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Best sailing thermal: baselayers for year-round warmth

Still feeling the chill on the water? Perhaps you want something to keep you warm on a long overnight passage. A good sailing thermal base layer is essential, say Toby Hodges and Rupert Holmes

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Crewing can offer unbeatable life experiences at relatively little cost. Photo: Tor Johnson

A technical base layer or sailing thermal is the foundation of any layering system. It adds warmth and comfort for minimal bulk.

While some elite athlete sailors may grind winches all day long, the majority of us who sail in weather cool enough to warrant wearing a base layer are static a lot of the time when afloat and will benefit from a thermal insulating layer.

Base layers are designed to transfer/wick moisture away from the skin and in some cases to create a layer of insulation and warmth (hence the name thermals). Wicking works by capillary action from the skin to the exterior surface, so to achieve this base layers need to be tight fitting.

A good long-sleeved base layer and trousers has long been my first garment to pack for cold weather sailing. I also wear these performance base layers for exercise from running to skiing, and through the colder winter months working in my ‘office’ – believe me, days spent in a poorly insulated shed can be as unforgiving as long stints on the rail.

Sailing base layers are typically made from synthetic fibres, such as polyester, which is good for wicking and durability, or polypropylene, known for its hydrophobic and thermal properties.

Natural fibres such as merino wool and bamboo have also become a popular choice. Merino is naturally insulating and breathable, is soft against the skin and doesn’t pick up odours as quickly as man made materials. However, it is more expensive than polyester and takes longer to dry.

Most sailing clothing brands now offer both natural and synthetic base layers or a composite of both, so it’s easy to find something that suits you. Cotton should be avoided as a technical layer as it absorbs moisture which then cools and makes you feel cold.

Best for light weight and exercise

HH Lifa Stripe

Helly Hansen brought performance base layers to sailing and Alpine sports with its Lifa range, characterised by the striped sleeves.

I have used the original Lifa stripe garments for nearly two decades for lightweight insulation while exercising.

The 100% polypropylene Lifa construction of the Stripe garments is quick-drying and highly breathable. The synthetic material does pick up odour so this is a wear and wash garment for short periods afloat.

Buy the Helly Hansen Lifa stripe Long sleeve top from Amazon (UK)

Buy the Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Long Sleeve top from Amazon (US)

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Best for warmth and exercise

Zhik HydroMerino

Zhik has established a reputation with performance sailors for its technical clothing. Its Hydrobase garments blend merino wool with synthetic fibres (polyester, polypropylene and elastane) to create durable, high-performance warmth.

The thermals are designed for long periods of activity and were developed with the Dongfeng Race Team during the Volvo Ocean Race.

I’ve worn these thermals over the last couple of years, especially in the colder winter months, and particularly like the external stitching which helps reduce chafe, and the high-stretch, Lycra-like ankles and cuffs.

On the down side they are one of the most expensive choices and the wool content means they can sometimes feel itchy.

Buy Zhik Hydromarino Top from Zhik

Buy Zhik Hydromarino Trousers from Zhik

Best sailing thermal for comfort

Musto Active base layers

Having relied on these for nearly a decade, I’ve found not only are they still going strong, but they remain the most comfortable base layers I’ve tried.

Despite the synthetic mix of polyamide, polypropylene and elastane, they don’t tend to smell badly either – perhaps thanks to an anti-bacterial treatment.

A variety of knits and weaves, including mesh and honeycomb knits, and a minimum number of seams really help provide comfort – these are base layers you really can live in.

Buy Musto Active Top from Musto

Best for warmth

Zerofit thermals

Zerofit’s Heatrub Ultimate top and leggings are made of a stretchy mix of acrylic, nylon, wool, polyester and polyurethane, with a deep pile of long fibres that traps a thick layer of warm air next to your skin, writes Rupert Holmes.

According to Zerofit, extra heat is generated by friction whenever you move. I used the Ultimate top during six hours on a RIB for the start of the Vendée Globe in November. Despite the damp and wind chill from travelling at speed I stayed impressively warm without needing many additional layers.

The high neck also makes a telling difference in cold breeze.

Buy Zerofit Ultimate top from Amazon (UK)

Also consider

Finisterre Merino

Merino and bamboo fibre base layers from the Cornish brand of functional and eco-conscious clothing.

Buy Finisterre Long sleeve top from Finisterre 

Gill Holcombe

Nearly half of this synthetic fibre top comprises a performance yarn made from recycled plastic bottles.

Buy Gill Holcombe Crew Top from Gill Marine


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