Northwest Passage Gear


One last repost as Mo and I ready to depart Newfoundland tomorrow, this a summary of the clothing strategy I employed for the Arctic in 2014.

Having completed that passage and a few other cold ones besides, I’d say that the clothing inventory was suitable for the environment of interest, with some amplifications.

  1. Layers, yes. Often I wore two or three base layers and two vests below, then fleece and then down, all below foulies. One is not moving much, so retaining the heat of a body at rest is one’s primary focus.
  2. Insulated boots are warmer with fewer sock layers. There is so little blood circulating in feet that any pressure from socks (or boots that are even marginally too small) will reduce the flow to a trickle. I found in the (admittedly warmer) southern ocean that one medium sock layer inside the size 12 (I typically wear size 10) Extra Tuffs pictured below was the warmest solution when on deck. When in the cabin, bare feet into Uggs was the way to go. The same principle applies to hands in gloves.
  3. Down, yes. Much of the Arctic is a desert climate where down suffers little from damp. Down is a great comfort due to its being much warmer for the same weight than fleece.
  4. Zippers are my downfall. Most of the clothing pictured in this article is still on the boat. Those items that have been retired have all been jackets (down and fleece) whose metal zipper has corroded after months at sea. This problem could have been avoided by occasional lubrication (e.g. with silicon spray) to the zipper mechanism. Expensive lesson learned.

Northwest Passage Gear

Posted on July 15, 2014 by Randall

There are many reasons to take a practice run at the Arctic before attempting it solo. First, there’s the difficulty of pilotage. Much of the passage is shallow and/or poorly charted. Because the magnetic field trajectory becomes vertical as it approaches the poles, magnetic compasses are sluggish and inaccurate in the far north. And, as if the first two weren’t enough, the presence of ice, ranging in size from shoe boxes to container ships, adds floating rocks to the problem.

Then there’s the weather. On any normal summer day temperatures may range from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 10 degrees below freezing. The ambient temperature of sea water in this region at this time of year is from 17 to 20 degrees, which means an unheated sail boat’s cabin (fuel heaters often do not function if a boat is at heel) can be chilly at best. Thus for comfort, not to mention safety, appropriate clothing is required.

I was already on passage when the invitation to join Arctic Tern came in. Thus I had just under a week to research and acquire my gear. I’m thankful for the timely advice of several experienced arctic sailors, including David Thoreson, Mike Johnson, and Eric Forsythe. Additionally Kelton Rhoads, an ultralight backpacking enthusiast, offered much useful information regarding the quality and warmth of several synthetic materials and some of the new downs on the market.

The basic strategy is simple—

1. Plan on layering.

2. Take at least two of everything.

3. Use mostly synthetics.

Because the temperature can vary so widely, it is important to be able to quickly add on layers if the temperature drops or peel them off if it rises. Sailing a boat requires mostly hanging on with short, intense bursts to reef sail and the like; so, keeping core body temperature up is the big challenge, with overheating precautions coming in a distant, though noteworthy, second.

Additionally, I have brought at least two of every layer, the exception being the extremities (hands, feet, head), which have warranted a third or fourth. The reasons for this may be obvious: 1) if the first set gets wet I always have another; 2) if the going gets really bad, I have lots of reserve warmth.

Most of my layers are synthetics, a mix of heavy, Grunden fleeces, the type found at commercial fishermen’s stores, and both heavy Polartec and lighter-weight fleeces and base layers from outdoor stores like The North Face and REI. Also included in this mix are two vests, one of Thermoball and the other of Primaloft fill.

It is a nautical truism that down has no place on a boat, this due to its tendency to absorb and hold onto moisture. That said, I used a down sleeping bag on my boat, Murre, throughout  her 2010 – 2012 Pacific run with satisfaction. So, some of my middle layering is down, and I have brought two, North Face down bags for this passage, one rated to 15 degrees, the other to 25 (both older).

Additionally, I’ve brought a GoLite 850 Downtek jacket with hood, whose down is treated with a water resistant coating. I have used this jacket in wet weather on a couple occasions now. Once, while sailing off Vancouver Island, I wore the jacket for several hours in light rain; then I put on a foul weather jacket over the top and wore it for several more hours, during which it seemed to me to retain the vast majority of its loft.

Finally, my outer-body layer is the Gill OS1 foul weather jacket and bib.

I’ve brought numerous hats, but am relying primarily on two fleece balaclavas, both by Seirus. One is tight-fitting and has “windblock”; the other is loose-fitting, thicker and has an adjustable mouth/chin strap. They can be worn together if need be.

My hand protection regime includes a set of NRS Titanium neoprene gloves for “fine” deck work, extra-large fisherman’s rubber gloves with three sets of doubled inserts for standard deckwork, and heavily-lined Goretex mittens by Outdoor Research for when it’s very cold and I’m just standing around.

As to boots, I have three pair: Insulated Extratuffs for deck work whose size is large enough for felt inserts and doubled-up, thick socks. For inside the cabin, I have a set of high-sided Uggs, and for off the boat, insulated Omni Heat hiking boots by Columbia.


The full list looks like this:

Base Layer, Top: short sleeve shirt, synthetic, 3

Base Layer, Top: long sleeve shirt, Smartwool, 3

Mid Layer, Top: pull over, 100 weight fleece, 2

Mid Layer, Top: Polartec jacket, 300 weight, 2

Mid Layer, Top: Vest, Primaloft/Thermoball, 2

Mid Layer, Top: GoLite Downtek jacket with hood, 1

Outer Layer, Top: Gill OS1 Foul Weather Jacket, 1 (plus one light waterproof jacket as backup)

Base Layer, Bottom: thin skins long john, tight-fitting, synthetic, 2

Base Layer, Bottom: light weight long john, medium tight fit, Smartwool, 2

Mid Layer, Bottom: 200 weight long john, loose, synthetic, 2

Mid Layer, Bottom: 300+ weight long john, loose, synthetic, 2

Outer Layer, Bottom: Gill OS1 Foul Weather Bib (plus one light waterproof pant as backup)

Head Protection, one each: wool sock cap; tight-fitting fleece cap; “windblock” fleece cap with ear flaps; tight-fitting fleece balaclava with “windblock”; loose-fitting fleece balaclava.

Hand Protection

NRS Titanium neoprene gloves, 1

Extra Large Fishermen’s gloves, 1

Inserts for Fishermen’s gloves, 6 (3 doubled sets)

Heavy Gortex mittens with heavy inserts by Outdoor Research, 1 (wanted extra inserts, but not available)

Foot Protection

Insulated Xtratuffs with three sets of flannel sole inserts

Uggs sheep-skin insulated boots

Columbia insulated, cold-weather hiking boots.

Smartwool Hiking sock, 3

Smartwool Mountaineering sock (fit higher up the calf), 2

Liner Sock, 3

I’m making this a matter of record now so we can come back to this later and judge the success of both strategy and items.

3 Comments on “Northwest Passage Gear

  1. Hi Randall: A local seamstress can swap out a broken zipper in nothing flat….. and aren’t there silicon zippers that don’t rust?

  2. I’m surprised you don’t include merino wool in your clothing mix. Around here it has completely taken over from synthetics. All my best on this leg- and have you noticed that the Northern Sea Route AKA North East Passage is effectively open already?

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