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What to Wear Sailing – Wicking Fabric Technology – Sailing


Hello Sailors,

This is part two of three of my recap of Jerry Richard’s seminar at Strictly Sail this year. The first installment last week was about General Thoughts on What to Wear Sailing and why and this week we’ll cover Wicking Fabric Technology.

Once more a little about Jerry:

“Jerry Richards has tested all types of clothing while competing in the Americas Cup and two Olympic Games, He is a J24 World Champion and winner of ocean races including the Fastnet.”

Fastnet Race Course


There is nothing worse than being out on a sailboat and freezing to death. I’ve done it. In my first year of sailing lessons here on Lake Michigan, I went on a lake crossing with my sailing school in late June. It had been a very warm summer and so I had expected a marvelous sail across the lake.

We left around 7PM from Chicago on a beautiful, but fairly wind-free night. I was on watch and while I had a jacket on, I had to grab my tiny fleece throw (think picnic size) I brought with me to wrap myself up. I was absolutely miserably cold and begging for the morning to come.

I’ve never made that mistake again. Lesson learned. I now bring my thermal underwear along with multiple layers of clothing so I never have to feel that miserable again.

One thing I don’t own that I now know I need to invest in, is a moisture-wicking base layer. I hate wearing layers with a passion. I feel completely claustrophobic with that much clothing on plus I can’t move freely.

With the advancement in fabric technology, I now know that while I may have multiple layers on, those layers are far lighter and afford much more mobility than the layers I usually don for sailing.

The biggest take away I got from Jerry’s seminar was how important that base layer is to having a great day out on the water. Granted the seminar was way more scientific than I anticipated, but I am now so much better informed that I know I can properly choose appropriate clothing for all my future sailing.

Today I am going to share what I learned not only from Jerry about fabric technology, but also from some of my own research on the topic.

The fabrics from which technical clothing is made, can make a difference in your comfort and sustained energy. The new fabrics today are also lighter; an important feature if you are a racer. Plus good manufacturers have tested the fabrics in the field, so they know they function as intended.

So what should we be looking for in fabrics? Preferably laminated fabrics rather than coated (although laminated fabrics might include a coated layer as one of the layers).

Laminated fabrics are more expensive than coated but they are worth it. Laminated fabric features compared to coated fabric include:

  • Better breathability,
  • Softer feel,
  • Less stiffness,
  • Quieter.

You know that crispy sound we all have in our foulies when running around the boat? Well that’s because of the coating on the fabric.

Another fabric feature we should look for is breathability. Jerry defined breathbility as moisture vapor transfer. So basically moving moisture away from your body through the fabric to the exterior.

You lose body heat 20 times faster when your skin is moist, so moving that moisture away from your body and out into the atmosphere is key to staying warm on cold sails and cool on hot sails.

Cotton is not a fabric that will keep you warm at all. Cotton absorbs moisture and does not move it away from your skin. So avoid anything that is 100% cotton for sailing even on a warm day.

There are two types of breathability fabrics, coated and laminated.

Coated fabric:

Coated fabrics typically have an outer layer made from polyester or nylon intended for durability of the fabric, with an interior that has been coated with a moisture barrier.

More recent advancement in fabrics applies the water-proof coating to the individual fibers instead of just the surface of the fabric which improves the breathability and moisture-wicking properties of the fabric.

Laminated fabric:

A laminated fabric is made up of two to three layers of fabric that are fused or glued together. In two-layer laminated fabrics there is typically an outer nylon or polyester layer with an interior microporous membrane.

A three-layer laminated fabric has the polyester or nylon outer layer, a microporous middle membrane and an interior moisture-wicking membrane.

A four-layer laminated fabric is identical to the three-layer except the microporous layer has a hydrophilic coating applied to it.

These are photos I took of a garment that Jerry brought for us to see what to look for on the interior and exterior of a moisture-wicking garment:

Interior photo of moisture wicking garment

Interior fabric of a moisture-wicking garment


Exterior photo of a moisture-wicking garment

Exterior fabric of a moisture-wicking garment

The scientific technology behind microporous fabric is that moisture is attracted to cold and so the fabric is designed with micro holes of less than 10 microns, to allow moisture to escape through the fabric fibers via pores. The pores are what makes the fabric breathable besides water-proof.

A more recent fabric fiber that has been emerging in the market, is bamboo. Bamboo is naturally moisture-wicking, naturally anti-microbial (allowing you to wear the garment longer without it developing foul odors), and it’s naturally hypoallergenic.

Garments are not made 100% of bamboo, but will have some high percentage of the fabric fiber from bamboo.

The biggest advantage of bamboo over coated fabrics is that the bamboo’s moisture-wicking and anti-microbial properties do not lessen with each wash. The coated fabrics eventually do lose their wicking properties and many of these fabrics have no anti-microbial properties whatsoever.

One thing that should never come near the coated and laminated fabrics is fabric softener. If you have ever used dryer sheets in your dryer, then do not place your wicking fabrics in the dryer either (bamboo being the exception). Fabric softener collects on the dryer’s tumbler and does not wear off. So if you put your wicking fabrics in the dryer you are eliminating the moisture-wicking properties.

You might want to consider using detergents that are designed for these fabrics too to help them last longer.

Another fabric choice that has natural wicking and anti-microbial properties is Merino wool. Merino wool fibers are being developed in smaller and smaller diameter making the feel against your skin far nicer than the wool that we have all experienced in the past.

No more itchy skin. Merino wool is heavier than the man-made fabrics but will usually last far longer than the man-made fabric choices. Merino wool is also most expensive than the other choices available.

Once again Jerry pointed out again that you do get what you pay for. Since I do plan on living out on the water, I figure the investment is definitely going to be worth it.

While I love cotton for it’s softness, it is clear that many of the new wicking technical fabrics have improved the feel against the skin to mimic cotton and even silk. It truly is amazing how quickly fabrics have changed even since I started sailing six years ago. Great for our sport. Mobility and comfort makes for a much more enjoyable sail.

Well that was plenty technical for me, how about you?

See you on the water,

Sail Away Girl