Prolific boat owner Clive Marsh argues in favour of the Breton cap as the one-size-fits-all-conditions superior sailing headwear. Do you agree?
Are you happy with your hat for sailing?
Does it stay on your head in a gale, keep you warm, dry and protect your face from the sun?
Do you have a different hat for sailing for different conditions? And do you find that you’re often wearing the wrong sort of hat?
Hats come into and out of fashion. But for sailing, there is only one type of hat that works in all situations – the Breton cap.
They look equally fine on male or female heads and are good at staying on in strong winds.
Variations include the Greek Fisherman’s cap and, of course, we in the UK have been wearing this style of hat for centuries.
The basic shape has always been used in the UK Merchant and Royal Navies (dressed up in summer with white covers) and until recently it was the favoured cap by many yacht clubs.
The reasons why they were so popular are three fold:
- They stay on your bonce in strong winds.
- They are both warm in winter and cool in summer.
- They provide some partial face and ear protection from the sun’s rays.
The reason the Breton cap stays on your head in a strong wind is because the peak slopes down and the wind gets caught between the peak and the beret/top pushing the hat down and not up.
The shape has evolved after many years of experience by seafarers.
So, whoever thought it was a good idea to take a cap from a baseball stadium and stick it on a sailor’s head?
The funny old chap wearing a blue pullover in the picture (above) is me at Oban sporting my favourite Breton cap.
Note that this type of hat is also useful for wiping whiteboards and mopping up oil spills.
It doesn’t show the stains but increases the cap’s ability to repel water. Of course, you can buy them with an oiled or waterproof top but that is cheating.
A good Breton needs to be soft and pliable. It will adopt a character all of its own.
So, if the Breton is the perfect hat for sailing, why do so many sailors now wear the wrong sort of hat?
I’d put it down to fashion because it’s mainly funny old unfashionable chaps like me who still wear Breton caps.
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But I can remember a time when they were highly fashionable with both young men and women in the swinging sixties. John Lennon for example.
But now the only famous person I’ve seen wearing one on TV in recent years is Jeremy Corbyn.
On the water, they’re confined to just men of a certain age. So, what is it that we older men know that others do not? Well, it’s all to do with experience.
Over the years I have tried more hats than I have had boats and here are a just few examples with the reasons why some hats are not so good on a boat.
The American baseball cap has become popular with sailors on both sides of the Atlantic and I have modelled one for you (below).
It has even become popular within the American Navy. But why?
It’s a baseball cap designed to protect your eyes from the sun within a windless stadium not for sailing at sea.
It might also be OK in the covered bridge of a ship but step out onto the wing and the wind will get under the peak and blow it clean off within seconds.
Some sailors know this so they clip them on with a little cord attached to their collar. Why not just get a hat that stays on?
And what about my full-size ears?
As you can see these hats offer no sun protection for my ears at all. In the winter they offer little comfort from the cold since they fit tight on your bonce with no air cavity – the Breton cap has an air cavity for insulation from extremes of temperature, hot or cold.
I have a selection of beanies. They certainly stay on in the wind but they offer little facial protection from the sun.
They are too hot in the sun and my nose gets burned and blistered even with sunblock.
The sunhat I am modelling (below) might keep the sun off but is only useful on a light wind day and we get very few of those at Rye.
Once out in the bay the hat rim flaps all over the place and I look and feel like a Whirling Dervish flapping about.
You can’t tilt into the wind to keep it on since it catches wind from the sides and back as well as the peak/front.
They lift off like flying saucers, usually landing on the sea the right way up and out of reach carried away by the wind.
A string can go under the chin to keep these hats on but that will inevitably get caught on something.
I’ve tried various rain hats including the traditional sou’wester that is longer in the back.
The idea behind this is to allow the rain or spray to escape down your back and over your collar.
To work well the back rim does need to be longer than the modern ones otherwise there’s a good chance that water will be channelled straight down the back of your shirt when you tilt your head a little forward.
The rear rim can also get caught on your collar and constantly push the hat forward.
For this reason, I prefer a coat with a built-in hood but even this has problems for when I turn my head the hood stays fixed and I find I am looking into the dark at a crucial moment.
To get over these problems I’ve tried using a simple waterproof farmer’s rain hat (above) but these have similar problems to a sunhat.
The Scottish deerstalker is a pretty good hat.
It has a nice peak that points down so that the wind pushes it downwards holding the hat on.
Ear flaps held down by a little bow under the chin keep the ears out of the sun.
The problem is the rear peak getting in the way of the collar which keeps pushing the hat forward.
Also, they lack a decent air cavity for insulation that is provided by the Breton-style cap.
So without wishing to run through all of the hats I’ve bought, all I can say is that I’ve tried them all and the only hat that meets all of my requirements on a boat is the traditional Breton cap.
If you know of a better one I’ll surely give it a go, but for now I’ll keep with my Breton caps and I bet that before long they’ll become a fashion item once again.
One thing I do need to mention!
If you wear your Breton cap on the quayside expect tourists to come and ask you for advice regarding the state of the tides, whether you can take them for a trip around the lighthouse or even where they can park their car.
Enjoyed reading What is the best hat for sailing?
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