From Then ‘Till Now: Gear Through the Years

Imagine you’re getting ready for a day on the water. As you’re going to pack your day bag, what do you reach for? Your new wetsuit, your waterproof offshore shell and spray pants, or your water-resistant deck shorts?  

These days, we have a plethora of comfortable apparel choices for all kinds of sailing. Sailors 125 years ago were not so lucky.  

“Sailing garments were dictated by the fibers that were available at the time,” said Matt Clark, Product Development Director at Gill Marine, a leader in marine apparel. “It was heavy, knitted woolen sweaters. It was cotton Chinos or jeans. It was basic tarpaulin style jackets. Mainly clothing that, once it gets wet, it stays wet and becomes uncomfortable to wear – not to mention it was clumsy and cumbersome.”  

Virginie Claire Désirée Marie Hériot (26 July 1890 – 28 August 1932), a French yachtswoman who won in the 1928 Summer Olympics in the 8 Metre, in her typical sailing attire.

From the Gilded Age to the 1950s, sailing gear looked much like your every-day clothing. Sailors donned sweaters, suits and jackets to participate in yacht racing. For the small number of women taking to the water, many wore a pared-down version of the day’s fashion – which often meant skirts, hats, and carefully coiffed hair.

Only in recent memory has technology overcome the limits of natural fibers. While neoprene, the material most wetsuits are made of, has been in use since the 1940s, it was only in the 50’s and 60’s that wetsuits became practical pieces of sporting equipment.  

Polyester-based waterproof garments came to be in the 1930s and 40s, but had major limitations. They were stiff and stuffy, with no ability to let off heat and sweat generated by active sailors. Garments were also limited by their construction – waterproof material doesn’t stay waterproof when you have stitch thread through the fabric.  

The concept of comfortable, truly waterproof garments was foreign until the 1980s, with the development of water-breathable synthetic fabrics and new watertight construction techniques.  

“Those fabrics have transformed people’s on-the-water experience,” said Clark. “The breathability of those fabrics means that even in highly aerobic activities, whether you’re grinding or working hard on the boat, you don’t get that buildup of sweat and condensation inside the garment. You can be out on the water for longer and not be affected by the external climatic conditions.” 

Gill’s innovative two-piece dinghy system from the 1980’s utilized breathable fabrics and fused seams.

According to Clark, Gill pioneered new manufacturing techniques, borrowed from welding, that allowed panels of a garment to be fused together with extreme heat – meaning no more pesky holes from sewing and giving the garment a completely waterproof seal.  

As time progresses, and the boats we sail become faster and more technical (you can read all about it in last month’s 125th story), sailing apparel has also evolved to fit the needs of high-performance sailors.  

From solo offshore sailing, where the sailor needs to be locked-down and watertight, to foiling, where athletes value impact protection for gnarly wipeouts, sailing apparel has become more advanced and specialized in recent years. In Gill’s work with the US Sailing Team, impact protection has been a large focus of athletes and designers.  

“These guys are traveling at top speed, and when things go wrong, they go wrong pretty quickly,” explained Clark. “These Olympic boats have lots of hard plastic edges and sharp parts that can be dangerous to smack into.” 

 With so many changes to what we wear on the water in the last 125 years, what will the next 125 years look like?  

 For Gill, the next frontier is sustainability. As gear has become more waterproof and comfortable it has relied on synthetic fabrics, mainly made from fossil fuels. They are looking to lessen their garment’s impact on the environment by using fabrics made with recycled plastics.  

 “The OS-25, which is our offshore suit that launched last year, is our most sustainable product to date,” said Clark. “It is made of 98% recycled or reclaimed materials. The breathable waterproof membrane inside that suit is actually made from reclaimed recycled camera lenses!” 

 With innovation moving at a breakneck pace, who knows what kind of sailing gear we will reach for in 125 years?