Moulton Avery is an expert on heat and cold stress. He gave his first public lecture on hypothermia in 1974. He was executive director of the Center for Environmental Physiology in Washington, DC for ten years, and is the founder and director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety. He is a former ACA Sea Kayaking Instructor and Instructor Trainer. For golden rules 1 and 2, click here…
If you’re going to paddle safely in cold water, you need to make absolutely sure that your cold water gear works well and that you have the skill to use it smoothly and efficiently. That’s where field-testing comes into play. Field-testing is a process of experimentation and practice through which you become familiar with your gear, identify and correct any problems, and learn to use it effectively.
Why you should field-test
Just because you went out and bought yourself a ‘wetsuit’ or ‘drysuit’ doesn’t mean that you have a cold water safety net. For example, the gear you purchased might be:
- Difficult to use.
- The wrong shape or size.
- Poorly designed and easily broken
- Ineffective when not used properly.
- Totally inadequate for the conditions.
- 10% product and 90% advertising hype.
Field-testing is the best way to identify problems such as the above – so you can fix them. That may seem perfectly obvious, but it’s surprising how many people paddle around in wetsuits, drysuits and other assorted cold water gear without ever having gotten in cold water and splashed around – just to check things out – let alone practicing wet-exits, open-water rescues, or rolling.
Valuable things you can learn from field-testing
- Whether new gear is working properly.
- Whether you’re able to use it smoothly and effectively.
- Whether there are any gear-related challenges, limitations, weaknesses or problems that need to be solved.
- How much thermal protection you need at different water temperatures. For example at 55F (12.7C) vs 42F (5.5C)
- Whether your system of thermal protection is really up to the challenge of protecting you in the water on which you’re going to be paddling.
How and where to field-test
You should test and practice with your gear in a safe location, in weather conditions and at water temperatures similar to those in which you’ll actually be paddling. You need to know how both you and your gear perform, and field-testing gives you the opportunity to work out any kinks in the system. Always field-test new gear.
While wearing all of your cold water gear, can you…?
- Attach your sprayskirt.
- Properly set up and roll.
- Operate a clip or zipper.
- Assemble a spare paddle
- Find and blow your whistle.
- Deploy, use, and stow a tow rope.
- Open a container of flares and fire one.
- Open a box of Walker’s Shortbread Cookies.
- Deploy, inflate, use, and stow a paddle float.
- Pump out your cockpit – with the skirt attached.
- Do a boat-to-boat rescue – as rescuer and as victim.
- Effectively use a compass, GPS, cell phone or VHF radio.
- Find and pull the grab loop on your sprayskirt under water.
- Turn on a headlamp, strobe light or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).
- Find and use the release tab on your tow rope when you’re upside down.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, a lot of these tasks require manual dexterity, something that can be compromised in a number of ways:
Cold water can numb your hands to the point where they no longer function. In other words, you can wind up completely helpless even though the rest of your body is toasty warm inside a drysuit. If you’re having a ‘bad day’, this can happen in under a minute. To visualize this, imagine trying to kayak with boxing gloves on your hands.
Not wearing enough thermal protection can result in your entire body getting cold. One way your body defends itself in the face a cold challenge is reducing the flow of warm blood to your hands and feet – that’s why they’re generally the first parts of your body to become uncomfortably cold.
Putting on thicker gloves or mittens won’t help. You can only solve that problem by increasing insulation and conserving more body heat. Wrist seals that are too tight can also reduce circulation to your hands. Wearing thicker neoprene gloves or mitts can reduce tactile sensation and dexterity to the point where it’s very difficult or impossible to perform certain tasks.
A lot of paddlers recommend using ‘pogies’ to keep your hands warm.
Pogies are basically a fingerless, tube-like mitten, made of fabric or neoprene, which wraps around the paddle shaft. Invented
by Bonnie Losick way back in 1974, pogies were an immediate hit with whitewater paddlers because they offer both protection and direct hand contact with the paddle.
At first glance, Pogies certainly seem more straightforward than spending a lot of time practicing and getting used to doing everything while wearing neo hand protection, and many sea kayakers have mistakenly concluded that pogies are an ideal solution for open-water paddling. However, as you’re about to find out, if you have to do anything with your hands other than hold the paddle, pogies have a very significant disadvantage, and for sea kayakers, it’s a whopper. Here’s the classic, textbook example:
May, 1987, Sand Island, Apostle Islands Area, Lake Superior
The incident began when Greg Martin, an experienced paddler, capsized in large, confused seas about 100 yards off a point of Sand Island. There had been morning snow flurries, the air temperature was 35-40F (2-4C), and the water temperature was in the low 40s (5-6C). Although he was wearing a perfectly good drysuit with plenty of protection underneath it, the only thing protecting his hands were pogies. Following his capsize, Martin was unable to roll up, which forced him to remove his hands from the pogies in order to pop his sprayskirt and bail out.
Although he was able to re-enter his boat within five minutes using a paddle float, he had to do the entire self-rescue with his bare hands exposed to the cold air and water. During that short time, they became so cold that he was unable to reattach his sprayskirt. Without the skirt, every wave washed into the cockpit and pumping was useless. Pushed by the wind and waves, Martin’s beloved Nordkapp was heading for what proved to be a very destructive rendezvous with sea cliffs and he prudently chose to swim an alternate route to shore.
By themselves, pogies can really let you down. For sea kayakers, it’s better to get used to wearing neo gloves or mittens. If you want to use pogies, use them in conjunction with neo gloves – for example, wear thinner neo gloves underneath the pogies. Mountaineers have been doing this for decades with fabric gloves and mittens – it’s essentially a layered system of hand protection.
Mastering the mummy roll
The sensory confinement and increased buoyancy of cold weather gear can be disorienting, particularly when trying to roll. If you’re going to paddle on cold water, it’s a very good idea to practice cold water rolls and rescues in benign conditions close to shore until you’ve worked out any bugs in your system.
Help us stop death by cold!
Roughly nine out of ten open water paddling fatalities are the result of cold water immersion – a tragic situation that takes the lives of hundreds of paddlers each year. It doesn’t have to be that way, and this is your chance to do something about it.
Support the National Center for Cold Water Safety. You can make a contribution online at www.coldwatersafety.org
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