Ask Capt. Gary
As the kids head back to school, summer moves into its unofficial end, even though some of the nicest weather to be on the water still lies ahead. This summer saw even more people paddling, so we’ve decided to revisit a column with a reader’s question about moving your paddling skillset up a few notches.
Q. I’ve paddled a sit-on-top kayak for the past two summers and have really gotten into the craft. I’d like to extend my paddling season and want to know what that would entail equipment wise? — JC via e-mail
A. I was a paddler for several years before I ever paddled in the summer months, so extending my paddling season was the reverse of yours, but I will tell anyone who paddles, that there’s nothing like being out on water in the cold months, as the crowds decrease.
The only other thing different is that I used a decked touring kayak, rather than a sit-on-top (SOT). Regardless, here is some stuff to consider.
If fishing is your main use, then I’d stay with the SOT rather than a decked boat; it will take you well into big striper season. If it’s general paddling, touring, gunkholing, etc., I’d definitely consider switching to a decked touring boat. Of course once you get into a decked boat, you’ve got to raise your skill level. Being able to right the craft, i.e., an Eskimo roll, comes to mind immediately, and you’ll want to have perfected that particular skill in warm water or in a pool. It’ll give you the confidence to range further afield.
That said, no matter what type boat you choose, you’ve got to dress for increasingly colder waters. And the colder the water, the more your time will be limited in an SOT, mainly because your butt is gonna’ be in the water.
A farmer john wetsuit is a basic, and — again, depending on water temps — the thicker the better. Paddling in the winter, even in a decked boat, your butt and heels/feet will get cold no matter what you’re wearing, but in a decked boat you’ll at least be — theoretically — dry.
As the waters cool and your length of exposure grows because you’re taking longer trips, etc., there comes a point when you should consider a drysuit for paddling. I’ve owned several different sport-specific kinds (for diving, sailing and kayaking, etc.), and don’t think there’s an overlap; so buy one designed expressly for kayaking. I prefer latex cuffs and neck seals as well as attached latex boots (with a wetsuit boot over it), on my drysuits.
Drysuits work on layering principles (wetsuits work on the principle of letting water in, and your body warming that water). First there’s a layer of wicking material (polypropylene, Capilene, Duofold, etc.) that moves sweat off your skin, then there’s an insulating layer (fleece, Malden’s Polartec, etc.) followed by a waterproof layer (i.e., the drysuit: Stohlquist, Kokotat, OS Systems, etc.).
I’m very partial to Gore-Tex, but there are several other breathable fabrics that are reportedly as good. This stuff lets accumulated moisture (sweat) out, and keeps water from getting in. And the system/concept works pretty well.
Today’s hi-tech fibers (and don’t use anything but hi-tech material) are thin enough to not bulk you out, and work well enough to keep you, if not toasty, at least comfortable no matter what the air or water temps are.
If you’re not going deep into coldwater season, the farmer john (5mm thickness) and a quality paddling jacket (made of same material as a drysuit) along with the wicking and insulating layer will handle the weather.
Depending on how far into the season you want to go, you’ll need something to keep your head warm (get something with earflaps if you’re going paddling when there’s snow on the ground) and make sure it, too, is hydrophobic (doesn’t like water).
One thing often overlooked are hands. If you’ve been paddling gloveless all the time, your forearms are used to gripping a specific circumference of paddle shaft. Add, say 3 or 5 mmm wetsuit gloves, and you’ve increased that circumference, and your forearms aren’t gonna’ like that. Best bet? Something called pogies. These attach to your paddle shaft, have insulation, and you simply (or not so simply) slide your hands in and grip your paddle shaft. It’ll be the best $30-$40 you’ll ever spent on paddling gear. If it’s really cold, you’ll want a thin glove liner at least … especially if you have an aluminum shaft paddle.
Speaking of … for coldwater paddling I recommend staying away from aluminum shaft paddles. If you’re at this stage of the game in your paddling life, you should have replaced that aluminum paddle a while ago, anyway, but if not, now’s the time. Wood, carbon fiber or fiberglass shafts are the way to go (and they’re all lighter, which will make a difference on a long day’s trip).
In New York waters (this should be a no brainer for paddlers, but needs to be mentioned, nonetheless!) you are required by law to wear a PFD/lifejacket in any boat 21 feet long or less from November 1 to May 31. I’d recommend not paddling without wearing a PFD in all but the most benign, waist deep waters all the time.
Instead of using whatever kind of PFD/lifejacket you have lying about, get a paddling-specific one. They’re high-waisted (especially important for deckboats), have large armholes, yet fit snugly.
Some more safety stuff to consider: Have a label on your kayak with your name, address, and a contact phone number on it. This is probably more important in “normal” paddling season when waterside-kept boats can drift away on the tide. It’ll save the Coast Guard and every other SAR organization time and money to not have to search for you while you’re home on the deck sipping a pina colada while your boat’s drifting about Long Island Sound.
In “off” season paddling, file a float plan with someone. This can be as simple as writing something on the fridge that states where you went paddling, where you intended to paddle to and how long you expect to be gone. This makes things a lot simpler for SAR folks or your panicky spouse/relative/etc. Of course if no one calls when you’re overdue for seven hours, I assume it’s because you have a helluva’ double indemnity life insurance policy.
Carry the appropriate signal gear. At least have a waterproof box with some flares and a handheld VHF (yes, you can carry your cellphone, but I hate cellphones).
Off season/winter paddling also is a good time to paddle with a partner. I realize it’s always a good thing to do, but … If you don’t have a partner, now’s a good time to join a paddling club to find one. Try Long Island Paddlers (www.lipaddlers.org); not only will you find like-minded folks, but also people who can help you raise your paddling skills, as well.
You also might want to look for a Paddle Smart class that your local US Power Squadron teaches. Go to www.usps.org/localusps/d3 for a listing of Long Island squadron Websites.
If you’re interested in serious off season paddling, winter is the time to do it (plus it kinda’ brings you closer to its Greenland/Arctic roots!), so have at it. There’s nothing like being on the water when few others are.
For the beginner through intermediate: The Complete Sea Kayaker’s Handbook, by Shelley Johnson. Look for the Second Edition. For the intermediate and above: Sea Kayaking: A Manual for Long Distance Touring, by John Dowd. This is an older book, but remains “the” treatise on serious expedition-style paddling.