No shit?! Yeah, winter’s coming soon to a tugboat or barge near you. For the vast majority of us that means being subjected to cold temperatures, biting winds, rough seas, and snow, sleet and ice. The tough working conditions this season brings can be made much more tolerable if you’re wearing the right clothing, so here are some suggestions. As a bonus, some of the following gear recommendations will be useful all year round.
Please keep in mind that these are my personal recommendations and are based upon, for the most part, my own actual use of said gear in real-life conditions. Recommendations from others are welcome anytime. In general, clothing specifically made for the commercial fishing industry is as heavy-duty and good as it gets for merchant mariners.
Foul Weather Gear: cut corners here and you won’t be a happy camper. Forget Walmart, and forget trying to “save” money. It just doesn’t pay in the long run. I have only one word for you: Grundens. Memorize it, learn it, live it. If you don’t already own a set then go buy some, right now. Don’t wait for Santa to bring them. Most people will find the Standard line to be adequate for most applications. But if you find yourself routinely working in the worst of conditions, or you’re just really hard on your gear, then I recommend the Professional line. In particular, the Extreme 4000 Parka ($88.50) and the Extreme 1600 Bibs ($94.50), available from LFS Marine & Outdoor in Bellingham, Wa. They are seriously Bad Ass. I’ve also heard good things about Iceland’s 66˚ North, Guy Cotten USA, Helly Hansen and Canada’s Ranpro.
For the ultimate protection from sub-freezing weather, plus in-water hypothermia protection, take a look at Mustang’s Deluxe Anti-Exposure Coverall. Granted, it’s not cheap. But how much is your life worth to you and your family? Older versions of this same product served me very well on winter fishery patrols in the Bering Sea, during my years of Coast Guard service. And they’re still being used today.
Insulation: Various manufacturers make lines of polyester fleece base layer, mid layer, and outer garments that are comfortable, lightweight, insulate even when wet, and dry quickly. Try Grundens’ Afognak jacket and Viking pants, or take a look at some of the offerings from Helly Hanson. Regular fleece, while highly breathable and a great insulator, offers little wind protection. That’s fine if you’re involved in heavy physical labor like shoveling snow, but if you’re outside and not moving much, like on the anchor detail, then it sucks. Either wear a shell piece over it or else look for the wind-blocking types, such as the Windbuster jacket and pants from Grundens, or the Hardface jacket from Guy Cotten.
Another type to consider is the highly water and wind-resistant Windjammer pullover or jacket from Grundens, and the Kodiak hooded pullover (what I use) and Maine jacket from Guy Cotten. They have heavy PVC fronts and sleeves, with neoprene cuffs. Click here and scroll down for all the sizes at Hamilton Marine in Rockland and Searsport, Me.
For the base layers, most people seem to go with the synthetics, which is fine. But I’m old school when it comes to this and I choose mid-weight merino wool from Smartwool. They’re not cheap, but they’ll last practically forever if you don’t machine wash them (do it on the gentle cycle , if you must) and always hang them to dry, which is also the way the synthetics should be cared for. Merino wool is stretchy and comfortable, breathes well, insulates when wet, and doesn’t pick up and hold that nose-wrinkling funk that all the synthetics eventually get no matter what you do. It also won’t burn and melt into your skin during a fire. I’ve bought mine from Mountain Gear and Backcountry.com, but here’s Smartwool’s dealer locator. Another winner, for extreme cold, is the Early Winters Furnace Shirt from Sahalie, on sale right now for just $19.99.
Patagonia makes perhaps the finest quality fleeces, long underwear (both synthetics and wool) and heavy-weight flannel shirts that I know of. Expensive and worth every penny with their lifetime guarantee and generous repair policies. I have three of their flannel shirts dating back over ten years and they’re still going strong…..
And cotton? Remember this: cotton kills and has no place in your winter gear bag, at least as far as underwear is concerned, and it’s use as outerwear needs to be carefully considered based on the actual and anticipated conditions. It is hydrophilic (readily soaks up and holds moisture, such as sweat) and has no insulation value at all when wet. All it does is bring on the hypothermia, and death, faster. Get rid of it…..
Rubber Boots: again, I have just one word for you. XTRATUF! Available with or without a steel toe, insulated or uninsulated, and USA-made in Rock Island, IL. I have the 16-inch insulated steel-toed version and they’re all I could ever want from a waterproof rubber boot. They even make a 6-inch “shorty” version. Highly recommended. You can get the steel-toed/insulated kind from LFS Marine & Outdoor for $88.50 + shipping. I also have a pair of these Dunlop boots, which are the warmest I’ve ever used.
Foot Traction: get the Yaktrax Walker or Pro. The stainless steel coils are flexible, non-magnetic and won’t rust. They also won’t ruin the deck when you walk inside, like carbide spikes or studs will. If you save yourself one bad fall, especially over the side, they’re priceless. Tankermen, especially, should really give these some serious consideration. Get them for $14.98 and $19.98, respectively, from CAMPMOR in Paramus, N.J.
Socks: I swear by my Smartwool heavyweight Expedition Trekking ($17.95, or $15.95 for 3+) and super-heavyweight Mountaineer wool socks ($19.95) from Mountain Gear in Spokane, Wa., but you can also get them from CAMPMOR. They’ve become widely available in many outdoor / work clothing stores as well, so you may be able to find them locally now.
Rubber Gloves: Atlas Glove has excellent acrylic pile-lined waterproof gloves. You can get the “regular” orange model #460 gloves ($12.95) or the blue fuel/grease/oil-resistant model #490 gloves ($13.95), which are what I use, from LFS Marine & Outdoor. They now also offer them in a removeable liner-style model #495, for $13.96 at Seattle’s go2marine.com, which should make the washing/drying process much simpler and faster. This may, however, give them a different (possibly looser) feel from the permanent liner-type. Warning: despite their excellent performance and protection, after you sweat these up once or twice (and you will) they’ll positively reek like 5-day old damp gym socks forevermore. Put your clean hands in an old pair and they’ll come out smelling like something from the bottom of a mulch pile. It’s best to keep 2 to 3 pair around that can be rotated in and out of service so you’ll always have a usable pair while the others are drying out after a go