Saturday, October 29, 2011

Warm hands

We went windsurfing in a Nor'easter today - the start of the storm that will dump up to a foot of snow onto parts of Massachusetts. With predicted northeast winds, the spot was Duxbury. Temperatures were around 45F (7C), and as soon as we hit the water, the rain started. Over the next two hours, winds increased from the low 20s to mid 30s, with gusts in the 40s (mph).

For Nina, who really hates cold weather, it was the first cold session after the nice, warm winds in Hatteras. Still, she was nice and warm. So was I, but I had another cold windsurf session just a couple of days ago. Today, we were joined by quite a number of windsurfers: Dani, Graham (who has gotten a lot better over the summer), Dean, Nikita, and a few others. At least two of our friends today had problems with cold hands, which cut the session short, reduced the fun, limited speed, and/or let to bad crashes. They both did not sail with gloves (or ditched them after one run) because the gloves they have just did not work for them.

To me, this was quite frustrating, since I hate it if someone has no fun, or even stops sailing, because of cold hands. There are solutions to this problem! Nina and I have tried about 10 pairs of different windsurfing gloves and mittens in the past 2 years - and most of them did not work well. However, we found a few things that work well for both of us, even though we have different preferences, very different hand sizes, and differences in how sensitive we are to cold fingers.

There are two issues with most windsurfing gloves and mittens that cause problems:
  1. Bending the fingers also requires bending some material and therefore more force. This is most pronounced in thicker neoprene gloves.
  2. Loss of tactile sensation causes windsurfers to grip the boom harder. Gloves or mittens that do not fit well or slip on the fingers can make this problem worse.
Both problem cause sore forearms and reduced confidence when sailing. But for fall days like today, when the air and water temperatures are still quite a bit above freezing, the solution is easy:
get rid of the material between your fingers and the boom!

Solution 1: buy a pair of open-palm mittens. Open-palm mitts are available from several different manufacturers, and your local store should have some to try on. That's what Nina used for the first 30 minutes today. After that, her hands were warm enough to keep sailing without gloves or mittens.

My fingers are more cold-sensitive, but I still like to use open-palm mitts when it starts to get cold. One nice thing about them is that you can easily slip your fingertips out for rigging, or when you hands have gotten warm after sailing for a few minutes. I did not use them today, though, because they probably would not have been warm enough for me.

Solution 2: Cut out the material on the inside of neoprene gloves. Start with a pair of gloves that fit well, for example Glacier gloves (available for about $20 at L.L. Bean and many windsurf stores). Use scissors to cut out the material on the inside of the fingers. You'll notice right away that bending the fingers gets a lot easier. You can also cut out the material over the palm, if that's more comfortably to you (Nina does, I don't).

I find that the cut-out gloves are significantly warmer than the open-palm mitts, even if you start with a pair of gloves that are relatively thin. It's also easy enough to take the finger tips out for rigging etc.
Either of the two solutions shown above can keep your fingers nice and warm until the temperatures get closer to the freezing point. When you use them and you feel your fingers getting cold, make sure to take a quick break soon and shake your arms downward to make the blood go back into your fingers. If you wait too long, warming the fingers up again will really hurt! Another thing that helps is letting go with one hand while sailing, and hanging the arm down - this also will increase the blood flow in your fingers.

As air and water temperatures continue to drop, the two solutions I described above will eventually get too cold, and something warmer is needed. For some windsurfers (including Nina), pre-bent windsurfing mittens with a thin inner layer work well. I personally do not like them, and prefer two other solutions, which both add a layer to keep the water away from the skin: 
  1. Wearing thin kitchen gloves inside open-palm mitts.
  2. Using nylon mitten shells on top of neoprene gloves with the inside of the fingers cut out.
Here's a picture of the mitten shells I use, which I made by simply removing the stuffing from mittens, and glueing the seams to add some waterproofing:
Using nylon mitt shells (or neoprene mittens) also lets you use re-usable hand warmers to keep your finders warm and toasty.

Well, if you're thinking about stopping to windsurf soon because of cold fingers or sore forearms, I hope you try some of the things described above first!

Update (1/15/2015):
Someone asked why I had not posted anything new about gloves in more than 2 years. The reason is simple - since getting an Ianovated wetsuit in 2012, cold hands are not an issue anymore. I can now sail with open-palm mitts all winter long, since the tubes in the Ianovated suit allow me to blow warm air onto my hands when sailing. That works perfectly even if water and air temperatures are near freezing, and even though I have mild Raynaud's. Here are a few links:
I and several of my friends have ordered several suits directly from Ianovated, and always received them quickly and without any problems. 


  1. Hello, after a quick search I didn't find a newer post than this on your experience with gloves. I did see an older one from 2009.
    Wondering what you're doing to keep your appendages warm these days. I'm considering one of the NeilPryde Seamless or the DaKine Cold Water Mitt. What's your take?


  2. Dale, I am using open palm mitts all winter long now that I have an Ianovated wetsuit with hand warming tubes. I added some links at the end of this post.

  3. Thanks for the reply. Doesn't directly help me but it does help me realize that I have poor searching skills, which can be important to realize.

    Anyway the suit looks really great but I've got a good, new suit and I live in the south so it will be a different solution for my hands. I'm happy to have learned that this suit exists though, for future reference.

    Thanks again!