Updated July 2nd, 2023
One of the great things about sailing is that you can do it any time of year when the water isn’t frozen over. Sailing doesn’t need to be a summer only sport. The wind tends to blow more in fall and spring in many parts of the country making them ideal times for sailing. With the correct clothing, you can enjoy small boat sailing in any water temperature. What is the best and safest thing to wear sailing in cold water? This brings us to the debate. Wetsuit vs Drysuit for sailing. Which is the better option for cold water dinghy sailing?
When do you need a wetsuit or drysuit for sailing?
When is it too cold to sail safely without a wetsuit? A good rule of thumb is the 120 degree rule. If the water temperature plus the air temperature is below 120 degrees F you need to wear a wetsuit.
For example. If the air temperature is 75F degrees and the water temperature is 65 degrees, the combined temperature is 140F and you do not need to wear a wetsuit.
If the air temperature is 65F degrees and the water temperature is 50F degrees, the combined temperature is 115F degrees. 115F is less than 120F so you need to wear a wetsuit.
If the water temperature is below 60F degrees it is a good idea to wear a wetsuit or drysuit regardless of the air temperature as any extended immersion in the water could become dangerous.
According to the United States Search and Rescue Task Force, your survivability in water drops rapidly below 60 degrees. At 60 degrees Fahrenheit you will go unconscious in 1-2 hours. This drops rapidly to under 30 minutes in 40 degees F water. If you are sailing somewhere you can’t quickly get to shore or in winds where you will be continuously getting wet you should use extra caution in choosing your sailing outfit. To learn more click here.
To learn more about the hazards and effects on your body of being submerged in cold water, see this article from the National Center For Cold Water Safety.
Capsizing in cold water is not fun without proper gear
Back in my college sailing days, I went sailing in March at SUNY Maritime College in New York City. The water was probably a few degrees above freezing at best. The air temperature that day was in the upper 30’s / low 40’s. This was my first experience sailing in really cold conditions. I was wearing a cheap wetsuit from LL Bean my parents had got me for Christmas and a spray suit. I’m sure it was a 2/3mm suit at best.
The wind was blowing. It was cold. We capsized. IT WAS COLD!!!! We were in the water maybe 5 minutes to upright the boat and then quickly went back to shore to warm up. Did I mention it was cold??? Almost everyone else was wearing drysuits that day. I bought one after that. I don’t care to ever jump in water that cold again without one.
What is a wetsuit
A wetsuit is a suit made out of neoprene. Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water next to your body. This layer of water combined with the neoprene acts as insulation. To keep you warm you want to minimize the flow of cold water from the outside into this heated layer of water. For all of this to work you want a tight-fitting wetsuit so the neoprene rests close to your skin to minimize the water layer.
The neoprene can be varying thickness for different water conditions. Thicker neoprene is needed for colder water temperatures. Some wetsuits are made with heavier thickness in the chest and torso and thinner material in the arms and legs. These are labeled 5/4/3mm wetsuit which would be 5mm in the chest, 4mm in the arms, and 3mm in the legs. The below table gives recommended wetsuit thicknesses for different water temperatures.
How much do wetsuits cost?
A wetsuit can cost as little as $50 or as much as $800. A cheaper wetsuit will be made with lower grade neoprene and cheaper seam construction. Expect to pay more for more flexible material and more comfortable and waterproof seams.
Advantages Of A Wetsuit
- Lower cost
- More comfortable on mild days
- They still work when damaged with cuts and holes
- You can easily go to the bathroom in the water
- Thin wetsuits let you move freely
Disadvantages of a Wetsuit
- Thicker wetsuits feel like your wearing a full body spring working against your every move
- You get a dose of cold when water first enters the wetsuit before warming up
- A wetsuit only works for a narrow range of temperatures it’s thickness is designed for
- Thick wetsuits are very difficult to take on and off
What is a drysuit
Drysuits are wonderful for the coldest of days on the water. Drysuits have rubber seals around your hands and neck and either rubber booties or seals around your ankles. You enter and exit through a chest zipper or occasionally a zipper running shoulder to shoulder across your back. You layer under drysuits with base layers and mid layers similar to what you would wear skiing under a ski jacket and ski pants. The more layers you wear, the warmer it is. You can wear it down to below freezing temperatures and be perfectly comfortable.
Drysuits work by keeping the water out. No water should enter a drysuit. They are very comfortable on cold days. They do not feel like your wearing a full body spring as wetsuits do. If you get one made with breathable fabric they won’t build up sweat and moisture inside. I wear a drysuit in February, March and April in the spring until the water temperature gets above 50F and the air temperature is warmer so that only a very thin wetsuit is needed.
With a drysuit you must keep up with maintenance of the zipper and rubber seals. Rubber seals will dry out with time unless they are conditioned regularly. The zipper must be waxed regularly. If any of these items fails, the drysuit is useless. A drysuit only works when it is keeping the water out. Once water can enter a drysuit it is as good as not being there. If a drysuit is leaking, immediately stop using it until it is repaired or replaced.
Some drysuits have a zipper that lets you go to the bathroom without taking the whole drysuit off. This is a great feature if you plan on wearing it out paddling for several hours. You can urinate in a wetsuit in an emergency and the water will circulate it out. You can’t in a drysuit.
How much do drysuits cost?
Drysuits cost much more than wetsuits. The cheapest drysuits you can buy still run north of $500. The seals and zipper are critical so they just can’t be made cheaply. If the seal or zipper fails while you are in the water you would get cold very quickly as it fills with water.
Advantages Of A Drysuit
- More comfortable and free moving than a heavy wetsuit
- Can work for a wide range of water temperatures by layering underneath
- Easier to take on and off than a wetsuit
Disadvantages of a Drysuit
- High cost
- If the zipper or seams fail or the material gets a cut or hole a drysuit becomes useless until repaired
- Going to the bathroom is difficult wearing a drysuit. You can’t pee in it
Wetsuit vs Drysuit for Sailing. Which one is better?
I prefer a wetsuit only for 55-65 degree water and warmer air temperatures. In these conditions a thin wetsuit is enough to keep you warm. It does a good job regulating your temperature in and out of the water. They are very comfortable to wear on these days.
For anything colder I find a drysuit much more comfortable. Starting with baselayers and a midlayer, you have enough insulation for a 50 degree day. Then add more layers inside as it gets colder. Drysuits have much better freedom of motion than a thicker wetsuit.
It is important to choose wicking materials that keep the moisture away from your skin. Breathable materials are a good idea so the moisture can pass from your skin out and through the drysuit. If your drysuit isn’t breathable and you wear cotton layers next to your skin you will probably feel soggy and disgusting after a few hours. For clothing suggestions, see my guide on what to wear skiing. The clothes you wear under the drysuit are the same as what you would wear under a shell jacket and pants skiing.
Drysuits made of breathable material such as Goretex are much more comfortable. They keep the suit from filling with your sweat moisture. A breathable drysuit is well worth the added cost.
Sailing Wetsuit And Drysuit FAQ
Q: Do I need a drysuit for sailing?
You don’t need a drysuit for small boat sailing in warm temperatures. If you are going to sail dinghies in cold water and cold air temperatures you need a wetsuit or drysuit. Choose one with appropriate thickness for the water temperatures you will be in.
Q: Is a drysuit better than a wetsuit?
A drysuit works by keeping you dry. You insulate it by layering up your clothes inside of it. A drysuit will keep you warm and dry down to freezing temperatures and below. A wetsuit for freezing temperatures will be very heavy, thick and hard to move in.
Q: Can you swim in a drysuit?
You can swim in a drysuit. Back in my college sailing days, we would go out in December, on freezing days and jump in the water and swim around in drysuits. No one ever wanted to do it in a wetsuit. With enough layers under the drysuit you can swim around in the snow if the water isn’t frozen.
They made drysuits for cold water diving as well. These have vents and fittings for regulating buoyancy. If you can dive in a drysuit you can swim in one.
Q: How long should a drysuit last?
The seals on a drysuit are made of rubber and they will dry rot over time. You should keep them lubricated to avoid this. You should inspect the seals for leaks regularly. If one is dry and cracking it should be replaced before you use it again. Many Scuba stores can replace seals and repair drysuits. If the seals are well maintained you should get at least 5 years from them.
Q: Is a drysuit worth it?
If you like to sail small boats on cold days in the fall, winter and spring than a drysuit is absolutely worth it. It will make cold air and water temperature days just as comfortable and enjoyable as a summer day.
If you live somewhere that has all year cold water then you may want a drysuit even for summer dinghy sailing. If your water is glacier fed and well below 60 degrees all summer, a drysuit may be your best summer option too.
Q: Do you wear anything under a wetsuit?
It is a good idea to wear a rashguard underneath a wetsuit. A rashguard is a thin lycra/spandex layer that keeps your skin off the neoprene. Wetsuit neoprene is very hard to clean and can build up bacteria no matter how well it is cleaned. A rashguard provides a barrier against your skin. Hence the name rashguard.
A rashguard can also make it much easier to take on and off a wetsuit. They don’t stick to neoprene as well as your skin.
There are full body rashguards referred to as baselayers. These are great for wearing under full heavy wetsuits.
Final Words – Which is better for sailing? A wetsuit or drysuit?
I hope this gives you the help you need to find the right clothing for sailing this fall and winter. I personally prefer drysuits for most cold water situations. I prefer wetsuits for mild marginal temperature days only.
You might also like:
- Windsurfing Vs Kitesurfing – What Will I Enjoy The Most?
- What is WindSUP? – Windsurf And SUP With One Board
Co-Founder & Chief Editor
I grew up back east in Pennsylvania and learned to ski on a family trip to Killington, Vermont when I was 6. I immediately fell in love with the mountains and outdoors and have been skiing across the US and Canada ever since. I went to school for Mechanical Engineering, and have a Master’s Degree in Material Science and Reliability.
I am a total gear nerd and love learning how things work and thinking about how they could be improved. Nothing excites me more than trying out new gear. I’d rather spend 3 hours taking my bike apart and learning how to change something than go to a bike shop. These days I reside in Michigan by the Great Lakes and go skiing, biking, and boating as much as possible.