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Long term test: Offshore sailing kit

The conditions out on deck of an ocean-going yacht makes designing truly great offshore sailing kit a challenging task for equipment manufacturers.

Rubicon 3’s Stuart Cook tested Zhik’s OFS900 Jacket and Salopettes for a full season in high latitudes

Professional sailors spend a great deal of time in offshore sailing kit, and with Rubicon 3 expeditions heading out into some of the harshest conditions we need equipment that consistently delivers in the real world.

Clothing needs to be able to keep wind, rain, and the cold at bay, along with that seeping, wet greyness that seems to get everywhere by the end of a tough night watch. In heavy weather we might also have waves sweeping over the deck and us.

We expect all that water to be kept out, yet we also want sailing jackets and sailing salopettes that give us freedom of movement while letting out the moisture generated by our bodies. And all this while the kit is being rubbed against abrasive non-slip, snagged by deck gear and generally being used in a tough, physical environment.

In recent times there has been a huge amount of innovation, both in terms of the materials being used to improve weight, durability and protection, and also in the design and cut of the clothing. The results really set new standards for what sailors can expect at sea.

Although not directly comparable, as they’re targeted at different markets, three sets caught our interest from brands which are either new or new to this level of wet weather kit. We spent a season putting them through their paces.

Our skippers have worn these jackets and salopettes almost continuously for the last six months. They have been used hard in the English Channel and west coast of Scotland, across the Bay of Biscay and on crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. They have been subjected to gales, heat, cold, lots of UV and all the physical rigours of full time sailing.

Offshore sailing kit test

Emily Caruso wore the Zhik OFS700 through both summer and winter conditions

Zhik OFS700 Ladies

Star rating: 5/5

Who’s it for? Mainly coastal and occasional offshore sailors wanting top performance and value for money

The new Zhik OFS700 ladies offshore jacket and salopettes have proved to be a really big win. Tested by Emily Caruso through the summer while skippering the Rubicon 3 Clipper 60s and then on into the wetter, colder autumn months, they have certainly come up trumps.

Designed for coastal and offshore sailing, the design works well for ladies. Being relatively short at 5ft 3in, Emily often finds that foulies don’t quite fit: common issues are that reinforced knee and seat patches are in the wrong place and pockets get hidden behind lifejackets.

Thanks to their design, however, these are not issues with the Zhik clothing. They also have good reinforced patches made of a tough 500-denier abrasion resistant fabric. Most of all, Emily was impressed with the two-layer Apex fabric of the jacket and salopettes. It was noticeably softer and more flexible than many fabrics, yet proved to be just as tough and robust as thicker materials.

The overall cut and shape of the foulies allowed excellent mobility when hauling sails and working on deck. There are many adjustment points and cinches on the hood and waist and strong wrist and ankle seals. The high collar kept the wind and rain out and there is a well designed neck and lower face guard. The jacket kept her warm and dry in a particularly wet Force 8 gale, with the fleece lined pockets as always a big win for keeping hands warm.

Although there was a little water ingress into the pockets, this is an occupational hazard for every jacket we’ve ever tested. Other pockets are lined with a toughened material to stop sharp tools and such like wearing through. Emily would have liked a hanging tab on the outside of the jacket so a coat hanger is not needed (and which so often has wet salopettes on it, which then gets the inside of the jacket wet).

The salopettes also got great feedback from Emily, with a really well thought through fit and inner lining that kept them comfortable and with good airflow. She commented in particular on the effectiveness of the ‘set & forget’ adjustment, in effect a hook and loop Velcro tab. It removes the often fiddly plastic buckle and stops it chafing against shoulders and lifejackets. It’s a good system that was appreciated throughout the season. Emily concludes: “I’ve worn these foulies now for much of the last five months and I love them. I hadn’t used Zhik much before but they’ve had some tough wear and really been superb.”

We also think they represent good value for money at a really competitive price point.

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Rubicon 3’s Stuart Cook tested Zhik’s OFS900 Jacket and Salopettes for a full season in high latitudes

Zhik OFS900

Star rating: 4.5/5

Who’s it for? Professional sailors, ocean racers and bluewater cruisers operating in extreme ocean sailing environments

Stuart Cook is one of Rubicon 3’s longest serving skippers and is usually to be found no further south than Scotland and more often up in the high latitudes of Iceland and Norway or far out in the middle of an ocean. He works on yachts most days of the year, so any set of offshore clothing he tests is going to have to really live up to its durability claims.

He has been using the Zhik OFS900 ocean range all season and from the now UV-faded yellow and red colours, it’s obvious just how hard this clothing has been used.
“Absolutely top quality, and very, very well made,” is his feedback. “So many sets of foulies just can’t deal for long with the rigours of professional sailors and start to develop tears and leaks, sometimes after just a few months. I’ve been practically living in these foulies these last few months and they have proved to be bombproof. They really are strong, robust and well designed.”

Zhik has worked hard to reduce the number of seams, thereby reducing the possible points of water ingress. An inner skirt in the jacket also works really well as a barrier in rough weather.

More than just their robust, four-layer build, however, the level of innovation in the design is really impressive. The most notable aspect for Stuart was the hood. Spending a lot of time in high latitudes, the hood is often up and the neck collar pulled tight. This means peripheral vision can be limited and, in the busy environment of an expedition yacht’s deck, that is a significant issue. Zhik has been clever with the addition of a rigid plastic hood visor made from a material they call Hydrovision, which is resistant both to fogging and scratching. It helps keep the face dry while still allowing a good field of vision.

The Salopettes have really strong 1000D reinforced patches and Stuart rates these as the best he has had. “This clothing is very obviously built for a genuine, hard working environment. It just does the job really well, which is a blessing.” Protective knee pads can be added for extra comfort and two good sized cargo pockets mean there is plenty of handy storage.

Buy it now from Zhik

Skipper Pete Stirling is impressed with the all-round performance of the North Sails kit

North Sails Performance Offshore

Star rating: 4.5/5

Who’s it for? Offshore sailors who value super light weight and less bulky clothing without any compromise on performance

North Sails’ heritage is in making sails for yachts, so everyone in the industry was intrigued when they announced a link up with Nigel Musto to produce a bespoke range of foul weather clothing. It’s rare to get a new entrant into the market, and they have taken a long hard look at issues with current foulies to produce a really top-of-the-range collection.

Rubicon 3 skipper Pete Stirling has been using this set throughout the summer and autumn, including a tough Bay of Biscay crossing. A veteran of well over 100,000 miles at sea, multiple circumnavigations and many sets of foulies, Pete is a skipper with exacting standards.

Suffice to say, he was impressed. North Sails’ Performance kit is noticeably lighter and thinner than normal ocean grade kit, claiming a 30% reduction on rival spec clothing. The result is that it feels like wearing light coastal equipment and the difference that makes when using them on a daily basis is significant.
“I was a little disconcerted at first, as they lack the usual weight and bulk of other offshore foulies, and I was worried they wouldn’t be as effective or robust as I needed them to be.

But after the last six months I rate them very highly – these are superb,” he reports.

The key to how well they’ve performed comes down to a new 4DL fabric that North Sails developed, which in effect gives an extra water repellent layer laminated on top of the three-layered Gore-Tex Pro. The result is material that does not become waterlogged, which a heavy rain storm or large wave over the deck will usually accomplish quickly.

It means that not only do the clothes not become soggy and heavy, but the dreaded damp ingress through the seat never happens. Many salopettes, no matter how good, are susceptible to a soggy bottom if sat on a wet cockpit seat for a prolonged period. Counterintuitively, it is usually the toughened seat patch on the salopettes creating air pockets that then drive moisture back into the material. Laminating the protective patch on means there is no air gap and therefore no water ingress.
Top of the range ocean clothing often has latex seals at the neck and wrist and these can be a really tricky to get a neck or hand through – and that’s before degradation of the seals from prolonged UV. North Sails’ Duraseal technology makes it far easier for skin to slide through the seal and we are told is much more resistant to UV. It is a big win and Pete, at 6ft 2in, and who often avoids foulies with seals for this reason, is sold.

“These are a vast improvement on much of what is out there and I’m genuinely impressed. Having been initially sceptical, if they continue to perform to this standard through the winter I’ll be a real convert”.

Buy it now from North Sails

What to look for in offshore sailing kit

The membrane

There are various options here. Musto, Henri-Lloyd and North Sails Performance use Gore-Tex (or Gore-Tex Pro), Zhik uses military proven eVent technology while Helly Hansen and Gill have their proprietary material in HellyTECH and XPLORE+ respectively. They are all variations of waterproof breathable fabrics (WBF), however, and there has been a constant stream of new designs and innovations since the original Gore-Tex first appeared in the 1970s.

The fabric used in foul weather gear must fulfil two distinct functions: waterproofness and breathability. As such, it keeps the sailor protected from wind, waves and rain but at the same time lets out the natural moisture generated by our bodies in order to keep the wearer comfortable.

The jacket collar

A good, high collar is critical to keep out the wind and cold when at sea. It needs to be quite a sophisticated design, as again it has to be big and warm enough to keep the wearer warm, but it also can’t constrain them, especially when they’re working hard.

A fleece lining or similar is key for comfort and warmth.

The jacket hood

A good hood is critical to foul weather gear as it plays such a key role in keeping the wearer both warm and dry. It needs to be large enough to comfortably cover the head, likely with a woolly hat underneath and it can be useful to have a peak at the front to help deflect water away from the face. It needs to be adjustable to keep it nice and snug to the head.

Neck, wrist and ankle seals

A great deal of water can get in through the neck, wrist and ankle openings. At the highest levels of protection, neoprene seals and internal gaiters all but guarantee the wearer stays dry. But these can be much too constrictive for casual or coastal sailors, so effective alternatives for closing the openings are essential.

Pockets

Sailors carry lots of bits of equipment with them, from knives to torches and compasses. Pockets need to be angled so they’re easily accessed, but also so that equipment doesn’t fall out. Pockets should have zips or Velcro closures and may or may not have protective flaps. Good sized fleece-lined pockets to keep hands warm are a must.

The extras

Reflective tape on the jacket will help you be seen in the dark, seams should be taped inside to prevent water ingress, and knees, elbows and the seat should be reinforced to protect against wear and chafe. Zips should be robust, waterproof and have protective flaps. Serious ocean clothing will have all these, but coastal ranges may only have only some.

Didn’t find what you’re looking for? Head to Amazon’s dedicated sailing page for more marine products.

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