Dinghy cruising in anything other than the best of UK weather is potentially a very cold and miserable past time. So if you are actually going to enjoy this pastime rather than merely endure it the choice of clothing is quite important. However, there does not seem to be any one solution to this, different people wear different kinds of weather resistant clothing and many people seem to be in a state of constant experiment trying one option then another.
Dry suits The author's own choice for dinghy cruising in adverse conditions is to wear a dry suit. At least one other of our club members seems to agree with me on this. The main disadvantage of dry suits is that they are expensive - at the time of writing I think most are in the range £200 to £400 and the really posh ones with integral hoods and lifeline attachments etc are even more than this.
A drysuit, in the usual meaning of the term, is a loose fitting garment made from waterproof synthetic cloth, it is not at all like a wet suit which is tight fitting and made from cellular neoprene. A dry suit is like a boiler suit but with a special waterproof zip and with the legs terminating in rubber feet which are bonded to the rest of the suit and rubber seals which seal against your wrists and neck. There is also an alternative design of dry suit which is in two pieces joined by a rubber seal around the waist, this is much less popular than the one piece type with a zip but I do know someone who had one and was happy with it. There is also an alternative drysuit foot design which has ankle seals which fit round your ankles but I think the integral rubber feet are a more popular choice and would give you a better chance of keeping your feet warm.
A dry suit on its own is not a particularly warm garment, the idea of it is that clothing worn underneath it stays dry and keeps you warm even if you go in the water. At first I was sceptical about this but I can confirm that the seals do work provided they are in good condition. Unfortunately these rubber seals perish and disintegrate after a few years but they can be replaced for much less than the cost of a new suit. You could go swimming with a business suit under your drysuit and if the seals are in good condition you would keep it dry, not that this is recommended.
The degree of insulation of a dry suit is adjustable according to what you wear inside it. You can buy special 'woolly' suits, usually made from fleece material, to wear under a dry suit and one of these is a good starting point. Providing the dry suit is an adequately loose fit you can then add additional pullovers etc. to increase warmth in cold weather, or in warmer weather you can wear the drysuit with out the wooly suit and with just light clothing underneath.
If you do buy a dry suit it is important to make sure that you get one the right size, large enough but not ridiculously over size. For dinghy cruising use you need to be able to change into your drysuit while aboard your boat and even while actually under way in worsening weather. In these conditions standing up can be a bit tricky, you really need to be able to put the suit on while in a sitting or at least a crouching position, so I suggest you check that this is possible when trying on the suit in a shop. You also need a fit generous enough to allow for the possibility of wearing thick warm clothing under the drysuit. It is advantageous to be able to open and close the drysuit zip yourself, indeed if you plan to sail single handed this is essential and effectively narrows the choice to those dry suits with front opening zip rather than a zip across the back of the shoulders.
The majority of dry suits are now made from materials which claim to be 'breathable' and this is supposed to stop them becoming clammy with condensation building up inside. I would say that I have had two dry suits, one breathable and one not breathable and I have not noticed any difference in clamminess between them. It may be that some people produce more perspiration than others, or some are more energetic perhaps. For my own use I am not sure that I would choose a drysuit in breathable material again given that the cost of a breathable suit seems to be somewhere between 50% and 100% more than a similar but non-breathable one. Also, I understand that most if not all breathable materials can be damaged by salt water and should be rinsed in fresh water after use in the sea, something which is really not practical when dinghy cruising.
I would mention at this point that a couple of years back the term 'dry suit' or 'semi-dry suit' was sometimes also used for a low leakage neoprene wetsuit fitted with a waterproof zip, and this terminology may still be in occasional use. This is a bit misleading since a wet suit, even one which is so low leakage that it is not actually wet inside, is not at all like the garment most people think of as a dry suit.
'Oilskins' Most people would not find a drysuit to be an ideal garment for sailing in fair weather, being awkward to get on and off (although easier than a wetsuit), sometimes too hot and it does not quite feel right for going ashore to a pub. Consequently you will probably want some less extreme form of waterproof clothing to wear when the weather is somewhere between the shorts and teeshirt situation and the anxious about survival situation. Chandlery stores certainly offer a big variety of specialised sailing clothing, still often referred to as 'oilskins' although they no longer depend on being soaked in oil to stay waterproof. General purpose outdoor wear can also be considered and may well be cheaper although it is usually a lighter weight fabric so less resistant to damage by catching on sharp bits of boat (which really should not exist, but you do find this problem on many boats).
I have sometimes been disappointed when I have brought fairly expensive sailing waterproofs, for example waterproof trousers which had taped seams which fell apart after they had been worn three or four times and a jacket made from a proofed material where the proofing peeled off in sheets after two seasons use. I had better not mention the manufacturers since these purchases were a few years back and perhaps these manufacturers have now improved their technology, but I would say that both these hopeless garments were from very well known UK manufacturers of sailing clothing. As I say, perhaps the technology has now improved, I certainly hope so since a top of the range sailing jacket and trousers now costs £600-00 or more and for that money I would hope you would get something that will keep the rain off for at least the first few times you wear it! However, I don't think you necessarily need to spend anything like that much. I have had a moderately priced jacket and trousers made from pvc with welded rather than stitched seams which has proved to be durable and waterproof over a number of seasons. These particular garments were from a range of no-frills sailing clothing from the French manufacturer Guy Cotton, they are not claimed to be 'breathable' nor do they have fancy features such as reflective tape markers or built in lifeline attachment points. I think the same manufacturer does also make clothing with these fancy features and in materials other than pvc, whether these are as good as the more basic pvc garments I could not say. You do also see some very cheap welded PVC waterproofs made in the far East, I have tried these and they were not bad considering the price (about £5-00 for a complete two piece suit!) but they are not nearly as tough or well made as the French ones.
I now wear my pvc waterproofs for most sailing but keep a drysuit aboard for use in difficult conditions. The trick is to anticipate such conditions in advance, once spray is flying everywhere it is difficult to change clothing without getting soaked in the process.
Wetsuits Racing dinghy sailors and sail boarders usually wear wet suits. A wet suit is a close fitting garment made from an insulating cellular foam rubber. Water can leak into most wet suits but since the cellular rubber material does not soak up any water it keeps its insulating quality even when wet on both sides. Wet suits are good for active sports like sail boarding but our kind of sailing can include long periods of little physical activity. In cooler summer weather most wetsuits will not keep you warm when you are inactive and exposed to the elements for a long period. Also most people do find a wetsuit uncomfortable to wear for a period of hours at a time, even if it is warm enough. Another disadvantage of wetsuits is that if they fit properly they are so difficult to change in and out of, changing into a wetsuit while actually on board a small boat could be really awkward.
Turning now to footwear, provided that your boat is free of dangerous sharp metal fittings it is fine to sail in bare feet in warm weather but you must have some kind of footwear to put on when you need to step out of the boat. It is not a good idea to step off a boat onto a beach or into shallow water in bare feet since there is always the possibility of a broken bottle, an old fish hook or some other horror.
In colder weather your feet will be one of the first parts of your body to feel the cold so you will be more comfortable if you can keep them at least a bit insulated. Ideally it would be nice to keep them dry as well, but experience suggests that may be just too much to ask, unless you are prepared to wear a drysuit.
Here are some comments on some of the many possible alternatives for dinghy sailing footwear:
Plastic shoes The traditional plastic shoes were moulded from a transluscent plastic and had a strap and buckle. They appeared to be made from recycled jelly fish so we used to call them jelly shoes. We found jelly shoes excellent sailing footwear for many years, but they now seem to have been superceded by shoes that look like dutch clogs moulded in soft plastic in a range of colors. I havent tried these new clog shoes, but they do look as though they should offer similar advantages to the jelly shoes and I have even seen some with a strap and buckle which would probably be a good idea for use in soft mud. Plastic shoes will give your feet reasonable protection from injury but they don't do much to keep them warm. They are easy to rinse clean before bringing them into the boat. If they have a strap and buckle you can tighten them for wading in mud. I think they are a good option for fine weather as well as to wear over dry suit feet in adverse weather. Flip flops/slip on beach shoes etc. Comments as for plastic shoes except that most of them are no use for wading in mud (they will get sucked off and you will probably never find them again). Old Trainers/cheap plimsolls A alternative to plastic shoes is an old pair of trainers or plimsolls which have become so scruffy that you don't mind using them in low tide mud. But plastic shoes are easier to wash clean and won't turn smelly after they have been left in the bilge a week or two. Knee length sailing boots. Most yacht crews seem to wear these. They are also quite good for dinghy sailing. Disadvantages are that sooner of later you will probably get water over the top and once that happens your feet will not stay much warmer than if you were just wearing jelly shoes. They are bulky to store on board. They often have very fine tread on the soles which collects fine grit which is hard to remove and scratches paint and varnish on your boat. For cold weather it would be best to have them large enough to wear with thick socks or to wear over a drysuit. Wellington boots I would be a bit anxious that these could make it hard to swim should that become necessary. If you want full height rubber boots for sailing then I think you would be better off with the lighter and more flexible 'yachtie boots' even though they cost a little more. The off-road tread and thick soles on agricultural style wellingtons are quite unnecessary for sailing. Calf length sailing boots. Comments are as for the knee length sailing boots, except that they are not so bulky in the boat but on the other hand you will probably get them full of water that much sooner! A wayfarer sailing dinghy runs aground in about 8 inches of water, this type of boot is only marginally high enough for that depth even in absolutely calm water. This type of boot often has lacing at the side with a thin rubber sealing flap. This makes them easier to get on and off than the knee length boots but my experience is that the sealing flaps can start to leak after a while. Neoprene boots These are often worn by windsurfers and they are also an option for dinghy sailing. They don't do anything much to keep your feet dry but they do quite a lot to keep them warm since the cellular neoprene material of the boot insulates even when wet. Some are available very cheaply (say £5 to £10) but these may be of rather thin neoprene and may have poor soles, the better ones do cost a bit more than that. They can be found in specialist windsurfing shops or possibly in diving shops. I have also seen cellular neoprene socks which can be worn inside the boots for extra insulation. How well you get on with this kind of footwear probably depends on how much you mind your feet being wet for long periods - after a while you may feel that your feet are starting to dissolve away but perhaps that is better than having them frozen solid, a matter of opinion though. Waterproof and breathable socks I tried a pair of these recently and from experience to date I am not sure that I can particularly recommend them. The material is Goretex or some comparable 'breathable' material. They are warm and comfy when dry but although the material is waterproof water soon came in over the top and after that had happened they seemed to take a very long time to dry out again. The manufacturer recommends washing them in fresh water after each use and that is not really practical when dinghy cruising.
So altogether there are a lot of options for dinghy cruising footwear none of which is perfect in all situations. For arduous conditions the best answer is probably to wear a drysuit with integral feet (rather than just ankle seals). If you wear warm socks inside the drysuit your feet should stay dry and at least fairly warm and you then just need some kind of outer foot wear to protect the drysuit foot material which is easily damaged. You can use yachting boots for this provided that they are a generous fit, although plastic shoes or even an old pair of trainers also seems to work well.
Most would agree that a reliable water proof torch (flashlight in the USA) should be kept aboard any cruising dinghy, even for what is intended only to be a day trip. Most dinghy cruisers do not intentionally sail at night but you can be delayed for all kinds of reasons and end up sailing in the dark, or at least fumbling to moor your boat or to put up a tent in the dark.
Extract from the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at sea, Rule 25d.:
<font=-1>A sailing vessel of less than 7 metres in length shall, if practicable, exhibit the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) or (b) of this Rule, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.
A vessel under oars may exhibit the lights prescribed in this Rule for sailing vessels, but if she does not, she shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision.
Cruising dinghies are generally well under 7m length and I think most people would consider fixed navigation lights to be impracticable on this size and type of boat hence it is legal for a cruising dinghy to just carry a torch which can be used to draw attention to the presence of the dinghy if there is a risk of collision in the dark. If this is necessary I imagine that the best way would be to shine the beam straight at the boat which is on a collision course. (I have never had to do this myself) Shining the beam at your sails might be less likely to initially attract attention but could be used to make it clear that you are a small sailing boat once you have gained attention. In practice you can normally avoid getting into this situation since you can see larger vessels more easily than they can see you and hence you should be able to keep out of the way. I suppose the exception would be in fog when a large vessel may see you by radar when you cannot see it. The modern type of torch which has LEDs instead of a filiament bulb has much longer battery life than old style torches, but I am not sure that an LED torch would be as good as a filiament bulb torch if you ever need to shine a beam towards a ship to attract attention. LEDs do seem to give a rather more diffuse light than a filiament bulb combined with a good quality parabolic reflector.
Some dinghies do carry navigation lights although they are not legally required to do so. I imagine that it must be quite a complication and expense to fit lights, wiring and power supply and any such system is likely to be unreliable unless very well engineered.
A torch (flashlight in the US) with either LEDs or filiament bulb is not a very good way to light your tent for any length of time, you need something which has a less directional beam. For many years I used an old fashioned non-pressurised oil lamp for tent lighting. One filling of lamp oil lasts many hours and costs very little, much less than batteries for an electric lantern with filament bulb or gas cylinders for a gas lamp. You can buy lamp oil in some supermarkets and it is better than parafin since it is almost odourless. You can buy aluminium screw top containers which will hold enough oil to last out an extended cruise. The light is not very bright but is just about adequate and better than a candle lantern which is another low tech. possibility. Oil lamps are pretty reliable but those made from 'tin plate' will fall apart from corrosion after a few years. You can get brass ones which last much longer, they come in two or three sizes and I chose the smallest size to save on stowage space. I used to hang this oil lamp from a fitting on the boom, sometimes it would swing about a bit but the important thing is that it cannot fall over.
I recently (2008) purchased an inexpensive electric lantern with LEDs from a camping shop and having used this for a few weekends and one week long holiday I dont think I will ever go back to using the oil light, even though I prefer the homely yellow glow you get from an oil lamp to the bluish light you get from the current 'white' LEDs. A small LED lantern drains its batteries much less than a lantern with a filiament bulb, the original batteries that came with my one are still fine after several weekends camping. The great advantage is that there is no oil to spill and it is robust enough to just be bundled in with all the other gear. Also no hunting around to find matches in the pitch dark, or wasting match after match trying to light an oil lamp in a breeze.
I have deleted the section here on VHF radios because it has been pointed out to me that having been written in year 2000 it was out dated and could be misleading. I don't own a VHF radio myself, so I am not the best person to write about them. If/when I can get some advice from someone who knows about these matters I will re-instate this section.
These are quite useful for general purpose tying up of loose objects as well as for reefing. For example they can be used to tie down spars to a trailer mast support or car roof rack or as sail ties. They are safer than the elasticised type of sail ties which have in the past caused serious eye injury. I don't think they are still manufactured so I think it is reasonable to include the diagram below for the benefit of anyone who wants them enough to be prepared to make their own using drill, saw and files. The material used for the original manufactured ones was a strong slightly bendy plastic about four millimetre (3/16") thickness. The bendyness helps when tieing round a small cylindrical object but a stiff material like Tufnol or even aluminium would probably also be suitable. Stockists of engineering grades of plastic may have off cuts.
The dimensions on the above diagram are in mm. All the edges of both the perimeter and the holes are rounded off. When you have made it thread a length of 5mm (or possibly 6mm) plaited polyester cord through the round hole and tie a stopper knot in one end, or carefully melt the end into a lump with a flame. To use the device you pass the cord one or more times round the objects you want to tie together, then tension it through the tapered hole before securing by making a twisted loop round the tapered end in the same way that you would take a locking turn on a mooring cleat. It will not come undone on its own but can be released more easily than a conventional knot.
I often find a pair of pliers useful on a dinghy. Pliers enormously augment the gripping power of the human hand and can be useful for all kinds of jobs such as freeing shackles or badly jammed up knots in ropes. A screw driver may be useful both for tightening screws and as a general purpose levering device. A sail makers needle and sailmakers thread together with a pair of scissors may be useful for maintenance of sails and tent. The needle can be stored in a small sealed container such as an old film canister, together with a little oil for preservation. I don't normally bother with other tools but some dinghy cruisers do take a much more comprehensive repair kit. I remember a DCA rally where one of the boats was holed in more than one place by drying out on a lumpy bit of foreshore. Spare pieces of plywood, screws, woodworking tools and a tube of mastic appeared and within an hour or so the boat was sailing again - very impressive but this kind of damage is pretty rare, or at least it should be.
Trailers and associated problems
When trailing your boat you probably should have a few trailer spares and tools in the car boot. Boat trailers are notoriously unreliable, amazingly so considering how simple they are compared to a car. The usual tyres used on boat trailers seem to last only a fraction of the mileage of car tyres and are prone to punctures so it is essential to carry a spare wheel for the trailer and a wrench to fit the wheel nuts. Your car jack may not work with the trailer in which case you need a second jack which could probably be a lightweight scissors jack. Trailer wheel bearings often fail, especially if they go in the sea when launching the boat, so you need a spare set of bearings or a complete spare hub unit which may not cost much more than just the bearings. I find some sea water gets into the outer end of the bearing housings each time the boat is launched and I drain this out straight away and add a bit of fresh water resistant grease, otherwise I doubt the bearings would last another journey. There are spring loaded grease reservoirs which fit onto the hubs to preserve the bearings and I have heard that these work well but I don't think they are available to suit the hubs on my trailer. Trailer lights are also prone to failure, on a couple of occasions I have made arrangements to meet up with other dinghy cruisers and when they have not appeared as expected it has turned out to be due to trailer lights failing. The last set of lights I purchased for my trailer was defective as supplied, some of the wires were simply not connected to internal screw terminals! Vibration combined with a bit of corrosion can cause wires to break close to terminations. I have also had trouble with poor connections at the standard plug and socket assembly between car and trailer. The most recent problem at this point was that a slight corrosion increased friction at the contacts such that the action of pushing the connectors together forced some of the brass contact sockets to slide back out of position, they being only weakly retained in a plastic moulding. This caused an intermittent fault which you could do without on a dark wet night. It seems that you need to be prepared to replace the trailer electrical components, the wheels and tyres and the tow hitch mechanism on a regular basis, perhaps every three years. The only good thing is that all these are fairly cheap items to replace, but I would like a bit better quality even if it costs a bit more.
My own equipment for trailing and launching is not ideal, although I have found ways round most of the problems. I don't have a launching trolley or a trailer winch so I immerse the trailer in the sea each time I launch the boat. I don't like getting the car too close to the water, especially on a soft foreshore, so I quite often use a 10mm dia anchor rope to link the trailer to the car for towing the boat out of the water. Even a small car can pull a lot harder than a human provided that the drive wheels are on firm ground. The jockey wheel on the trailer is very useful for this operation and means that with care the boat can be hauled out by one person driving the car, although it does make it easier to have a second person guiding the front end of the trailer. I have made small 'docking arms' to guide the boat onto the trailer and this is a big help especially in a cross current. I have also made aluminium mudguards to replace the manufactured steel ones which fell off due to corrosion. I am sure that a trailer with integral launch trolley would be better and would have saved some of the problems I have had with corrosion. But one feature of my trailer is quite handy and that is that the frame is a 'T' shape rather than an 'A' shape. That means that for parking the car after launching the boat the car and trailer will both fit into one standard car park space, the T shape of the trailer fitting along side the car with one trailer wheel near the middle of the car rear bumper. That can be useful in crowded waterside car parks. Maybe the ideal trailer would be T shaped with integral launch trolley, jockey wheel on the launch trolley and low level cross member between the wheels so that you can get it under the boat in shallow water.
I have tried quite a variety of air bed pumps over the years, using them both for airbeds, for dinghy buoyancy bags and for small inflatable dinghies which can be useful as a tender for a cruising dinghy. Inflating these various articles is always a chore so I am always on the lookout for a faster pump. The pumps which are made as a moulded rubber dome seem to be about the slowest and those which look like a small concertina are not much better. The 'clamshell' type, like a miniature blacksmiths bellows seem to be a bit quicker. I had a large and small one of these and found the smaller one was the quickest since the large one had too weak a return spring hence the return stroke limited the speed. Eventually the clamshell pump fell apart because it had some components made from plated steel which corroded. I now have a double acting pump having a piston in a plastic cylinder and this is the fastest pump I have found so far. It was not particularly expensive (<£10) and takes up less storage space than the larger of the two clamshell pumps. The only slight problem was that although it was supplied with a couple of different nozzles they didn't fit both the air bed and dinghy but if you have a lath or know someone who does then you can make a custom nozzle quite easily. Indeed, years ago before I had a metal turning lath I did some crude turning using files on wood or plastic parts held on a bolt in an electric drill, some of the pulley block sheaves on my boat were made that way and it should work reasonably well for something like an airbed pump nozzle. Try to avoid the pump nozzle being a bottleneck in the system, i.e. a small nozzle should have the largest possible hole through. Here ends my treatise on air bed pumps!
This is definitely a non-essential, just a toy for the fun of it. However, I would point out that dinghy sailors and yachtsmen often refer to wind strengths using the Beaufort scale and I suspect that they often don't know what these numbers really mean out on the water. They think they know because they heard another yachtsman quote similar numbers in what seemed like similar conditions, and that other yachtsman heard another and so on - without some calibrated instrument somewhere along the line no one can really be sure and also does not the wind seem stronger on a cold day. Hence I purchased an anemometer so now I don't have to guess. It may be that after using the anemometer for a while I will be able to judge the wind well enough not to need it anymore. I looked at several hand held electronic anemometers in a chandlers shop and picked one with a watertight casing and which worked in a low wind speed, this can be checked by holding it while walking slowly and seeing how well the instrument responds.