With gaffer tape over the seams and sizeable holes in both knees, after 20 years, it’s time for new oilskins, but shopping for women's oilskins isn't easy...

I decided over the summer that my trusty Musto fleece-lined mid-layer suit was past it. The gaffer tape repair over the leg seams was coming unstuck, and there were sizable holes in both knees.

It had served me well for 20 years, with only one major drawback: going to the heads. A trip below meant lifejacket off, outer jacket off, inner jacket off, top half of suit down… all on a boat bouncing around like a sock in a washing machine.

This shenanigans also explains why I’m often reluctant to make drinks on board, why I accept a mug of tea, clasp my hands around it, then throw half of it overboard once it’s gone cold.

On shore, I drink loads of water; at sea, I’m probably verging on dehydration. It was time that I tried out the new generation of designed-for-women overalls. I had a look online and got the impression that manufacturers were missing a trick, given how many women sail.

Most of the allegedly women’s sailing trousers were simply re-sized men’s – the two-way front zip was a dead giveaway. Only one mentioned the ‘drop seat’ feature; all the rest had bib-and-brace-style straps, which would help for taking off, but to get them on again you’d have to get the strap back over your shoulder under your two jackets and lifejacket.

Article continues below…

Next time I was in Edinburgh, I headed for the Helly Hansen store in George Street. The assistant there was a fellow-sailor and an absolute star. I explained what I was looking for, she hauled out the various possibles for women, and I tried them on.

We had to agree that on the whole, the ‘women’s’ oilies were generally either sized-down men’s with no allowance for a womanly shape, or possibly, given it was HH, designed for tall, slim Scandi women who hadn’t yet hit children or middle-aged spread.

I’m a ‘medium’ in women’s sizes, but these mediums were neat around the hips, tight across the stomach and a shade too long on the legs; the ‘large’ were comfortable on the body but a foot too long, and the shoulder straps at their shortest were still drooping down my upper arms.

I understood now why so many women sail in waterproof trousers rather than suits, and I considered that option, but having salopettes that go up your back make a huge difference to warmth. The shop did have one example of drop-seat trousers.

The drop-seat wasn’t mentioned on the spec, which was why neither the assistant nor I was looking for it, until I noticed a covered zip right around the lower waist as I was trying them on.

They were still scaled-down men’s, neat on the hips and long in the leg, but the shoulder straps fitted, there were reinforced knees, a waist adjuster and an excellent pair of pockets on the upper leg (though it wasn’t a woman who designed the under-bust key/cash safety pockets).

Furthermore, this model was about to be discontinued, so the price was satisfyingly discounted. I bought them. My new trousers worked very well messing around the voe, with a warm jumper under them, and only one jacket and lifejacket on top.

The zip-seat wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t give Karima nearly as much time to go off course while sailing herself, and it was definitely better than taking everything off in the cockpit then diving below.


Real world test

The real test came on my big summer trip, on Shetland’s own tall ship, Swan. It was a trip from Ullapool to St Kilda and back via Harris, Lewis and the west of Scotland, and as we went through the Sound of Harris in best-grade Highland mist (aka. persistent drizzle) and stormed back up the Minch under sail in a Force 7, gusting 8, full oilies over two sets of thermals were required.

I was warm and dry throughout, and the seat-zip didn’t leak when I sat. The Swan is big on keeping crew warm and hydrated. Mugs of tea (with accompanying biscuits) were brought round regularly… and the drop-seat trousers revolutionised my sailing life.

I drank every mugful, and volunteered to make more. I visited the heads in that Force 8 in record-breaking time. Now, manufacturers, how about something aimed at averagely-rounded women under 5ft 8in…?

Shop for women’s sailing trousers on Hellyhansen.com

Read Marsali’s guide to the best women’s sailing trousers on YachtingWorld.com

Why not subscribe today?

This feature appeared in the September 2022 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.

Subscribe, or make a gift for someone else, and you’ll always save at least 30% compared to newsstand prices.

See the latest PBO subscription deals on magazinesdirect.com