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Ask Capt. Gary

February 3, 2017

 

While most people who are sane have their boats up on the hard, scallop season does start the first Monday of November, so there are plenty of we not-so-sane people with their boats still in the water or ready to get in the water come sunrise November 7, 2016. 

That being said, it’s time to reiterate my winter boating advice.

 

For starters, if your boat is under 21 feet, you need to be wearing a PFD/lifejacket until May 31. I wear a cat racing life jacket that provides the requisite flotation, has plenty of underarm room, and sits just about above my (now ample) stomach. Lots of freedom of movement and it helps keep you warm on those bad winter mornings until you can start working up a sweat pulling dredges.

 

Being on the water in the winter is pretty much all about how you do two things: stay warm and stay dry. 

My gear for the coldest weather is a wicking layer, a warm layer (tops and bottoms. I use PolarMax brand for both), then a waterproof layer (I use Grundens foul weather gear). 

 

Keeping your feet and hands warm can be difficult, but I use polypro socks with Dahlgren heavyweight socks over that and Xtratuf boots. My feet haven’t been cold since I bought the Xtratufs. One of the guys wears these super lightweight foam boots and swears by them — the only brand name ones I know of are Marlin Deck Boots; the winter ones come with a removable liner. Cost is about $50, so they may be worth taking a look-see. 

 

Xtratuf boots went through a period where they weren’t as good as they had been (they went offshore in 2011 or somesuch). As far as I know, the problems have been solved and the boots are back to their reliable best again. The insulated 12-inch boots run around $120 and they’re available with a steel toe. I swear by them. If you have really big calves, their fit may be problematic; I don’t. 

 

For gloves, I use the blue or orange insulated rubber ones that come up to about mid-forearm. If you can’t find them locally (I couldn’t) try Galeton (www.galeton.com). Buy a few pair (and always carry an extra set) and invest in or build a shoe/glove dryer. 

 

(I made my dryer out of some scrap plywood, glued-nailed into a more or less shoebox shape, put a salvaged computer fans on each end facing in, some 1 inch PVC piping, and wired the entire thing up to a AC/DC charger I had lying around. Put near a heat source (like baseboard heating or even a warm room. Works like a champ.)

You also gotta’ have a hat or hood. And some days — come around January or February — a facemask ain’t a bad idea. 

 

In the Water Gear

If you’re diving, a drysuit is the only way to go. I’ve used DUIs and Northern Diver suits in water from Labrador to the Falklands. I always hated drysuits … until I got one. There is absolutely no going back if you’re a winter-water diver. If you’re new to drysuit diving, take a class on using it … they’re a bit of a task load compared to a wetsuit.

If you’re a winter dinghy sailor or paddler, the drysuit is still the answer. I use an OS Systems suit that has lots of triple gusset joints and lots of double layering for wear (seat, knees, elbows, forearms) and gives great freedom of movement. It has latex gaskets, which really keep it sealed. Foot warmth is problematic in paddling, even in closed boats, and I’m sure it is in frostbite sailing as well. I’m open for suggestions there. Meanwhile I’ll continue to have cold feet even with 5mm wetsuit boots over the usual socks and latex.

As far as in-water clamming, I go with neoprene waders (Hodgman with Thinsulate lined boots), the PolarMax underlayers and Dahlgren socks. Invest in a good wind-and-water proof jacket (mine’s a Stohlquist paddling jacket). I like the latex sleeve cuffs. Surf fishermen have pretty nifty stuff that would work, but they seem pretty expensive — but if it keeps you warm and dry, it’s money well spent.

Wetsuit gloves are probably a best idea for your hands ... but bring other gloves and keep them in a dry bag, along with anything else that must stay dry.

 

Hypothermia

If you’re on the water in the winter the big killer — aside from good ol’ human stupidity — is hypothermia. Here’s what the Mayo Clinic has to say about it:

“Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F (37 C). Hypothermia (hi-po-THUR-me-uh) occurs as your body temperature passes below 95 F (35 C).

“When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can’t work correctly. Left untreated, hypothermia can eventually lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and to death.

 

“Hypothermia is most often caused by exposure to cold weather or immersion in a cold body of water. Primary treatments for hypothermia are methods to warm the body back to a normal temperature.”

Symptons include shivering; clumsiness or lack of coordination; slurred speech or mumbling; stumbling; confusion or difficulty thinking; poor decision making; drowsiness or very low energy; apathy or lack of concern about one’s condition; followed by a progressive loss of consciousness; weak pulse; slow, shallow breathing; followed by we-hope-you-had-life-insurance.

 

There’s something called the 1-10-1 principle of hypothermia. It’s based on some work done by a Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, (aka, Professor Popsicle) in Manitoba, Canada back in the late 90s. His test subjects were eight outdoorsmen and women who were in peak physical shape. If you’re like me you undoubtedly aren’t.

 

Their common denominator to survival was wearing a life jacket. Should I say that again, or do you get the idea? Here’s the 1-10-1 stuff:

1 — First minute of immersion in cold water: uncontrollable gasping and hyperventilation that quickly passes if you do not panic and concentrate on controlling breathing.

10 — Ten minutes of meaningful movement before incapacitation resulting in the inability to self rescue or [even] call for help.

 

1 — Even in ice-cold water, it will take approximately one hour before hypothermia creates unconsciousness and another hour before cardiac arrest. That’s a long time dying.

Remember this testing was done on people who were in peak fitness, so you can adjust that last “1” to something more pertinent to the physical shape you’re in.

If you’re out on the water in the winter wear a life jacket/PFD all the time, go out with a partner or have a kill switch, and have a damn good idea how you’re going to get back in the boat when you’re weighted down in gear, freezing and scared out of your mind.

Bottom line: Don’t fall in the water.

See those of you who go out between now and March on the water. 

See those of you who are sane in the spring!

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