By Mark Crame
One of the continual loop of questions to do the rounds across the internet forums is regarding paddle clothing; what to wear is every bit as important as what to paddle. Kayak anglers are well served in terms of choice but not all choices are suitable as sit on top paddlers are the most exposed of all kayakers. The usual advice is generally to dress for immersion and while this alludes to the issues of remaining safe if things go wrong it’s absolutely vital in so far as the lower body is concerned, as it will be immersed at times or for the duration of your trip. Though I will concentrate mostly on the sea, being less benign as far as environments go, similar conditions apply to the rivers and lakes and the temperature in water is almost always a few degrees lower down the scale.
A typical (sea) launch will see a minimum of water reaching up to knee height and any waves will splash or soak to the upper thighs at least. Those same waves will invariably wash over the bow on launch which will flood the paddler’s lap and until the water drains out through the scupper holes that feature (with varying degrees of practicality) on all sit on tops the chosen clothing will bear the brunt of the onslaught. All days are not created equal and a fine day in late summer is most definitely not compatible with an end of winter sea that’s been cooling down for months. So, dress for immersion.
It has always seemed that kayak anglers have tended to originate from anglers rather than kayakers. Most commonly they come from having their feet firmly on the ground though some boat anglers make the switch due to the ease of portability and access to shallower and/or tighter fishing marks. The first thing to mention is that the use of flotation suits is about the worst possible idea and waders aren’t really advisable either and while I regularly use paddle kit on boats there is little, if any crossover the other way! Think kayak. Think immersion.
I will keep repeating myself, as it is so important: dress for immersion! A PFD will keep the wearer afloat and offer some protection to the body core in terms of impact and insulation but will not keep hypothermia at bay and this is a killer. Water temperature is always colder than the surrounding air temperature and movement over the skin wicks heat away and even in the height of a British summer a pair of swimming trunks is not a sensible choice no matter how nice it seems on the beach. On the surface the paddler will be more exposed to an unobstructed wind too and this will also cool the body. A shirt would alleviate this but only on the surface; it will have no insulating properties once wet. There are many choices available to the paddler though some are of more use than others.
The first choice of many starter paddlers – reasonably cheap to buy, readily available and designed to work in water these would seem the obvious choice. Were the objective to be in the water or the expectation of regular immersion high then these would indeed be useful but they are not designed as surface wear on a kayak where a paddler might hope to remain. Cheaper multi-purpose wetsuits are not comfortable to wear over extended periods either, not being cut with paddling in mind and often having exposed stitching. A Farmer John wetsuit has its uses for summertime paddling, having a generous amount of space beneath the armpits while providing the desired insulation properties in a wet cockpit. Some high-end wetsuits, such as those designed for winter surfing with built-in insulation, are more suitable but still not as good as purpose-designed clothing and not necessarily any cheaper.
Cag and pants
A waterproof spray top combined with waterproof trousers, especially those sealed at neck, wrists and ankles will often be seen worn by sit-inside paddlers and would appear to be the ideal choice as a year-round option. However, while suitable on the surface any immersion will render it ineffective due to water gaining entry around the waist. With no spraydeck to keep this area covered and a cockpit open to the elements it serves only to keep the paddler comfortable during normal use as a windproof and spray-resistant layer. This combination does have its place in summer on calmer or more sheltered waters but should not be relied on otherwise.
For British kayak angling the first choice must always be a surface drysuit. Designed purely to keep the wearer dry in wet conditions, be it immersion or exposure to water, these provide a comfortable outer shell which is sealed at the neck and wrists with either latex (most watertight) or neoprene (most comfortable, especially glideskin) or a combination of both; some models have seals at the ankle though those supplied with either latex or waterproofed cloth built-in socks are preferable.
Surface drysuits differ from diving ones in that they have no purge valves, a different cut that is more generous towards arm movement and are generally produced from a breathable material. The latter allows the drysuit to be used year-round, as they have no real insulating properties, being merely a barrier between skin and water. This allows warm summertime paddling to be carried out without excessive discomfort with only a base layer (sufficient for surface and water temperatures) or harsh midwinter kayaking with multiple layers or insulated undersuits beneath it. This versatility, when utilised effectively, allows effective temperature regulation and will ensure the maximum chance of resisting hypothermia.
Bib and Brace
I can’t wait until spring; as soon as I hit my birthday at the end of March I’m thinking of leaving my drysuit behind and slipping easily into my bib and brace. No more neck or wrist seals, a lot less sweat, far more freedom…yet dry legs, back and most importantly feet. The dress for immersion rule is stretched inasmuch as I will get a soaking if I end up in the water however the parts of the body expected to be immersed in normal use, i.e. from feet to waist, are all protected from the water.
With a surface drysuit, it is easy to wear normal clothing underneath, subject to the time of year, and while a pair of jeans and a t-shirt isn’t the most suitable attire they are more than adequate for those quick sessions on the spur of the moment. For myself, a thin cotton base layer in summer gives way to a fleece one-piece undersuit in spring and autumn; when the temperature drops in the winter I curl up inside a diving undersuit, all with the same outer garment. From a single pair of thin cotton socks through to a couple of pairs of thick woollen boot socks (allow more space than you would in a pair of shoes) it is easy to remain comfortable year-round while on the kayak and protected from the cold to varying degrees if you should find yourself immersed.
Good footwear is vital. Consideration needs to be given both to shoreside and on-water use; transporting the kayak to the water’s edge may involve terrain such as sand, mud, shingle, grass, concrete or rocks and so a suitable sole that can cope with these multiple terrains, in regards to both support and grip, is necessary.
On the water other considerations come into play; the sole needs to be flexible and the whole boot must be suitable for immersion as well as being slim enough to fit comfortably within the available leg space. For warm waters, beach shoes or a short wetsuit boot are both of use while paddling though less suitable on dry land however neither will keep feet dry. A popular option for year-round use is a portage boot. These are often waterproof provided that they are not immersed over their tops (though they can be tightened to minimise leakage) and are full-length boots that cover the calf. Featuring a gripped sole they are hardwearing, comfortable and insulating.
Both types of boot can of course be worn over a drysuit and some models feature a sleeve, which lowers over the boot to the ankle thus minimising water ingress. One important factor to bear in mind is correct sizing. In the midst of winter feet get cold, suffering from permanent exposure to wind in an open cockpit (or the flow of water if keeping feet over the side) and so extra socks are likely to be worn (I typically wear a normal pair followed by one or two thicker pairs) beneath the drysuit sock and it is a good idea to order a pair a minimum of two sizes larger than would be normally chosen.
In bright conditions a peaked cap or hat, especially a lucky one, will keep the sun off your head and face and relieve some of the glare both from the sky and reflected from the water and neck protection flaps should also be considered in the midst of summer. In colder temperatures though a knitted cap is more suitable, especially as a large percentage of body temperature is lost through the scalp. In extreme temperatures balaclavas or headover-style head coverings come into their own and Russian-style Ushankas are a superb choice when anchored with the wind behind. Brightly coloured headgear also aids in increasing visibility on the water, the head being the highest visible point. Neck snoods covering the gap between drysuit collar and hat are also worth purchasing for the amount of increased comfort they provide.
Wind chill on the hands is a significant factor in a lack of comfort while paddling or sitting at anchor. Neoprene gloves or mitts are useful to keep the wind off and also provide insulation when wet, ensure that they are thin enough to maintain good contact with the paddle or fishing equipment and aren’t too tight around the wrists as this can restrict blood flow and increase discomfort. Open-palmed mitts are more useful for the kayak angler than pogies, which cover the hands while paddling but also allow skin-to-paddle contact and can be flicked off the fingertips to allow tackling and baiting up.
So what am I currently wearing each season?
Well, across the board a pair (or two) of heatholder socks over normal socks and a pair of size thirteen Palm Kola Portage boots (I take a size ten shoe normally). I will base this on summer and winter with spring and autumn being a mixture of the two dependant on conditions on the day.
Over a thin full-body under fleece (my children know that the current onesie fashion follows my lead!) I wear a Palm Ion bib and brace. This is described by Palm as a 3-layer combination pant and bib featuring waterproof relief zip and socks. When partnered with a twin-waist jacket this bib pant makes a two-piece immersion suit for all seasons. Features include 4D articulated cut XP4-layer socks with Nylon 320D soles, Velcro adjustable neoprene waistband, 1.5mm neoprene vest with adjustable braces, a vent mesh rear section, flexible TIZIP MasterSeal front relief zipper and reinforced seat and knees with reflective details.
If it’s cooler, windy, showers are expected or I have to launch or land through surf then I also wear a Palm Oceana Cag; a midweight, all-weather coastal touring jacket featuring a water-resistant inner collar that covers the lower face, adjustable and lined with fleece with breather holes and a zip on the neck to open for ventilation. The wrists have natural latex gaskets with adjustable outer cuffs, which are cut long to protect the back of the hands. Sleeves are pre-bent and there are no underarm seams. The storm hood can be adjusted as needs dictate and stored within the collar. There are water-resistant zipped pockets on the chest and right sleeve and the waistband can be adjusted with neoprene and Velcro. All seams are fully taped and the hood, cuffs and sleeves have reflective details. In saffron, this makes me highly visible to other water users. Headgear is a cap for protection from sun and glare that won’t make me overheat.
I‘m nice and snug at this time of year in my diver’s undersuit – when buying a drysuit ensure that you can fit comfortably while wearing more bulky clothing, can paddle comfortably and can still reach round to undo zips. The drysuit I wear now is the Palm Aleutian. Featuring natural latex gaskets at the neck and wrists with adjustable over cuffs, articulated sleeve panelling with no underarm seams, a flexible TIZIP SuperSeal across the shoulders and welded-in relief zipper. An adjustable storm hood designed to provide full movement when wearing a helmet underneath keeps the wind off.
Water-resistant zipped front and sleeve pockets allow me to carry spare kit and an adjustable neoprene waistband with asymmetric cut cinches everything tight. It also features an elasticated drawcord at the waist, seamless crotch and pre-bent knees, relaxed fit leg with Velcro adjustable cuff, cut-in 4-layer Cordura 330D material at the elbows, seat and knees and breathable XP 4-layer socks with Nylon 330D soles. There is reflective detail at the hood, neck, cuffs and ankles too.
Designed specifically for ocean use, the Aleutian provides protection, warmth, visibility and comfort. Again I have it in saffron for visibility; one of the major reasons for choosing this suit is the hood. With my back to the wind it provides enhanced protection and reduces heat loss through its windproof properties and of course the protection if it rains goes without saying. Standard wear is a neck snood and a knitted watch cap with a polar hood when it’s really cold.
Then it’s just the boots; I have been using Palm Kola touring boots for a few years now and wouldn’t settle for a shorter boot again. A knee length 5 mm neoprene touring boot they are comfortable waterproof and warm in cold conditions, have good grip with a medium-firm sole and include adjustable webbing closure, Velcro adjustable bridge and heel straps, glued blind-stitched and hand taped seams for strength and waterproofing, a reinforced bridge and toe area, low profile heel cup and a Smooth Skin lined opening.
This all adds up to me being comfortable and protected whatever the season and whatever the weather and whatever I’m doing whether fishing, paddling, surfing or even wading through chest-high water. There’s nothing to gain by scrimping and remember – dress for immersion!