloves, dry gloves, wet gloves, and even sticky gloves to help you hold onto a line.

I can only imagine the furor that would take place if a mere crewmember-a lowly deck ape-showed up for a race wearing helmsman gloves. Or if a helmsman, while exercising his privilege to wear helmsman gloves ("precurved fingers, breathable liner, unsurpassed dexterity") was asked to actually touch a line. Omigod.

Somehow the evolution of sailing clothing had passed me by and I'd missed the whole thing. But then, I thought, there has always been different clothing for different sailing needs.

When I started sailing in a dinghy, the de rigueur outfit was a T-shirt and bathing trunks: the T-shirt because it was warm in the summer, and the bathing suit because I was always capsizing. A nylon windbreaker was the norm for a jacket.

When I began crewing on offshore racers, I needed foul weather gear, which meant a trip to the Army-Navy surplus store for a jacket and pants of rubberized fabric. These were only available in a greenish khaki, and after a season of use, the waterproofing and the fabric would part company, leaving rubbery green debris everywhere I went.

My entry into serious dinghy racing in Finns, Lasers and Flying Dutchmen also meant a new wardrobe of purpose-made clothing. This was long before anyone thought of actually manufacturing hiking shorts, so I would buy the sturdiest pair of shorts I could find, my mother would sew a pair of big pockets on the rear, and I'd put in foam pads to keep my butt from going numb while hiking out.

At the same time, wet sweatshirts were popular for increasing your upper body weight to make hiking more effective. We'd buy half a dozen big fluffy cotton sweatshirts at Sears and pull them on one over the other, making us look like overfed polar bears rather than racing sailors. But, after getting wet, we were carrying an extra fifty pounds or so of hiking weight.

Of course, this was unbelievably dangerous because if we capsized, we would flounder around in the water like the Michelin Man, so it wasn't long before we sewed all the sweatshirts together, cut them down the front, and turned them into hiking vests that we could get out of quickly.

When it came to shoes, some of us went with the traditional Topsider moccasin, while others came up with their own rigs. One Dutchman sailor always wore high-topped Keds-those black-and-white basketball shoes they call "felony flyers" in the slums-because they made the hiking straps comfortable. Ted Turner, racing Finns in his pre-Jane Fonda days, had a big pair of lace-up construction boots with custom Topsider soles that eased the load on his ankles while hiking.
The whole concept of "technical clothing" is alien to me, starting with the term itself. I'd always thought technical clothing was for SWAT teams and special forces squads. You know, Kevlar jackets and pants covered with straps and pockets and clips.

It turns out that technical clothing is specially designed for activities that require high energy output and ease of movement. Technical clothing started in the outdoor and mountain climbing worlds, with snug fits, fabric that wicked moisture away from the skin, and features for special sports needs.

Once I understood what it was, I realized that I'd once scorned it. I remember when there were just "tennis shoes" but, when they started calling them trainers, and labeling them for jogging, biking, power-walking, and every sport from soccer to tiddlywinks, I snorted and said the fad would never last. I didn't buy IBM at 79 cents, either.

But there's more to this whole sailing clothing issue than just technical clothing. My wife and I were guests at the Costa Smeralda Yacht Club in Sardinia recently while they were hosting one of the spectacular Rolex regattas, which really are the la-de-dah of racing. We had a balcony overlooking the docks, so we were able to enjoy a ringside view of the action.

My wife has known me since I was sailing dinghies, so she's used to the fact that I think "dressed up" means OP shorts and a clean T-shirt. But we were clearly in another league here. Even the guys humping sailbags off the dock carts were wearing shirts from Prada and shoes from Slam. It was a convention of designer labels.

In the morning, we almost spilled our coffee laughing when several vans unloaded racks of freshly pressed and cleaned crew uniforms. It was so unlike the racing crews I've known and loved, who were mostly a scruffy lot in mismatched (and unmarked) shirts. Did the crisp shirts make these crews faster? I doubt it, but they sure looked impressive.

Part of my problem with the Team One Newport catalog is that I covet some of the gear, but now I'm not sure I'd qualify. There is a dinghy racing jacket that looks really comfy, but I haven't raced a dinghy in years. What would I do if they asked me to prove that I was a dinghy racer? It could be embarrassing to be caught as a fraud.

The whole clothing issue came to a head a couple of days ago, when I was going down to work on my boat and was looking for a pair of socks. I wound up frozen by the drawer, with a pair of cotton socks in one hand and a pair of synthetic blend in the other, mesmerized as I weighed their advantages.

In the end, I went without socks at all. The decision was just too technical for me.