SK Newsletter: December 1, 2009
By Christopher Cunningham
There are two things I like about winter paddling: the water is a lot more interesting than it is in summer, and when I’m dressed for the water temperature (50°F /10°C) I’m not overdressed for the air temperature. There are times in the summer when I’ve been bundled up and sealed in a drysuit when the air temperature is pushing 80°F/ 27°C and I can get a bit toasty. But in winter, if the air temperature is getting close to freezing, a drysuit over layers of poly pile is a very comfortable outfit.
Since I rely on my drysuit to keep me comfortable and safe almost year round I need to be sure it is in good condition. On warm days I’m never sure if the moisture that collects in the suit is from sweat or leakage. Taking a long swim on a cold winter day will quickly reveal leaks in the fabric and poor seals in the gaskets.
A swim is also a good reality check on how well my apparel works and how long it will keep me warm and functional. I’ve taken swims in paddling pants and jackets to see how well they perform in the water. While those garments are not designed to provide a full-body watertight seal in the event of a swim, they can slow the ingress of water and the onset of cold. Having first-hand experience with being in the drink is invaluable in helping you assess how effectively your clothing will protect you from the elements.
Taking a swim may require some preparation that you might not ordinarily take for a kayak outing. Take a towel and dry clothing to change into. Having a thermos of hot tea and a car with a good heater helps with re-warming. Swim with a buddy where you know you’ll be safe and have easy egress from the water.
Last year we had a cold snap that iced up a local lake. I suited up, kicked a hole in the ice and took a 20-minute swim. I was dry inside my drysuit and I stayed comfortably warm. It was also a lot of fun! My hands eventually got a bit chilled, but not as quickly as I’d expected. With neoprene gloves on I had some insulation, but since the rest of my body was well protected I suspect that my circulation kept my hands in good shape. Had the rest of my body been chilled, my hands would have seized up much quicker.
Chuck Sutherland (profiled in our June 2009 issue and an advocate of cold-water safety) has been conducting cold-water workshops on the East Coast for years, and Bob Burnett (a contributor in that same issue) and former Sea Kayaker safety article writer George Gronseth now have a cold-water workshop here in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re paddling on cold water, whatever time of year that might be, a clinic could be an important step in becoming a better prepared kayaker.