Cheap rain gear? Penny wise is pound foolish when going to sea

From painful rashes due to skin rubbed raw to life-threatening hypothermia, mariners have long been plagued by having to work in clothes wet from rain, snow, fog and ocean spray. In the days of sailing ships, sailors smeared tar on their clothes to make them water-repellent, an unsatisfactory solution that overheated the body and made the garments stiff and hard to work in. Then in 1898, a New Zealander named Edward Le Roy developed “oilskins,” the first commercially available waterproof coveralls and jackets for mariners. Using lightweight cotton sailcloth and coating it with a mixture of linseed oil and wax, the garments didn’t overheat the body as much and did a good job of keeping the mariner dry. 

Although rain gear or foul-weather gear are the preferred terms nowadays, some mariners still call their rain suits “oilskins.” Today’s rain gear doesn’t use sailcloth, but instead employs a variety of synthetic materials such as nylon, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon). The quality and functionality of different brands varies greatly, something that I’ve found throughout my career. 

For my senior-year training cruise, I was assigned to a containership running from Seattle to the Far East. On our first full day at sea en route to Yokohama, we were met by a cold, driving North Pacific rain. Scheduled to work with the boatswain after breakfast each day, on that first rainy morning I showed up on deck in a flimsy, bright yellow rain suit I’d bought at Kmart before joining the ship. Made of thin plastic with unreinforced seams, the pants and jacket were at least one size smaller than advertised on the package. 

The boatswain gave me a long “to-do” list, beginning with climbing both the mainmast and the foremast to replace burned-out navigational light bulbs and then helping the able seamen check the lashings on the container boxes. In the process, I made a big split in the back of my too-tight rain pants and tore a hole in the right sleeve of the flimsy raincoat after catching it on the rusty edge of a hatch coaming. By the end of the morning, the cheap rain gear had become unusable. Disgustedly, I threw it in the trash. Left with only a short, medium-weight ski jacket and no rain gear for the rest of the westbound trans-Pacific voyage, I spent many unpleasant hours working on deck, miserable from being cold and wet. 

After getting a job with a tugboat company based in Long Beach, Calif., I decided that it was a good idea to buy a new set of rain gear for myself — not so much for rain, but for the green water and blowing spray we often dealt with while working on deck. I went to an army-navy surplus store on my two weeks off and bought the best rain gear they had. Unfortunately, the nylon wasn’t durable enough to stand up to the rigors of working on a commercial vessel and soon showed signs of wear. When the seams started to split, making it impossible to keep dry in wet conditions, that rain suit also ended up in the trash.

After moving on from tugs, I started working on tankers running to Alaska and decided that insulated rain gear was now needed. I found a set in a catalog, made with a quilt-like polyester material covered by a nylon shell, and bought one. It was of better quality than I’d purchased before, but it still wasn’t up to the task. The suspenders slipped and slowly loosened until they didn’t hold up my rain pants. Plus, though advertised as insulated, the gear had precious little and was no match for wet winter snow while loading North Slope crude oil at Valdez, Alaska. On vacation from my tanker job, I agreed to help deliver a fish processing ship from Seattle to Dutch Harbor to make some extra money. One rainy evening, I brought the rain gear with me on watch, laying it on the settee in the chartroom. Sometime during the night the ship’s cat, a tabby named Noah, stealthily jumped up on the settee and peed all over the rain pants and jacket. Considering it a sign, that rain gear immediately went in the trash as well. 

After all these failures, I finally made the two-hour drive from the island we live on to a marine supply company in Seattle and bought a set of rain gear made especially for ocean sailors. It had an almost indestructible PVC outer shell, able to stand up to any rough use on deck. The polyester fleece inner lining, reinforced sewn/taped seams, and arm and leg Velcro straps kept me dry and warm in rain, snow and rough weather. The pants and jacket fit perfectly, the heavy-duty suspenders never slipped and the dual fabric “breathed” so I wasn’t dripping sweat after working. Plus, I could hang them soaking wet in the shower stall in my stateroom and by the next watch they’d be completely dry. I had found my “holy grail” of rain gear. Although the pants and jacket set me back over $500, they’ve lasted for years.

Recently, a young mariner asked my opinion on rain gear. He got a job on an oceanographic ship that would be in the South Pacific during the rainy winter months and he wanted to make sure he was outfitted right. I told him that regardless of the brand of rain gear or the fabric, it needed to have the following characteristics:

1) It has to be able to keep you completely dry and comfortable in all rain and sea conditions — and do it for as long as you need to work outside.

2) You have to be able to move easily in it and fully perform all your work and emergency duties.

3) It’s got to be tough enough to keep from ripping and tearing while on the job.

4) It needs to be able to wick moisture away and dry quickly. When I said that good rain gear could easily cost $500 or more, he choked a bit, but I reminded him that it’s an investment that will pay back dividends for years to come.

Considering how many hours and days you will spend working in it, a well-made, functional set of rain gear is essential for every professional mariner. It’s important to do the research and take the time and effort to make the right choice for your situation. Once you have decided, be willing to spend the money to ensure that you’ll get the quality, durability and protection you deserve — and then don’t leave home without it.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

Categories: Mariner’s Notebook