To stay warm and dry at sea, think high-performance clothing

Having just joined the ship the day before, we were anchored off St. George Island, Alaska, at the beginning of a trip delivering a fish processing ship from the Bering Sea to Seattle. A late winter storm pounding us with 50-knot winds and blowing snow was delaying our departure.

As night approached, the ship’s electrician came up to the wheelhouse and said he needed to go out on deck to fix an electrical short on the anchor windlass before we could sail the next day. Not wanting him to go out alone in the storm, I sent a deck hand carrying a radio up with him. After around 45 minutes I called them to come inside. The deck hand appeared shortly afterward, looking cold and tired — without the electrician. I asked where the electrician was and he replied, “He’s finishing up and told me to come in, that he’d follow in a few minutes.”

Well, a few minutes became 10. Concerned, I went outside to see what was happening. I found the electrician shivering intensely and huddled on the foredeck. As I helped him up, he leaned heavily on me as we slowly managed our way back inside the house. The deck hand took him back to his room, got him out of his wet gear and into bed. For the next several hours, the two deck hands on watch traded off keeping an eye on the electrician. After resting and drinking three cups of hot chocolate, he’d warmed up enough so that he was mentally alert once more.

Mariners working in winter conditions can be exposed to ice, snow, sleet, freezing rain and icy seawater, all of which can lead to hypothermia — which I believe the electrician on the processor had that night. Classes ranging from Basic Safety Training to Medical Person In Charge discuss hypothermia, a medical term for the lowering of a person’s internal body temperature. Mariners are at risk not only from falling into cold seawater, but also from working on deck in frigid winter conditions. Mild to moderate hypothermia can be hard to detect, but signs include shivering, mental confusion or lack of awareness, and a loss of physical coordination. If a person’s internal body temperature continues to get lower and hypothermia progresses, the body processes shut down until death ensues.

Being from the Pacific Northwest, I have always been big on wearing layers of clothes to keep warm. One January, I was on a 900-foot oil tanker preparing to take a full load of North Slope crude at Alyeska Berth No. 1 in Valdez, Alaska. Getting up for my cargo watch, I looked out my stateroom window and saw nothing but blowing snow and knew that for the next four hours there would be a lot of going back and forth between the comfortable cargo control room inside and the blizzard outside. So I pulled on my heavy socks and long underwear, jeans, T-shirt, and long-sleeve flannel shirt. Since 25 to 40 percent of our body heat is lost through our head, I added a wool watch cap with a hard hat on top. I then grabbed my insulated, water-resistant, brown-duck hooded overalls for deck work outside in the snowstorm. A pair of steel-toed boots, UHF radio for cargo operations, plus my lined work gloves, and I was ready to head down for watch.

My preference has always been to use natural fabrics like cotton or wool for all my clothing layers, but there are drawbacks to natural fibers. Cotton gets wet easily and stays wet, and will not keep you warm at all unless it is dry. Wool is great for keeping you warm when wet, but can be itchy and bulky under your coveralls and is hard to get dry — especially since you can’t put most wool clothes in the dryer without ruining them. Fortunately, today there are other options.

During cold snowy weather while working on a tanker in Vancouver, British Columbia, a couple of young able seamen on my watch were touting the use of garments made with “high performance” fabrics to help them keep warm. When I explained that I had always used a wool/cotton blend for a base layer, both Carlos and John tried to convince me that these new synthetic fabrics were worth a try. They described how the weaves of nylon, polyester and polyester fleece not only kept them warmer, but wicked away moisture so they felt dry even when wet. Based on their recommendation, I went into town the next day and bought one pair of heavy-duty polyester/acrylic/nylon socks along with a set of micro-fleece long underwear to try. They were right — I especially liked how lightweight the fabrics were. These days I pack my sea bag with moisture-wicking synthetic garments for my base layer of winter clothes, plus my tried and true flannel work shirts, denim jeans/coveralls and wool sweaters for the outer layers.

Growing up in Spokane, Wash., where below-zero temperatures in winter were not uncommon, I thought I was used to cold weather. During my seagoing career, however, I’ve found out that the clothes I wore to go out ice skating and then for a warm “cuppa” afterward were a whole lot different from the gear needed for working hours on deck in bitter cold and driving snow. So if you are going to be at sea this winter and don’t already have some high performance work clothes, I recommend that you treat yourself and go out and buy some — or maybe you could ask Santa.

Till next time, I wish you all a warm, happy holiday season, and smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff