What to Wear Sailing on San Francisco Bay - Three Rules to Keep You Warm and Dry | Modern Sailing

What to Wear Sailing on San Francisco Bay - Three Rules to Keep You Warm and Dry

You may have heard that San Francisco Bay is a great place to experience sailing. Yes, this is true! You may have also heard that it can get chilly out on the Bay. This is also true, but winds and temperatures throughout the Bay can vary widely. With dozens of microclimates around the Bay, on any given day, you can find yourself needing to add or remove layers of clothing whenever location, point of sail, windspeed, cloud cover, or time of day changes.

To further complicate things, each of us responds to temperatures in our environment differently and we all have our preferences where clothing is concerned. Some people tolerate cooler temps with no problem, while others find the Bay’s cooler temps abhorrent. 

By following these three rules to dress for warmth and comfort on San Francisco Bay, just about anyone can sail comfortably all day, everywhere in the Bay.

  1. Know Yourself
  2. Know the Conditions
  3. Dress in Layers
     

RULE 1 – Know Yourself 

The first rule of clothing for sailing San Francisco Bay is to know yourself and how well you tolerate certain temperatures. Everyone’s experience is different!

To demonstrate the degree in difference between people’s tolerances for cooler air. These photos of the author (left) and our vendor Darren (right) of were taken only a few minutes apart, believe it or not. The forecasted high temperature for San Francisco that day was 62o F and the wind was about 12 knots.
 

RULE 2 – Know the Conditions

Conditions and temperatures around the Bay not only vary by location, but by season and time of day.

Seasonal and Daily Patterns

Summer / Early Fall

San Francisco Bay’s summer sea breezes occur due to differences in air temperatures above the ocean and land. The greater the difference, the stronger the breeze. 

Summer winds tend to be lightest in the morning, usually less than 10 knots. As the climbing sun bakes the Central Valley, rising warm air forms a low-pressure area above land that draws in the much cooler, high-pressure air situated over the Pacific Ocean. As this cool air flows through the Golden Gate Strait and Central Bay (the area known as “the Slot,”) it condenses and accelerates, developing into the strong winds that the Bay is known for. These spring and summer winds generally range in speed from 15 to 30 knots and can feel downright chilly. 

Most of the Bay's waters are sheltered from Pacific Ocean swell, allowing you to test your skills in big winds without also having to tackle big waves. But a strong west or southwest wind blowing against an ebb tide can make for an exhilarating, splashy sail, especially when sailing to weather. You are likely to get wet. Interested in trying out a light sport boat like the J24? You will get wet.

In the evening as the Central Valley cools, winds on the Bay begin to settle into a pleasant conclusion to the day’s sailing, making for somewhat easier docking or mooring in what’s left of the daylight.

In the early fall, you'll start to see some days of warm sunshine with lighter wind. For this reason, fall is the favorite time of year for many San Francisco Bay sailors.

Late Fall through Early Spring

Around November, breezes come more gently and often from the north and northeast. All your favorite anchorages that are well-protected in the summer can become untenable in the winter. On those sunnier days when winds are light, you can feel quite warm and forget it’s wintertime. Rainstorms tend to roll in with chilly, gusty, blustery, southwesterly, or westerly winds, although some winter storms come blasting with a north wind. 

Spring

Mid to late March or early April, the marine layer “Karl” makes its first seasonal appearances. As the season progresses and valley temperatures rise, winds on the Bay become stronger again.


From day to day, the weather forecast can sometimes deviate drastically from the seasonal norms. Always check the weather, wind, and tidal predictions. Also, always be prepared for conditions that differ from the forecast. You’ll be ready for anything!

Check the Hourly Weather Forecast

The morning before you head to Modern Sailing, check the weather forecast, making note of the hourly temperatures, wind speeds, and wind direction. Be sure to plan for the both ends of the range.

Check the Tidal Predictions

When a strong wind is blowing in the opposite a tidal current, it can build up quite a chop on the Bay. Anytime you think you might be sailing in these conditions, bring your waterproof outer layers. If there is also a chance of rain and/or it’s going to be below 55 degrees, consider opting for your waterproof boots and cozy socks.

Regardless of the daily and seasonal patterns described here, follow the layering guidelines in Rule 3 year-round. 
 

RULE 3 – Layer Clothing for Sailing

Your gear bag should contain at least one item for each layer: the base (inner), warmth (middle), and waterproof (outer) layers. Add another layer when you start feeling a chill. Don’t wait too long, because it can be hard to warm up once you’re really cold.

Carrying backups of clothing, gloves, and hats in your gear bag, whenever you’re able, is a good idea not only for you, but also for your crew. If you get wet, you’ll have something dry and warm to change into. If someone else gets wet, it’s a great way to make a new friend! 

After ASA 114 student Paul A. went for an unintended swim, he quickly realized the value of packing extra clothing. He was very glad he did!


First, let’s have a quick look at how to attire your extremities for sailing on San Francisco Bay.

How to Dress Your Head, Hands, and Feet for Sailing

Headwear

  • Beanie, Fleece Headband, or other warm headgear that covers the ears.
  • Wide-Brimmed Cap or Hat for warmer, sunnier conditions. Anything with a brim should have a hat leash or a chin strap to help keep it on your head.
  • Neck Gator (beneficial for those who run cold).

Hand Protection

  • Sailing Gloves – Get a pair each of the full-fingered and fingerless styles. Always carry both in your gear bag. You never know when the other pair might come in handy for you – or a new friend. If you're not ready to commit to a purchase, bicycle or gym gloves work.
  • Handwarmers - who says they are just for cold hands? You can also put them in your shirt or even in your hat.

Footwear

  • Sneakers or Hiking Shoes/Boots – Perfectly acceptable if the soles are grippy and non-marking. 
  • Deck Shoes – The best choice to stay attached to the deck and will provide better protection for your toes than sneakers, but they won’t keep your feet dry.
  • Deck Boots – Will keep your feet dry. You can try regular duck boots or rainboots instead, but check the soles to ensure they will be gripping and non-marking.
  • Cozy Socks – On a cold day, ski/snowboarding socks can be toasty warm in a pair of boots!
     

Base Layer 

Your base is the layer of clothing closest to your skin (besides your skivvies, of course). Most people will feel content in a lightweight base layer when the sun is shining and winds are very light (>10 knots). Depending on the weather, the base layer you wear may consist of:

On your upper body:

  • Sleeveless Shirt – Sun’s out, guns out!
  • T-Shirt – If you don’t mind a farmer tan.
  • Long-Sleeved Pullover or Lightweight Sun Shirt – You can wear a pullover or button-up sun shirt with a T or sleeveless shirt underneath, or without.

On your lower body:

  • Shorts – The author hesitates to recommend shorts, but recognizes some people just run hot!
  • Jeans - Same as above. If you run hot, you can get away with it. If not, opt for one of the two choices below. Keep in mind that denim also dries very slowly and may not dry at all if splashed with salt water.
  • Tights/Leggings – In the late summer or fall when the wind is light, the sun can feel uncomfortably hot. Choose a thinner fabric but bring another layer in case the wind picks up. The rest of the year, choose a thicker fabric made for cool weather.
  • Jogging/Hiking Pants – Some of us nature nerds like those pants with zippers on the legs to convert them into shorts, in case we feel like getting some sun on our stems.

In warmer conditions or if you’re racing, your base layer is ideally made from an airy, lightweight fabric that will dry quickly. In colder weather, obviously, choose a denser fabric for your base layer. 

You might start your day at the marina sweating in your base layer as you prep the boat for departure. But you’re not worried – you brought an extra shirt. Motoring out of Richardson Bay, a refreshing breeze cools you down. After passing through the gusty swirlies of Hurricane Alley, suddenly you’re heeled over in the Slot, where cold winds arriving from the Pacific accelerate and blast through the Golden Gate Strait at 20 – 25 knots or more. To make matters worse, Karl, the Bay’s famous fog has arrived. Karl’s kiss leaves you shivering. Time to go below, doff your PFD, and don a layer of clothing. The Slot is tons of fun, so hurry!

Warmth Layer(s) 

The sky is partly cloudy and/or the wind is picking up (15+ knots). You’re beginning to feel the chill, but the deck and cockpit are dry. At this point you may be reaching for another layer of clothing. As needed, don one or both of the following:

  • Sweater, Sweatshirt, or Hoodie.
  • Jacket – Fleece, down, or artificial down. 
  • Windbreaker or Lightweight Hooded Jacket (like the Modern Sailing logo jackets that staff, instructors, and member awards winners wear)
  • Sweatpants or Track/Hiking Pants. Many people don’t feel a need to add layers to their bottom half (like Bill or Darren), but those more sensitive to the cold may want to.

For your warmth layer(s), choose cozy and comfortable fabrics that breathe.

Some of us like to wear our waterproof outer layer with shorts, like our own COO Captain Bill Moreland.


 

Waterproof Outer Layer

You’re sailing on a close haul, the wind is blowing 25 knots against an ebb current, and the cold is poking right through your fleece like icy needles. You don’t want to get wet – you would get very cold. At best, very uncomfortable. At worst, hypothermic. A face-full of saltwater prompts you to add your waterproof layer. This layer will trap in your body heat and keep your clothing dry. (Feel free to giggle at this author who would also sometimes add a ski parka between the middle and outer layers.)

Foul Weather Gear, aka “Foulies”

  • Jacket – Even if conditions are not horrible, your foulie jacket can do a lot to hold keep you warm. It’s always a must-bring for those sailors more sensitive to the cold. Consider sizing up to accomodate layers of clothing underneath. Note: it might be inconvenient, but if you're wearing an inflatable PFD, always remove it before adding your final layer. Wear it over your outer jacket so that it can properly inflate.
  • Pants – Tip: while bib or overall-style pants are great for keeping dry in horrible conditions, they can be problematic in the head in a bumpy seaway. Picture that for a moment. Then realize that it’s very rare for conditions in San Francisco Bay to be horrible enough to necessitate bib pants. 

Three Wind & Women instructors model the Sømand Farallon Jacket, developed in the San Francisco Bay Area by women sailors for women sailors.
 

Foul weather gear can be expensive – and of course the better quality, the more it seems to cost. For this reason, we don’t recommend investing in good foul weather gear until you’re sure you're in love with sailing and committed to enjoying it regularly.

The author saved up for this – and waited for a clearance sale. Worth every penny. Never cold again!

In the meantime, waterproof ski or snowboarding outerwear can suffice. Rain slickers are a less costly alternative, and you can even buy them used – just check the entire garment for cracks or splits, especially the seams. Slickers may keep rain and salt water out, but because they don’t breathe well, they can feel more humid inside than a decent-quality foul weather jacket will.

This yellow slicker set helped keep ASA 104 student Dina Z. smiling through the rain. 

Be careful if you’re considering buying used foul weather gear. Through wear, tear, and possible launderings, used foulie material will be less effective at keeping you dry. 

When you’re sailing regularly, especially if you’re racing, we can safely encourage you to invest in some good quality gear. When you’re ready, there are many excellent brands to choose from. Besides reading product reviews on the Internet, one of the best ways to research sailing gear and garments is to talk to your friends at Modern Sailing. Join a Club Sail, join a buddy’s charter, or stop by on a weekend afternoon for an Après Sail. Ask sailors about the gear they are wearing and their feelings about it. Yet another great way to make friends.

Last Resort

It's not a bad idea to keep a blanket in your sailing gear bag - just in case. 

 

You might also enjoy this article: Inside the Sailing Gear Bag - What Should You Pack?

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