#10 – What We Wear

Recently, when I wrote about coping with laundry on board, I left out one crucial consideration: the clothes we bring aboard to be washed! There’s the old adage – with some truth to it – that cruisers can save on laundry by sailing naked! Works fine in the tropics when out at sea, in truly remote anchorages or in the privacy of our own boat.

But reality sets in when we realize

  1. that sunburn is a pain in the… “wherever”
  2. the peoples whose lands we visit tend toward conservative customs about attire, customs which we as guests should respect.

I have a sister who takes several adventure travel trips a year on which she carries just one modest suitcase.

When you look inside, all her clothes are those simple but stylish, matching, miracle separates that take up no space, pop out ready to wear, and are conceived to hang dry overnight after hand-washing in a bathroom sink. I want my clothes locker to look like her suitcase.

It doesn’t. Like most cruisers, our lockers on Tackless II are crammed with T-shirts. At one time, I’d guess at least half our wardrobe came from Foxy’s in the BVI, with the other half being tanks, tees, and long-sleeved jerseys screened with our boat logo (nice for cruiser potlucks, checking in with officials, and giving as gifts). But every place we visit, every event we attend adds to the stack. In periodic frenzies of “spring cleaning”, we bag them up – this bag for yard clothes, this one for rags, this one for giveaways and this one for “good” shirts to bring out in the future. Believe me: that system does not work!

As Kathy B. of Sunflower says, “The big problem with T-shirts, indeed all cotton clothes, is that they are a pain to wash because they use so much water.” Water, of course, is a finite commodity on many boats, and a dear one even on boats with watermakers. When we choose to chase the sun, the price we pay is that water becomes scarce enough that the costs of doing laundry ashore run high. “The new synthetic fabrics,” Kathy continues, “wash out more quickly, dry fast, and take up less room in the locker.” Clearly, those of us of the cotton generation need to adjust! Microfibers here we come!

Most cruisers simply bring way too many clothes,” asserts Kathy P. of Hale Kai in seminars she does on Women and Cruising, “and often what they bring is the wrong stuff.” Obviously, what you need to bring aboard will depend on where you cruise. “You might not need much in the way of jeans or fleece in the Caribbean,” Ellen of Cayenne III points out, “but you wouldn’t want to be caught without them in winter in Florida, the Bahamas, or Mexico.” The same goes for New Zealand, Maine or Alaska even in summer, or for trips, expected and unexpected, back to the US. The trick is to cover basic requirements without going overboard.

In tropical cruising grounds, the uniform for most women is swimsuits or shorts and lightweight tops. However, for going ashore come prepared to skew your wardrobe more conservatively: longer shorts, light slacks or capris, or sundresses. “My favorite lately,” says Hale Kai’s Kathy, “are microfiber skorts from Sportif. They are cool, quick-drying, and look like skirts so are acceptable anywhere yet leave me free to scramble up a dock or beach the dinghy without concern.”

In the Pacific, however, “custom expects women to cover their shoulders and knees, so tank tops and shorts are out,” says Vicki of Firebird. Even capris are just okay. “If you should cover your knees, you should probably be wearing a skirt.”

Enter the versatile pareu. Also known as a lava lava, sarong, or sulu, it is simply a large rectangle of printed fabric that can be wrapped around the body in a variety of ways. Considered “resort” wear in the Caribbean, it is everyday attire in the Pacific. Judy, who worked many years in Micronesia, wears almost nothing else on board Ursa Minor, tying hers with an overlapping pleat in the center of the chest that keeps things secure. For shore trips, wrap pareus as skirts. Keep a few conservative prints for this purpose and match several tops to them.  For “security,” I wear workout shorts underneath (something many locals do themselves) and tuck the fabric inside the elastic waistband!

The microfiber revolution has come in hand-in-hand with the concern for sun-protection. Bareboaters on vacation are the ones out sunbathing; cruisers are the ones in hats! Men can’t seem to let go of baseball caps, another cruising collectible (Ellen of the 50’ Cayenne III claims they have on board over 100 red Mount Gay caps to match the over 200 regatta T-shirts they’ve collected!), but hats with brims are a better choice.

Long-sleeved shirts are a must for sun and mosquito protection, and today’s cruisers can choose vented ones of lightweight SPF 30 fabrics. Layering one over your tank top is a comfortable strategy, especially in the cool of evening.

One of the most versatile pieces of clothing you might bring is zip-off hiking pants. With their hidden pockets they are as great for bus travel as they are for mountain hikes.

Opportunities for dress-up clothes usually turn out to be few and far between, but when they come up, cruisers can be caught short with skimpy beach dresses when they need something long, or fabric that is bright and flowery when somber is called for. “I always have on board one simple black dress and matching shoes,” says Debbie of Illusions. “With a black dress you can attend weddings, funerals, any social event, or dine in the finest restaurants anywhere.”

Such a flexible outfit can do dual duty as clothes for church. “Going to church was not something I’d planned on,” says Vicki of Firebird, “but it turns out, especially in Pacific islands, that it’s the best way to connect to a community. Plus the singing is awesome!”

Finally, avoid bringing any special-care fabrics or outfits. Dry cleaners are few and far between, and few cruisers iron (although many admit to having one aboard!) Even regular washables that are special favorites can become an issue. “I told our teenagers not to bring anything on the boat that they didn’t want ruined or lost,” says Mary of I Wanda, “and with few exceptions I haven’t changed my mind in 13 years!

Need your sense of personal style suffer in all this? It doesn’t have to. Be imaginative and plan ahead so you can modify your look with accents, scarves and layering. Just keep in mind, after years of cruising most Admirals will agree that practicality in clothing wins out in the long run.

Contributing Admirals: Kathy Blanding, Sunflower ; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai ; Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Vicki Juvrud, Firebird; Judy Knape, Ursa Minor; Debbie Leisure, Illusions; Mary Verlaque, I Wanda; plus others.

This article was published in the May 2007 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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