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Cold Water Paddling
Paddling in cool waters is a blast. They key ingredient is "Know thyself." Read on for our tips on how to be prepared and paddle safely.
Know the dangers
Cool air and cold water cannot be overlooked. Even though the potential for getting capsized seems minimal, it is critical to be prepared should that happen. Anyone who decides to join the L Street Brownies for a swim on New Year's Day in South Boston knows that water temps below 50°F will take your breath away. It is pretty much like being put in a cryogenic tank (no disrespect to Ted Williams.)
Beautiful places like Bar Harbor Maine have a high water temperature in July of only 59 degrees. Maybe the air temperature is in the high 70s, but if rough seas put you in the drink, the 59 degree water with just surf shorts, a PFD, and a cotton T-shirt will have most people approaching hypothermia in 30 minutes or so.
Know the location
Choosing to paddle a narrow, quiet river to enjoy the trees is very different than paddling from the mainland of New Hampshire across open ocean to Smuttynose Island. If you are paddling a lazy river and capsize, ask yourself if you would you be able to get to shore, change clothes, and dump the water out of your boat before becoming hypothermic?
Know yourself and others
Determine your personal ability level and the ability of your paddling partners. Ask yourself and your partners how confident they are at re-entering their boat unassisted if they capsize. Does each member of your party know how to Eskimo roll? Do any members of your party have physical issues that would prevent them from re-entering their boat?
Bring the right clothing and gear
Staying dry is staying warm. The key is to know your individual tolerance level to cold air and water, then dress correctly. Knowing what to wear is a function of air/water temperature and your location and distance from the shore. If the water temp and air temp are both above 60 degrees but there is a possibility of capsize, a wetsuit is a safe choice. For the really cold-blooded people out there, a 3 mm farmer-john style wetsuit should do the trick, in tandem with a rash-guard shirt and maybe a splash top to keep the wind and spray off. For those warm-blooded people who put out the BTUs like a Midwest power plant, thinner neoprene (about 0.5 mm) may suffice.
Know why a wetsuit works
How does a wetsuit work, you ask? The idea behind wetsuits is that a thin layer of water is trapped between the neoprene and your skin. Your body heats the water and the neoprene insulates (traps) the heat. Analogy: beer coolie insulates cold brewski.
Know when you need a wetsuit
If the water is below 60 degrees and the prospect of swimming to shore is not easy, then definitely wear a wetsuit with light synthetic layers under it and have a waterproof jacket, gloves, and hat readily available if the air gets cold. By the way, readily available does not mean buried deep in the stern hatch.
Know when to wear a dry suit
If the water is 50 degrees or below and the air is the same with a stiff wind, the safest choice is a waterproof, breathable dry suit. Dry suits have latex gaskets at the neck, wrist, and ankles. Dry suits are intended to keep you completely dry from outside elements. Like a wetsuit, you want synthetic layers next to your skin to wick and dry sweat as well as provide insulation. However, dry suits are a bit tricky when it comes time to make a bathroom stop. Most men's suits have a front relief zipper and women's models can be purchased with a drop seat.
Protect the extremities
Headwear for really cold temperatures would be a neoprene hood or beanie. To protect your hands, Pogies are a nice choice if you do not want the bulk of neoprene gloves. Pogies are waterproof mittens that attach to the paddle shaft and provide an opening to slide your hands in and out of.
Don't mess with the non-negotiables
For cold weather paddling, you must have a spray skirt, paddle float, bilge pump, paddle leash, extra paddle, PFD with a whistle attached, first aid kit, basic repair items for your kayak, waterproof flashlight, and an emergency strobe light. If you are venturing out into big water bring a VHF radio, flares, dye marker and signal mirror, cell phone, compass, chart, and float plan. Always tell someone at home where you are going and when you expect to be back.
And regardless of the location, it is important to carry a complete change of clothes in a dry bag. What not to wear: cotton. Denim jeans and cotton T-shirts remain wet. In short, you will freeze your buns off. Not only are they cold but also really heavy.
Know when to call it a day
Eat, drink, and be merry, but get out before you become too tired. Cold weather and wind exposure make you burn calories and use hydration stores. If you have not had the urge to go to the bathroom in several hours of chilly paddling, this is a bad sign. Stay well hydrated and stop for frequent snacks. (Beer and coffee do not count in the hydration category.)