Sailing requires shorts that are specifically designed to properly deal with a wet environment, abrasive deck surfaces, and the bumps and bruises that can occur while moving about the boat. They need to have reinforced seats, made of fabrics that are fast drying and offer optional seat and leg padding. We will review with you the features to consider when choosing a new pair of sailing shorts and some practical suggestions on undergarments and care.
Fast Drying – Sailing shorts will be made of materials which are fast drying, light weight, durable, and soft (cotton like feel). Nylon is by far the most common material, with some shorts being made with Supplex Nylon which is 26-36% softer than standard nylon. A few shorts are made with Polyester which is more durable and dries faster but is not as soft and comfortable as nylon.
Stretch Materials – The majority of sailing shorts are made of 100% nylon fabric for maximum durability (and comfort). Blending in a bit of elastic material into the fabric provides some stretch, but also just a bit of durability loss. Stretch fabrics will have about 5% elastane (Spandex or Lycra) woven into the nylon to give the fabric some give as you move about. As much as 10% elastane can be found in fabrics with even more stretch. Let personal preference be your guide here. All of these will wear well over time.
UPF Factor – Some manufacturers publish UPF ratings for the fabrics they use. A UPF rating of 40 is typical. Even if the UPF factor is not known, any clothing coverage to protect you from the sun is MUCH better than bare skin.
Reinforced Seat – The nonskid deck of a boat puts a lot of wear and tear on the seat of shorts. If you are racing on a boat that has an ‘aggressive’ nonskid added, it’s can be like sitting on 60 grit sand paper. The seat of the shorts should be reinforced. Cordura (a heavy duty type of Nylon) is the most popular fabric used and performs well. Some hybrid materials will have an Aramid fiber (think Kevlar, Technora, Vectran) blended in the fabric for additional abrasion resistance. The reinforced area should cover the entire rear of your buttocks and run down the full length of the back of the shorts (back of your legs). Non reinforced seat shorts are better suited to boats that do not have nonskid on them.
Seat Pads – Shorts are available unpadded, with removable pads, or permanently padded (sewn in). One way to greatly increase your sailing comfort is to wear padded shorts. They help prevent bruising and allow you to sit more comfortably on uneven areas (or even deck hardware). These pads are made of closed cell foam, and occasionally neoprene. They are typically two separate pads (left and right side), with each covering the full length down one side, from buttocks through the back of your leg.
Padded shorts with removable pads give you the option of wearing them without pads on shore or when relaxing at anchor. Then for times when you need them (rough weather, working on the boat, racing), you can simply add them. Permanently installed pads can be a bit bothersome when they are not needed, and the paddings do not breathe so shorts may take longer to dry out.
To insert the pads you will want to take the shorts off, open the Velcro envelope pocket, insert the pads, Velcro shut. This makes it easy, as it is nearly impossible to do this while wearing them. Note that removable pads are almost always sold separately.
Deep Side Pockets – Make sure the pockets are deep so their contents are not tipped out when moving around the boat or sitting. They should be voluminous for putting items in them as you sail or work on your boat. Small, short pockets will not serve you well.
Cargo Pocket – This is the most secure way to store things in your shorts. Look for a structured pocket that can hold a few items – not a flat pocket. Full and ample Velcro is a must to keep the pocket shut. Not all shorts have cargo pockets, so know if this is a practical need of yours before you invest in a new pair of shorts.
Style and Construction
Longer Length – The longer the shorts, the more of the back of your thigh is protected. Generally, performance sailing shorts will be intentionally longer and cut just above the knee for greater leg coverage. Some women’s shorts are cut short, while others are full length. Know what amount of protection you are looking for before you invest in new shorts.
Belts and Waist Adjustments – Most shorts will have belt loops for wearing a belt optionally. Some people find wearing a belt while sailing is binding and uncomfortable. If this is the case, be sure, and most do, the shorts you choose have in-line waist adjustments. These are usually a Velcro adjuster on either side of the waist, while some have more discreet hidden internal adjusters. Check that the adjusters stay put under strain and are not positioned to get caught and undone.
Button Waist Closure – If you are not wearing a belt at all times with your new sailing shorts, ensure they won’t open up unexpectedly when moving around or straining against something. Many shorts have largely reinforced button closures which are by far the most secure and preferred. Snap closures can really let you down.
Cut for Ease – Active sailors should choose sailing shorts that are full cut through out allowing you unbinding ease of movement. Shorts with pleats give you even more freedom of movement and make side pockets easier to fill and empty. Loose fitting around your thighs is the desired fit. Slightly more room in and around the crotch for less binding.
Waterproof Shorts – Waterproof shorts might sound like a silly idea since they aren’t keeping very much of you dry, but they can be a terrific option for certain conditions. They are great when the deck is getting quite wet, but you usually are not until you sit down. Nothing is worse than an otherwise pleasant day of sailing with a wet butt, so waterproof shorts are a comfortable solution to this common problem. Waterproof shorts are not so great if the weather is really hot – they are heavier than and not nearly as breathable as regular shorts, so look elsewhere if you are going to be sweating all day.
When wearing shorts made with fast drying materials it is essential to wear wicking and fast drying base layers or underwear. These synthetic garments will wick moisture away from your skin so that it can evaporate and keep you more comfortable. Also, if you do get drenched by rain or waves, you, your base layer and shorts can dry out over time. If you wear cotton base layers, you will remain wet until you change. Cotton absorbs and hold moisture, and should be avoided at all times. For racing and high action sailing, wearing a form fitting stretch Lycra or Spandex base layer (short or long legs) under your shorts will provide better chafe protection while maintaining good moisture wicking and fast drying properties.
Care & Washing
Wash as you would other tech laundry with cold water on a relatively gentle cycle, making sure the pads have been removed first. Low heat dry or hang wet to dry. If the pads are not removable, do not tumble dry.
If you are washing on board in salt water, be sure to rinse with fresh water at the end. As with all clothing, salt that has not been rinsed away will hold moisture and reduce the material’s ability to fully dry and can lead to mildew if stored damp onboard.