You’ve booked a once-in-a-lifetime voyage on a beautiful sailing ship, and started dreaming about life during the golden age of sail or even rounding the Horn in a force nine. But as your date of departure cruises closer, what do you actually need to pack?
I’ve sailed on a few tall ships; short voyages around western Europe, island hopping in the Pacific, on long ocean crossing passages, and in the Tall Ships races, so from my experience, here are some recommendations to add to your packing list.
How to pack
Space on a sailing ship is limited, so think carefully about what you bring, and how you bring it. Forget stuffing things into a hard-shelled rolling suitcase, there’s usually nowhere to stow it onboard. Instead, pack a collapsible holdall or duffle bag, which can be rolled up when not in use. Waterproof bags aren’t usually necessary, but it might be worth investing in one if you sail on smaller vessels too. I love my Helly Hansen 90L duffel bag. It’s big enough for everything I need, plus things I pick up on the voyage, and being orange, I always find it on the luggage carousel at the airport.
Packing cubes or small lightweight drybags help keep things organised inside your main bag. I have a variety of sizes and colours; it’s not the most coordinated look, but I can easily grab what I need.
What you might need
Each ship is different, and it’s important to keep in touch with the organisation after booking to get the best understanding of the set-up on board. They should all be able to provide you with a kit list to help you prepare.
Some ships provide hammocks for sleeping while others have bunks; most will provide you with the bedding you’ll need, although some smaller boats may ask you to bring a sleeping bag. Most training ships will also have sets of foul weather gear and waterproof boots for you to borrow for your time on board.
All the safety gear essential for your voyage will be provided by the ship.
There’s several things that I always take on my sailing adventures, but things to keep me warm, dry, and comfortable are the first to go in my bag.
- Foul weather gear. I have a Helly Hansen sailing jacket and salopettes. Fisherman-style oilskins are great for keeping you dry, but lack the insulation of sailing gear, so you’ll need additional warm layers underneath.
- Waterproof boots. Dry, warm feet make life better, without question. Most ships also insist on closed-toe shoes on deck, and sturdy soles are better for climbing in the rigging, so I usually pack a pair of trail shoes too.
- Windproof jacket. It’s always a bit cooler at sea, and a lightweight windproof jacket will make watches more comfortable when there’s not quite the need for full foul weather gear.
- Hat, scarf, and gloves. Night watches get chilly, especially when you’re not moving around much. A hat and scarf or buff keep out the cold, and are easy to take off again when the sun comes up. I don’t like wearing sailing gloves to handle ropes, but warm gloves make steering more comfortable when its windy.
- Sunglasses and sunblock. Sunlight still passes through cloud cover, and it gets reflected back off the water, so you get a much higher exposure than usual. I use factor 30 sunblock minimum, more usually factor 50 (I’m very pale and Scottish), and wear sunglasses most of the time. I also take a stick that I can slip in my pocket to reapply regularly to my lips, nose and ears while I work on deck. Use a cord to secure your glasses, especially if you’re keen to climb in the rigging.
- Towel. For shore leave on a deserted island or drying off after a mind-blowing swim hundreds of miles from land. It’s best to leave the fluffy towels at home and find one that’s quick drying and/or lightweight, like my hammam towel.
- Headtorch. An important item for moving around the ship on night watches. One with a red light is recommended to preserve night vision.
There’s also a few additional things that can make life on board more comfortable.
- Refillable water bottle. The combination of sunlight, wind and salt air is really dehydrating. While at sea you get an idea of the scale of the plastic problem in the world’s oceans, so taking a refillable bottle is just a small step you can make to help.
- Sleep mask and earplugs. Sleep is so important, especially if you’re waking up for the midnight to 4am watch. I find that silicon earplugs are more effective than synthetic, blocking out more of the surrounding sound, and a buff does a great job doubling as an eye mask.
- Power bank. Not all ships have a 24-hour power supply for charging devices, so a power bank will provide the juice needed to keep your phone, camera, kindle, e-cigarette and so on from running out just when you need them most. An international adapter is essential if the ship’s home port is in a different zone to where you purchased your electronics.
- Something to read. A kindle, tablet, or a real book; something to get lost in between the busy periods on board. A book has the added benefit that you can swap it with others in the crew once you finish. Try one of these suggestions.
- A journal. I always keep a travel journal, and it’s a wonderful way to record and reflect on your experiences. Write, sketch, and note information from the ships’ log to add to your own memories of the voyage.
- Travel insurance. Look for one that specifically covers tall ship or offshore sailing.
- A knife. Sailors should always carry a knife (according to a colleague, a sailor without a knife is just a spectator). Just be sure to leave it out of your hand luggage if you have to take a flight to meet your ship.
- Things you enjoy. Knitting needles and yarn, a sketchbook, twine for practicing knots, playing cards, binoculars and a wildlife guide. Something to do in your downtime.
For many voyages it’s not a problem to pick things up locally in ports on the way, letting you cut down to just a few essentials in your backpack. On longer passages you may be at sea for a considerable length of time between ports, with little chance to pick up things you might forget, so products need careful consideration.
All but the smallest of ships have showers on board, however the availability of water may be limited on longer voyages by the size of water tanks or the capacity of the water maker. I pack a reusable cleansing cloth and bar soap with my usual toiletries to keep fresh, rather than single-use wipes that result in more waste.
Although washing water can be restricted seawater is abundant, and I love to swim, so a leave-in conditioner spray keeps my hair manageable between washes, protecting it from the salt and sun.
When it comes to sanitary items, it’s important to think carefully about the products you bring. Waste management is an important matter onboard a ship, and nothing should be flushed in the toilets (sanitary waste really should not be flushed at home either). If you use applicator tampons, then they should have non-plastic applicators, which are easier to dispose of, and don’t contribute to plastic waste generated every day.
Comfort moving around the ship is your main priority, so take things you feel good in. It’s always more exposed out at sea, so ensure you pack long-sleeved shirts or sweaters and long trousers, even if you’re heading for a sunshine destination to meet the ship.
Take a set of thermal tights and a long-sleeved top for blue water passages and colder climes. Even in the height of summer it can be chilly around the British and Irish Isles.
Flip flops or sliders are great for below decks, going back and forth between showers and bunks, chilling out in the saloon or bar, and shore visits to the beach. I usually live in my flip flops, but many ships discourage open shoes and bare feet on deck.
If you’re going to be working on the ship, helping out with the repairs and maintenance that keep the vessel going, be sure to pack clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. There’s always a good chance that a job might involve paint, rust treatment, tar or grease. Some ships may also ask you to bring your own safety footwear for this kind of work.