By Ken Fink
Well, why not, I ask? I guess the reason I've always paddled year around is that I received delivery of my first sea kayak in late October and I was not about to wait until Spring to use it. It was quite a departure from what I had been using, being only 21 inches wide. The maiden voyage, during the season's first Nor'easter, didn't take place until Thanksgiving. I didn't have a roll or wetsuit, the snow was flying and the wind was blowing hard -- and, of course, I capsized on my way home about a mile and a half from the dock on the Damariscotta Estuary in Maine where I live. By the time I swam the boat ashore -- leaving my paddle drifting -- dumped the boat, recovered the paddle by paddling after it with only hands in the water, and walked home up the hill through the snow, my wet clothes had frozen. I learned a lot from that experience, my first and almost last paddle. Winter paddling narrows the margin of safety drastically. So my first recommendation for winter paddling is to gain the skills, knowledge, experience, and judgment that allow you to relax as you extend the season. Then start thinking about the necessary clothing and equipment for cold water/weather paddling.
Some General Observations
I'll pass along some interesting observations about cold water and sea kayaking I've collected.
1/ If you capsize unexpectedly, you will usually be inured to the cold shock many people refer to when your head hits the water. I attribute this to the initial adrenaline reaction. I've noticed that after I've rolled unexpectedly, I wasn't even aware of the water temperature. In contrast, one January when the water temperature was around 28 degrees F, I decide I was going to do a practice roll. As my head hit the water I was almost overwhelmed by the shock. Doing a reenter and roll in cold water also presents special problems. You'll find that putting your head under water produces an intense "ice cream headache" that's hard to ignore. This is especially true in early Spring with warm air and cold water.
2/ In cold water your ability to hold your breath is greatly diminished, maybe 20 seconds or less.
3/ Hands quit working first when immersed in water below 40 degrees, usually in about 5-8 minutes.
4/ There is a significant air/water temperature lag from season to season. In the Fall, the water stays warm into November. While in the Spring, it takes until late June for the water to warm up in Maine. The exact lag depends on your part of the country. I always dress for the water temperature, the exact combination of items based on years of experimenting on what works well for me. We still don't know what works for my wife, Joan, because she simply refuses to go winter paddling with me. She's the one I am quoting in the title.
5/ As long as I'm in the boat, I remain quite warm. It's when I exit the cockpit that I need the extra warmth.
6/ When paddling in the winter, I need to eat and drink something every couple of hours. If I don't, I can actually feel my body temperature dropping after 2-3 hours, to the point that I feel chilled when earlier I was quite warm. Undoubtedly this is due to the energy I'm burning up by activity -- I don't lollygag along. After eating, I fully expect to shiver for 15-20 minutes while my body redirects the blood flow to digestion. Then I feel the new surge of energy and warmth that will carry me for another couple of hours.
Clothing and Other Considerations
In passing along my winter paddling strategies for cold water clothing, I'm going to use brand names, simply because they're what I know, but there are many suitable equivalent.
If you are going to paddle in cold water (don't' ask me what cold is -- there are enough comments and formulae on this from every self-styled expert to keep you busy figuring this out -- it's mostly common sense), then you must wear a drysuit or wetsuit (usually a Farmer John style, full length). Drysuits, despite their expense, are superior mainly because they are comfortable and people tend to wear them without hesitation -- no one likes wetsuits. You can also vary their warmth by layering your underclothing. The new Goretex version is wonderful, and the nice thing is you can wear it year round comfortably if the water temperature calls for it. However, their popularity and restricted colors are starting to make paddlers look like a convention of clowns in uniform. I do know paddlers who have gone on extended trips to Labrador and Newfoundland, wearing only polypropylene. We almost lost one when he was carried half way to Nova Scotia by exceptional offshore winds. He survived, not because of his clothing, but because of his paddling skill. Is that type of risk worth a little extra comfort?
I moved from Farmer John style wetsuits to drysuits as soon as it was possible because of the increased comfort and the variably-defined warmth of the drysuits. The major difference between the two modes being that some clothing is worn under and some over the wetsuit, but all clothing options are worn under the drysuit. The potential for layers is obvious in both instances. Under a wetsuit in winter, I wear medium weight synthetic bottoms, and expedition weight, long-sleeved top (usually Capilene , which is quite reasonably priced at the Patagonia factory store in Freeport). Over the wetsuit, I wear either the Kokatat 3/4 length-sleeve sweater, or an old heavy weight wool sweater with the sleeves cut off at the elbow, all covered by a good paddling jacket or dry top - and Kokatat now makes Goretex paddling jackets and dry tops. A dry top is the upper half of a drysuit with latex seals all around, and in combination with an extra heavy wetsuit bottom, makes a great combination that can be varied for conditions. I've had a few paddlers with this gear combination capsize and spend some time in the winter water without getting cold. But I'd do some swimming to carefully test my particular selections. Under a drysuit, I wear medium to expedition weight Capilene bottoms and an expedition weight Capilene top. Depending on the weather and my expected paddling time, I can then add the Kokatat paddling sweater or the cutoff sweater for added warmth. I have never needed more than that to remain quite comfortable, and that's in 10-15 degrees F. I also carry an extra jacket to throw on at beach stops if the wind is brisk.
The best paddling hat I've ever used comes from Iceland. It's like those you see babies wearing. It's very thick wool, covers the whole head and ears, and - most important - it ties under the chin. When you capsize, any hat that doesn't tie on comes off! The hat is impervious to the wind, feels warm when I capsize, and still allows me to hear. It's only lack is a visor to keep the wet Nor'easter rain off my face. There are lots of approximations of these requirements that will work. Choose carefully. Neoprene hoods are great protection, but I can't hear through them, and they are very uncomfortable. I've found that if something isn't comfortable, it's not worn, despite its lifesaving qualities.
You need two kinds of hand gear, one for paddling and one for weather/water protection. I start off by rubbing Snowseal boot waterproofing salve (a tip I picked up years ago at an L.L. Bean discussion) onto my hands. This protects my hands from the wind and delays the soaking of my hands from salt spray or waves. The body heat in hands can only evaporate so much water. Once waterlogged, hands that are exposed to cold temperature, either in air or water, rapidly become cold and numb and are very hard to re-warm. I usually paddle barehanded for most conditions, except when it's windy. For necessary protection, I wear only paddling mitts, also known as Pogies. Avoid the ones with thick or separate fuzzy pile liners as they quickly soak with water, weighing a ton in short order. I use only simple nylon, or the Kokatat mitts with a thin pile over the top, and I haven't found a condition yet in which my hand weren't perfectly warm. The problems, however, begin when you capsize, or otherwise have to remove your hands from their cocoon of warmth. Your hands are now moist and warm with blood vessels dilated to allow heat to escape. The moment they become exposed to the air or wind, or plunged into cold water, they "flash freeze" with painful results. You might be tempted to compare this with the Sauna experience, where you can run, bare and warm, outside and roll in the snow with little ill effect. Well, it isn't the same. This is where the second pair of hand protectors now becomes obvious - the neoprene gloves. These will be the ultimate protection for your hands when needed. The trick is to have them available upon demand - tucked and secured inside your PFD, or in a pocket in your sprayskirt - but definitely where you can grab them!
I don't worry much about my feet. In fact,
I've paddled for years barefooted, or wearing nothing but simple wool socks.
For some reason, the problems with hands don't apply to feet. We can do
a lot without having articulate feet and toes. Paddlers, however, who need
foot protection are now fortunate in having a plethora of neoprene boots
to wear. I prefer the type without zippers, as they are definitely warmer.
Besides the cold, winter paddling will expose you to stronger winds, bigger waves, less daylight, and rapid changes in conditions. The potential for problems are greater so you have to pay more attention to survival gear, even if you are only going out for a few hours. During the height of summer, I've paddled all the way to Rock and back in a day (37.2 mi. round trip) and carried little more than what I was wearing and a little food and water. In the winter, that would be folly, even on a short day trip. If something goes wrong, there are few people who will see your mishap, much less report a boater in trouble, so you must be self-reliant and ready to spend a night or two on some island. The list of necessary survival gear is too long to go in to in this short discussion, but you might use your imagination and figure out what you'd like to have along for such an event. Yes, it's a long list, isn't it? The essential difference is that in winter, safety considerations are no longer lightly regarded, rather they are an imperative.
I haven't covered all that I might for winter/cold water paddling, but there's enough here to get you started thinking about it. I encourage you to try it, but only after cranking your skills, knowledge, experience, and judgment to a high level. There is a special quality to winter paddling; the lighting is dramatically beautiful, the seas challenging, and the shores empty. Alone, in that ocean wilderness, you suddenly feel what it must have been like a few hundred years ago. The sensation is worth the risk.