Tom Cunliffe: Fashions come and go, both in clothing and in boats, but will the practical bowler hat ever return to sailors’ heads?


When I was a nipper, the footwear favoured by fashionable British sailors was blue canvas pumps. Upmarket versions had non-slip rubber soles for grip. The rest of us made do with rope bottoms, which disintegrated in weeks and conferred no holding power at all. During the late 1960s, leather deck shoes with cut rubber soles arrived in the UK from America where, according to The Gentleman’sGazette,the design had been pioneered by Mr Sperry in 1935. The advantages were obvious and by 1980 everyone wore them. Quality varied, of course, but the revolution stuck. Passing trends may dictate whether yours are white, pink or traditional brown, but the essential features can’t be improved so nobody has seriously tried.

Fashion in the sailing world is an interesting subject. Some items, such as lifejackets, have come on steadily from gruesome beginnings to today’s slick, easy-to-wear wonders. Their excellence is so obvious that what’s in vogue plays little part in their marketing. Other areas are in clear contrast. Take headgear, for instance. I’ve never understood the attraction of the baseball hat. Many of those which come my way don’t seem to fit, despite having a useful adjuster to help shut off that draughty hole at the back. If you’re a lady with a pony-tail, your hair will look great threaded through here. For most men, however, the only benefit of such a titfer is the way it shades out the sun as they step up to the baseball plate swinging the bat.

“For cruisers, fashions that are driven that are driven by race boats ebb and flow”

Wait a minute! Sun? What sun? This is the UK. Any glare is admirably dealt with by my ferreting cap, which beats the baseball version hands down. It’s warm, cheap, lasts for years, never blows off, has an effective peak and keeps you snug even when wet because it’s made from honest sheep. It isn’t trendy though, and so is rarely seen on yachts.

Oddly enough, an even better seafaring headpiece is the bowler, as depicted in sepia prints of sailing fishermen and the mates of square-riggers far from shore. The bowler is completely secure when jammed down, it captures a pocket of warm air, is waterproof and offers adequate protection from bright sunlight. A quality example even delivers a second chance to anyone unlucky enough to be clobbered by an all-standing gybe. One of my more obscure yacht clubs requires me occasionally to put to sea wearing my best City hat. It works a treat, but even I have too much fashion savvy to sport it on a daily basis.Iknowit’sagenuine solution, but the comments would kill me in the end.

Fashion. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes an irrelevance, and if ever the latter proposition needed proof it was provided at the September Southampton Boat Show. Most of the yachts on the pontoons shared characteristics you wouldn’t have come across ten years back. Sterns were so wide that their designers had been left with little choice but to site a wheel on either quarter.

Presumably, many also had a pair of rudders so that at least one might be a short-odds winner when it came to preventing a broach as the yacht heels. An Open 60 has to be this shape, but do the benefits really outweigh the downsides for what will probably be used as a coastal cruiser? Aft-swept spreaders are also ‘in’ this year. These might deliver a stiff spar, but the fact that they deal death to squaring the main away properly spells serious aggravation on a long downwind run.

For cruisers, fashions that are driven by what works for race boats under the current set of rules ebb and flow. The reverse counters of the 1970s have blown away with the wind, as have huge, deck-scraping genoas. In hopes of being spared, I wait to see what fashion brings us twenty years from now. Maybe the world will have come to its senses and have recognised the excellent, ever-sartorial bowler hat.


Tom Cunliffe