A storm had come through the previous night, battering the windows with sleet, covering the ground with a layer of slushy snow, and another storm – a bigger one – was on its way. But for a few hours anyway, the air temperature would rise above freezing, and this happened to coincide with high tide: a perfect opportunity for a quick paddle. I got into my gear as quickly as I could and headed-out.
It has been awhile since I’ve written much about the measures I take before I feel adequately prepared to paddle on a day with both air and water temperatures in the mid-thirties, but it’s certainly worth mentioning every once in awhile that I don’t take the risks lightly, and I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone else to either. But it seems that some do. Two weeks ago, the Coast Guard rescued a man who had capsized his kayak off of Kittery. Somehow, when we read such accounts it is unsurprising that he wasn’t wearing a lifejacket and that his cold, wet clothing was cut from him before he could be treated for hypothermia and shock. Of course he was lucky just to survive.
It’s the sort of story that makes the news and gets the general public thinking that kayakers aren’t too clever. I won’t make any assumptions beyond the bare facts in the Coast Guard’s report, but any time I hear about a mishap like this I have this vague fear that among the paddler’s gear they’ll find a soggy copy of my guidebook (with the entire Introduction completely unread, of course). I have also been concerned that someone might have read my blog, said ‘that looks like fun’ and gone-off to try it themselves.
Part of the reason I shy away from writing about gear or how to acquire skills is that I feel strongly that this is something best learned first-hand, in person, rather than reading about it or from videos. Sure, I can tell you what gear I use, but I’d hate to give the impression that it’s all you need. And if you take a class or get coached by a knowledgeable instructor, you’ll learn about these things.
I think I worried more about the example I set in the earlier years of this blog, before Facebook became saturated with photographs or videos of paddlers taking what might appear to be baffling risks, often with no context at all to give the viewer some idea whether this were something they should try at home or not, or what the paddler did to be safe – or not. At least I try to put things in context. But I’ve also tended more toward trying to convey the experience, rather than the ‘how-to’ aspect of kayaking. And again, the Introduction to my guidebook covers quite a bit, and I’m not fond of repeating myself. Really, I recommend it.
But at the risk of repeating myself, here are a few points about the paddling I do in the winter in Maine. Really, these are all things to consider no matter the season, but in the winter, my attentiveness to risk management is greatly elevated, and I pay particular attention to the following concerns: timing my trip, relaxing my ambitions, choosing less consequential locations, and of course, before all of those considerations, I need the skills and gear.
1) I choose my days carefully. For this reason, I avoid putting some random Saturday on the calendar and inviting friends for a trip that we’ll take that day, regardless of the conditions. I constantly watch the weather, looking for windows of opportunity. Everyone has their own standards, but in the winter, I’m looking for minimal wind and air temperatures around freezing or above. Bonus if the sun is shining – it keeps you warmer. It helps that my winter schedule is fairly loose, but I think it’s a bad idea to get your heart set on a particular day and being tempted to stick with it, even when you know you shouldn’t.
2) My ambitions tend to be scaled-back quite a bit from what I do in warmer weather. Usually, I’m happy just to get out for a short paddle – maybe one or two hours. My hands and feet don’t have much chance to get cold. I tend to get chilled when I get out for a break, so it helps to just avoid breaks and keep paddling. You can certainly go for longer days, but you need to be vigilant about throwing-on extra layers, bringing warm drinks, etc. I don’t often drive very far to go paddling in the winter. (In fact, when it’s cold I pretty much only drive to the pool).
3) Most of my winter excursions tend to be in more sheltered areas that I’m very familiar with. Again, we’re fortunate to be in a good spot here on Greenlaw Cove, but when winds pick-up, it can be very sheltered here.
Beyond those are the more usual concerns about skills and gear, in that order, which apply to the rest of the year, but become more consequential as the air and water turn colder. These are simple facts; it’s fairly straightforward. If you tip over in 37-degree water (as it is here now) and you fail to roll and can’t get back into your boat quickly, things may go downhill for you very quickly, even if you’re wearing all that fancy gear we put so much faith into. And that’s assuming that the cold water hasn’t triggered a gasp reflex (it’s really better to avoid capsizing). You need to be absolutely confident in your rescue skills and in those of anyone with whom you paddle.
Much could be written about gear, but I’ll just list what I wore Wednesday as an example. The drysuit is the crucial element, and I adjust the layers underneath depending upon the weather. Underneath I wore wool socks, wool baselayer (top & bottom), thin synthetic pants and 2 more upper body layers (1 wool, 1 fleece). I wear various neoprene gloves, mittens and pogies, but yesterday I was fine with a pair of NRS Rogues. Since last winter I’ve been wearing thick, 6.5 mm diving boots made by Xcel, and my feet have always been warm. On my head I wore a neoprene beanie made by Hyperflex. These beanies have become a favorite piece of year-round kit, and I’ll write a bit more about some that I’ve tried in another post.
One of my big questions before I launch is how many layers I’ll need on top. Yesterday, with 3 layers plus the drysuit (and lifejacket) I was hot within five minutes. But the air temps stayed in the low to mid-thirties and the wind picked-up into the teens, and I was glad to have the extra layer. My gloves were a little damp and my fingertips may have been mildly numb by the time I returned. If I’d been concerned I could have added pogies, or switched to a heavier glove or mitt. Of course I also carried with me all my usual back-up gear, radio & cell phone, storm cag, etc.
But part of the reason I shy-away from getting too gear-focused is that it’s easy to start regarding your gear like a suit of armor that will protect you no matter what. People put on a helmet and seem to forget that it won’t prevent you from breaking an arm or getting your face impaled by a broken paddle shaft. And even in a drysuit, that water is freakin’ cold. Which leads me back to skill. Whether or not you get out on the ocean this time of year, it’s a good time to hone your skills in the warm water of a swimming pool.
Oh, and the whole paddling alone issue. I’m confident in my abilities in the situations I get myself into. But as a human I’m prone to error and I have come to the realization, mid-paddle, that I could be getting into a situation that I can’t get out of. That’s a bad feeling, and I really recommend that you avoid it. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but my skills are well above average and I practice frequently – a good combat roll in chaotic surf and tidal currents that I’ve been able to test many times, and I seldom swim. But everybody swims sometime, and failing to think about what will happen when you do could be fatal hubris. Cold air and water only decrease the odds of a happy outcome.
Again, there’s a section in my guidebook about solo paddling and group dynamics. If there’s some doubt in your mind about your abilities should anything go wrong, either don’t launch or change your plans. In addition, don’t subscribe to the ‘safety in numbers’ myth. That’s a whole other can of worms. If you’re relying on someone else, make sure they know it and they’re worthy of your trust. Two moderately-skilled paddlers vaguely relying on each other are less safe than a skilled paddler relying on no one but himself, but with a realistic sense of limits.
Rant over: back to ‘the experience of paddling’. Right. Well, it was a nice paddle, not much to say about it really. An hour and a half: along Shore Acres Preserve and around Campbell Island. Some ice floes, which are cool to paddle among. It makes you feel like Nanook or some Arctic explorer as you weave among the ice. A bit of wind in the face for the return stretch. It just felt good to get out. And then the real storm came.
But then again, you could just wait for the ocean to freeze, strap-on some snowshoes and walk over the ice at low tide.
It's worth pointing-out that some of these photos were taken from shore, on days when I wasn't even considering getting on the water (or the ice, as the case may be). And thanks to Rebecca for the shots she took of me from the porch, when she was recuperating.