Warm and Comfy or Cold and Dead

By Tom Neale, 11/29/2010


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We travel thousands of miles each year in “Chez Nous.” Being a closet coward, I try studiously to cut no corners when it comes to our safety. But there’s been one problem that’s been tugging at the back of my psyche for a very long time. It’s not an everyday problem, but it occurs often if you spend a lot of time on the water. The problem has to do with keeping warm while on deck in cold or stormy weather. The problem is akin to grabbing onto the business end of a double edged sword. I don’t like to be cold, and so I wear things to keep me warm. But I also am not particularly fond of the prospect of drowning, and I’ve had enough experience (including doing it) to know that no matter how hard you try not to, it isn’t out of the question to go overboard. So what if you fall overboard laden with all those warm clothes? Will your life jacket keep all that soggy weight afloat? And if your mate finds you and comes alongside, as you’re rapidly approaching hypothermia (maybe already there), will she or he be able to get you back aboard now that your warm clothes are heavily waterlogged?

Klymit Jacket and Equipment
Good, well designed and well made foul weather gear can do a great job of helping to keep you dry and warm. The importance of this can’t be over stated. Being cold and wet on a passage can cause serious problems such as hypothermia and deep fatigue. Mere fatigue can result in loss of the ability for careful observation, loss of good decision making capability, loss of agility, loss of strength, and, overall, a loss of ability to be safe at sea. Hypothermia can subtly but most definitely kill you.

But the foul weather gear, in cold weather, needs some serious clothing underneath to keep you warm. Fleece, sweaters and other traditional clothing can add warming insulation, but they also can add bulk, detracting from agility. The ability to move quickly and effectively can make the difference between going overboard, avoiding a jibe and a lot of other disasters. High quality insulated long johns can help considerably with less bulk. But on really cold days at sea, I need more than that. However, I always worry about how the undergarments will affect my ability to survive if I go over. Fortunately, I’ve been very scantily attired the few times I’ve fallen over thus far, but you never know. Think about going over in cold weather. You would normally wear your life jacket over everything, so you wouldn’t be able to remove the foul weather gear and then the heavy sodden garments underneath without removing the life jacket—which could easily be fatal.

You can go to the extreme of survival/work suits if you anticipate conditions that bad. These are expensive, but there are different grades, some of which are not as expensive as commercial suits. Just to see some examples, type “Stearns” or “Mustang survival suits” into a search engine and you’ll get an idea of what’s out there and the pricing. But this type of gear is usually bulky and not what most of us would use in typical pleasure boating. A less extreme solution comes from diving and surfing. We dive and have several grades of wet suits aboard. In a really bad situation, we can wear light weight suits under our foulies. It’s very uncomfortable and can get really clammy, but it’s warm and you have both extra buoyancy from the suit and more time before hypothermia sets in, if you go over. In weather that’s not too cold, I sometimes wear a thin light weight surfer’s body shirt which serves some of the same purpose, is less bulky and more comfortable.

But I’ve learned of a very interesting new product marketed for winter sports that goes a long way to resolve the conflict between dressing warm under your foul weather gear, remaining agile while working aboard and being able to survive if you go over. It’s also intriguing as a solution to cold weather clothing on a boat, even when you aren’t wearing foulies. It serves well as an outer garment, but can be invaluable under foul weather gear. Diving also provided a part of the genesis for the idea.

Klymit, Inc. (www.Klymit.com) sells vests and jackets made of two layers of special very thin heat-welded fabric which can retain Argon between the outer and inner skin. Argon is a Noble gas with extremely high insulation values. Klymit says that a 5mm layer of Argon provides the same thermal insulation as 14mm of the best synthetic or natural fibers. The insulation, they say, is only 7 – 8 mm thick at typical inflation and 15mm (roughly half an inch) when fully inflated, and it collapses to paper-thin, less than 0.2mm when deflated. Here’s the really cool part. The wearer can add to or subtract from the amount of gas in the vest as needed for warmth, comfort and mobility. As gas is added, the jacket conforms to the wearer, making a warmer fit, minimizing air flow between the body and the vest and convective heat loss. Since the Argon gas is captured, the vest retains its thermal properties when wet. Divers have blown Argon into their suits to retain body warmth for years.

Each vest comes with three Argon canisters (you can buy replacements) from which you easily add gas using an included filling mechanism. They are similar in size to CO2 canisters, but black so that they’re not easily confused. There is a purging valve to release Argon if you get too warm or want greater mobility. Klymit says that the Argon molecule is large and the garment can retain the gas for months or more if the internal pressure is equal to atmospheric pressure and there is little use. There’s no need to use high pressure inside the layers. A little Argon goes long way to keeping you warm. The length of time the garment will remain inflated will vary depending upon usage and amount of Argon pressure inside the layers. Klymit’s small hand pump can be used to inflate the garment with air if you’re out of Argon. Dry air adds significant insulation value, but isn’t as good as Argon.

These are NOT designed or intended to be used as floatation devices and shouldn’t even be thought of in that context. But they would normally add to buoyancy rather than detract from it as would, say, a water soaked sweater or layers of other undergarments. Nor would they interfere with someone hauling you back aboard as much as would a traditional soggy undergarment, because they don’t add that weight when wet. These products are not specifically marketed for salt water use yet so metal components such as zippers or grommets should be washed in fresh water after exposure to saltwater. These are hardly as cheap as warm underwear, but to my mind they’re worth it. They take a huge step between solving the dilemma of dressing to survive the cold and also to survive if you go over. There are several styles. The Amphibian style is blue, has reflective tape, rugged waterproof nylon and water draining mesh pockets.

As I write this I’m sitting at my desk on “Chez Nous” as we slug into a heavy chop in the Pungo River in North Carolina. We left late this year to head south and it is COLD. And I don’t normally run the generator for heating while we’re running because it takes too much fuel. But I’m warm. And comfortable--in this vest.

Tom’s Tips for Staying Warm

1. Night watches may be the times when you’re most likely to get too cold. You’re not moving as much, your body may be accustomed to sleeping at the time anyway, and, if course, the ambient temperature is usually colder.
2. Make yourself stand up behind the wheel, at periodic intervals not too far apart. Stomp your feet and clasp your…

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