If you’re thinking what a wonderful time you had paddling your kayak last summer and how you’d like to extend that experience into fall, winter and spring, you came to the right place. The key word about winter kayaking is respect – respect for your own capabilities and respect for winter conditions, wind, waves and temperature. Keep in mind that sea water below 60 degrees F. is considered cold water. Your hypothermia risk increases exponentially as water temperatures drop from 60 degrees to below 45 F. There are things you can do to make the warm-to-cold water transition almost seamless.
• Have a hard look at your limits. Most of us are not expert paddlers. How strong a paddler you are, how rough the water is and how windy it is will guide you about how far from shore you should venture.
• Depending on the type of kayak you use, you will need to know how to get back on your sit-on-top or do an Eskimo roll if you are in a sit-in kayak with a spray skirt.
• Even very experienced paddlers will tell you they don’t go out alone in winter conditions. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.
• Just before you start out and while you are out, keep a watchful eye on the wind and weather conditions.
• Bring a Personal Locator Beacon and a cell phone so they can find you if you need to be rescued.
• Watch a video or participate in a class to learn kayak rescue techniques.
• Wear your life jacket when you start your trip, keep it on unless you stop on an island to eat lunch, and only take it off after you return from your trip.
• Almost as important as the life jacket is the paddle leash that keeps your paddle from taking off by itself.
• Once assembled, put your whole winter kayaking outfit on before the day of your first trip. This is the time when there’s no rush to leave, that you can make all the adjustments in the fit of your life jacket to accommodate the extra layers if you’re wearing a drysuit and the wetsuit jacket and drytop if you go with a wetsuit combination.
• Dress for water temperatures and possible immersion, not the air temperature.
• Decide what is the most comfortable clothing for you.
• Learn how to maintain your winter kayaking clothing.
A really important part of cold water kayaking for me was how comfortable I’d be for the five or six hours I’d be wearing the wetsuit or drysuit. It’s not a fun trip if you’re cold or overheated or the neck gasket grabs your throat when you sit down. We used to tread for clams from April to November and already had both wetsuits and drysuits. A quick run-through of the advantages and disadvantages of both might keep you from buying something that wouldn’t work for you.
Wetsuits are a lot less expensive than drysuits and can be used as separates. Depending on the season and water temperature, you could combine wetsuit shorts or waist pants or a Farmer John (sleeveless with full legs) with a short sleeve or long sleeve wetsuit jacket. A 3 mm Farmer John wetsuit will cost in the neighborhood of $100 to $150. It will be stretchy, comfortable and move with you if it’s a good fit. All the wetsuit components are close fitting but do not make you feel claustrophobic. The neoprene fabric of wetsuits resists abrasion and rough treatment. On a cold day you can wear a drytop over your wetsuit that seals your neck, wrists and hips but is not constricting because it’s only a top.
Wetsuits are rated as “good” until the water temperature goes below 50 degrees F. On really cold days in the upper 30s and low 40s, I wear a 3 mm NRS Farmer John with a bathing suit and long sleeve rashguard shirt underneath, a long sleeve LL Bean wetsuit jacket and a drytop and have never felt cold. We always dressed at home, brought clothes to change into and drove to the launch site. After unloading the kayaks and setting them up with seatbacks, paddles, lunch, etc. we’d put the life jackets on, stow the phone and keys and leave, never having a chance to get cold.
Drysuits are expensive and more fragile than wetsuits. They run about $400 for an Henri Lloyd to about $1,000 for the Gore-Tex suits made by Kokotat and Musto. Gore-Tex is more expensive but worth it when you’re overdressed. Gore-Tex is a breathable fabric and allows the heat your body generates to pass through the fabric. The warranty on the Gore-Tex fabric is much longer than other fabric drysuits.
What people like about drysuits is that they can wear several layers underneath if the day is cold. The drysuit keeps you warm and dry. The drysuits have to be “burped” after zipping up to get the excess air out. The latex gaskets around the neck and wrists can be damaged by sunscreen, bug repellants and jewelry. The gaskets might be too tight on a new drysuit, but can be trained by treating them with a preservative like 303 and stretching them overnight. You can use a cup larger than your wrist and a bowl larger than your head. Zippers have be be treated with care – they are vulnerable, not repairable and very expensive to replace. McNett Zip Care will keep your drysuit zippers lubricated and 303 Protectant will keep the gaskets from drying out. There are sprays you can use to renew the drysuit fabric so it remains water repellant. When water no longer beads on the outside of your drysuit you’ll know it’s time to treat it with 303 High Tech Fabric Guard or RescueX.
Some of the drysuits come with feet and some don’t. NRS has a good selection of neoprene booties, gloves and hats. You can also go to stores like the Jersey Paddler to find them. Recently developed by some Ditch Plains cold water surfers in Montauk, are sox to wear under your booties. There are Wetsox and Therms. The Therms are a heavier, 1 mm poly/neoprene blend, warmer than the Wetsox, which are a 5 blend of poly and spandex. I just heard about these very recently and have not tried them.
Not included in the drysuit descriptions are the two piece, dry pants and drytops. People I know who wear them feel they are almost always watertight but if you wear a drysuit, unless you have a fabric failure or a gasket problem, they are always watertight.
Regular care and maintenance for both wetsuits and drysuits plus the hats, gloves and booties includes rinsing with fresh water after each use. It’s handy to have a year-round outside faucet. If you go on a trip and rent kayaks, they usually have the water on in the winter. If you bring your own kayaks, some motel owners will turn on the water for you. When your wetsuits and drysuits are completely dry, they should be stored in a cool, dry place. The metal zippers on drysuits should be stored open and the plastic zippers should be stored closed.
When you wear a drysuit the first layer closest to your skin, has to be a synthetic fabric – never cotton. This base layer will wick away any sweat or moisture. The next layer can be heavier, depending on how cold the day is. LL Bean and NRS are good sources for the polypropylene blended tops and bottoms you need under drysuits.
Before you make an expensive commitment to winter paddling by buying enough Gore-Tex, neoprene and polypropylene to stay warm and dry, talk to people who have been there and done that. The best places to find these people quickly is through the paddling groups on Long Island. You can find L.I. Paddlers when they meet at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Library or online at www.lipaddlers.org.
The Long Island Paddlers have November and December paddling events scheduled that include trips to Captree Island, the upper Carmans River, Jones Beach and a Christmas party. They tell you online about the couples who got together and married after meeting at L.I. Paddlers events. Single memberships cost $25.00.
North Atlantic Canoe & Kayak has winter events scheduled from January through March, including Huntington Harbor, Jones Beach, West Neck Beach to Lloyd Harbor and Moriches Bay to Cupsogue Park. Their memberships for singles cost $30.00. They can be reached at www.NACKinfo@optonline.net.
The advantages of joining a group for winter trips goes beyond the camaraderie and always finding someone willing to kayak. There is truly safety in numbers. People only become aware of the importance of having a trained leader along on a trip when an emergency arises and the leader knows how to handle it.
So, what will it take to get you out of that comfortable chair in front of the fireplace? Will it be the peace and quiet on the bay without the cabin cruisers and the jet skis, just the other paddlers and the seagulls, the promise of meeting new people with similar interests or the challenge of braving the weather to do something that seems like work and turns out to be fun?