Saturday, January 24, 2015

Winter Paddling & Cold Water Paddling

In winter, the water is cold. Hence, most people conflate the two: when we talk about cold water paddling, people often think of winter. However, the two are separate yet related.

Following some discussion with my paddle-mates and my coach, I thought it would be helpful to share some of our experiences and research.

Cold Water
Cold water paddling can occur year-round, depending on location. In more northern climes, water may be technically cold (less than 62 F) year-round, and colder in periods shortly before and after winter. Paddlers in Scotland, Maine, and the Pacific Northwest wear paddling suits or drytops year round, because the water rarely exceeds the 50s F.

Cold water paddling can occur when the air is relatively warm. The challenge there is keeping dry, and warm in the event of immersion, but not overheating while paddling. I've run into this in April and October, when the seasons change.

One common anecdote is that the months of early Spring - March and April in the northern hemisphere, September and October in the southern hemisphere - are the most dangerous, because casual paddlers assume warming air temps belie warmer water temps. In fact, the water takes longer to warm, and to cool, with the seasons. Paddling seasons extend into the fall, but don't really start till the end of spring, in most locations.

The challenges in cold water paddling are managing hypothermia and cold shock. In water, we lose heat twenty-five times faster than in air. Cold water exacerbates the issue, and even out of the water, being wet continues to chill us. Cold shock occurs when we are suddenly cold, and gasp in shock: not a good thing to do underwater. Staying dry, having the tools to get dry and warm up, and avoiding situations that could put us in danger, are key. Going out in a group is preferred; with three or more, one person can support a casualty while the third raises help.

Paddling and immersion in cold water have non-catastrophic effects as well. Cold hands lose dexterity, making it harder to operate things like: hatch covers, carabiners, ropes, mobile phones and radios, and fasteners on PFDs. This can make rescues and self-rescues challenging. Pulling your self up on your back desk, or scooping a buddy, can be more difficult when your fingers can barely bend.

In winter paddling, all the challenges of cold water are present, compounded by additional factors. The water is relatively very cold - water temperatures in New York City have recently dropped below 40 F. The air temperature is even less forgiving, dropping into the 20s F, or lower on bad days. Wind compounds this. An unfortunate paddler who gets wet will be very cold in and out of the water.

On our last trip, I felt sufficiently warm, but I had more layers than I've ever worn before underneath my drysuit. The air temperature was 26F and the water was 39F, with winds from the SSW less than 5 mph. I had a light sweating layer, a one-piece wicking layer, wool pants, a synthetic long-sleeve running top, and a heavy wool sweater - that's one thin layer and two thick layers for my whole body, with a USMC surplus sweater on top. On my head I had a balaclava, and on my hands I had gloves covered by pogies.

Balaclava, after immersion in December 2014.

With all this I was actually comfortable, but I could still feel the cold - and this was on a nice, sunny day. On the way back, the wind picked up just a little bit, and the sun sank lower in the sky, and I was starting to feel a chill as we approached Pier 40. If Id been out much longer I would have been too cold to do much of anything.

While I haven't done immersion in January, I did in December, when the water was warmer by about seven degrees Fahrenheit. I was good for about two or three dunkings, but believe me I felt it. Practicing rescues for speed might seem like a lark on flatwater in summertime, but in the winter, getting someone out of the water quickly is vital.

Another hazard with winter paddling is ice. There wasn't any ice on the river itself in our last trip, but this time last year there was - and I didn't go out for the hazard. On this last trip, we observed thin, breakable ice in the marina.

Here is a great writeup on winter paddling:

And for ice, in particular:

The hazards with ice have to do with propulsion and entrapment. I've seen firsthand that when the water is full of ice, you're paddling less than poling through the water. Entrapment works horizontally and vertically - you might navigate into an area that is later blocked off by ice, and in the event of capsize, you might find yourself inches from the surface but trapped by a sheet of ice.

These are extreme examples, but real possibilities. Most terrible incidents on the water are a result of bad judgment: over-estimating skills, or under-estimating nature. To quote one of the instructors I've worked with, "nature will win.". All we can do as paddlers is negotiate the margin of that win.

Ice can also form on your gear. While it's worth a giggle, it could be problematic if you actually needed it.

Spare paddle and stirrup pump encased in ice.

Hatch cover with ice.

I kit out a contact tow, and what I noticed was that the entire slipknot was covered in ice, making it hard to pull loose, even once we'd landed and were undressing our boats to put away. Next time, I'll use a longer lead, and consider a thicker line that will be easier to grab when I can't close my fingers easily.

I posted a note once to a club about winter paddling, and one of the responses was, essentially, why take the risk? The point here is not the emphasize dangers, or to "scare straight" anyone interested in cold water or winter paddling.

Cold water is simply a fact of life in some places - you won't paddle at all if you can't manage the temperature. Winter paddling has its own charms, much in the same way as snowshoe hiking or mountaineering do. Being properly prepared is simply the bar for admission.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Winter Jaunt

I went on a little jaunt with my good friends Val Storfer and Johna Johnson on Saturday. While the air temperature was 26 F, there was little wind, and it was sunny. We went across the river to Morris Canal and back.

Johna wrote a great writeup on her blog - which is a great blog in general, full of amazing kayak adventures the likes of which the cowgirl only aspires to. We'd all been off the water a while, so a little trip like this one was perfect.

Here's a little video I slapped together.

When we got back, we found out hatches, lines, and spare paddles covered in ice - potentially a problem had we needed o use any of them. I'll be doing a little research on how to better prepare for icy conditions. Cold water is once thing, but ice is a whole 'nother element to content with in winter paddling.


Winter is here, and that means all manner of kayak pool sessions. There's at least four I can think of in the NYC area, and I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting at least two. I got invited along to two on the same day, because hey - this cowgirl is popular. Despite icy sidewalks and a numbing winter's rain, I made it downtown by 0830 to catch the carpool (poolcar?) to the first session, put on by New York Kayak Polo, in a small community college in Jersey City, NJ.

Kayak Polo, commonly known as canoe polo in some parts of the world, is pretty much what it sounds like: polo, but played in kayaks. Simplified versions get played in camps and clubs, often in whitewater boats, but it's a discipline of its own, with its own kind of boat, reversible PFDS (to make team-matching easier on the fly) and faceguards over the helmets.

It's as insane to describe as it sounds to the non-paddling laity.The idea is, you are in large swimming pool, lined up as two teams of 4-5 players with substitutes, and the teams compete to lob a ball into a goal on either end of the pitch. You can only hold the ball fore five seconds before either passing or dribbling - which means tossing the ball forward and paddling after it. You cannot paddle and hold the ball.

New York Kayak Polo, January 2015

It's an exciting game and it really got the cowgirl's blood flowing after two weeks of behind down and out with an awful, coughing cold. I even managed to make a goal! I am thankful for my friend who nudged me to go when I considered backing out. I met up with other people in the community whom I haven't seen in ages, including D&O, two friends I made last summer on a trip to Sedge Island.

They were heading up to an afternoon pool program not far from where I live, so I took them up on an offer to go along and have some fun there. It's a more open-ended program, where we get to practice on our own a bit before instructing newcomers. So, I worked a bit on my rolls, and also took a shot at learning a hand roll. I have a long way to go on that. But, I'm happy to say, I managed hanging draws in whitewater boats with a Greenland paddle. I found it a lot easier to slice forward than with a euro blade.

That was easily twice as much paddling as I intended for the day, and couple with a weekend jaunt the day before, I was plumb tuckered Monday. So 2015 is off to a good start. As slack as I've felt, I've kept paddling, at least once a week on average.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Let It Snow

By the time I got to the boathouse, my enthusiasm was already flagging. In the course of a half-hour walk from my home, the snow had turned from big, beautiful puffy crystals to a sort of driving hard mist; the technical term is, "wintry mix", I believe. The current was strong, just an hour after max ebb, and I thought perhaps I should go home and make a cold winter's day of it.

I'm glad I didn't. While I was out on the water, the weather changed yet again, and when I looked up at the Henry Hudson bridge, I saw those big poofy crystals coming down at me, occluding an already cloudy sky.

Originally, this day was meant to be one for cold water rescues at the shop. We had students lined up and the weather was promising. The snow did not come until the afternoon, and in any case the main concern was wind - very low. But, for a variety of reasons, class was canceled, so I was left wondering when I'd paddle next.

I also picked up a new set of paddle jammies - for the most part, the sort of clothing layers worn underneath a drysuit. I've been able to get by with a mix of running clothes and wool, but now I've got proper wicking - at least the brochures say so. So, getting on the water was a good way to test my new gear.

Neither the water temperature nor air temperature were terrible. The water has only now gotten down to 40 F or so, and the air was in the 30s. The snow was coming due to colder temps at higher altitudes and high moisture. In fact, more amazing than the snow was the fog that came and went over the river.

Because of the fog, I didn't cross, but rather paddled north against the current to Spuyten Duyvil. I have to say, after three weeks off the water, not to mention a festive holiday diet, it took a while to find my big muscles again, but eventually I did - and right about then was when the weather turned pretty again.

I stopped by the Spuyten Duyvil station for Metro North and watched a train pull in, then pull out. I padded through the north channel of the Harlem's mouth into the Hudson, past old piling and into the fog before heading back towards shore. I pointed my camera forward, back at me, up at the sky. It was just tremendous how beautiful it was. Being overcast and foggy, I could feel the snow but only see it when it passed in front of something with contrast. Inwood Hill looked lit up with broadcast static as I floated south with the current.

I saw two swans, beautiful birds who have made the environs around La Marina their home. I saw no boat traffic, not even a barge or police boat. I'd seen those earlier downtown, but not out now. I considered paddling down to the George Washington Bridge but then though better of it. The wind was picking up and the snow was fading, and I didn't want to paddle against current with no real purpose. I landed, put everything away, and came home. One thing I'll say for paddling in the snow - or rain for that matter - washing the boat is easy, just turn it upside down, let precipitation accumulate, then sponge it down.

One thing I ought to mention about paddling alone in January - I had a very cautious float plan. For the most part I was never more than ten yards from shore, I was dressed for immersion, I had hot tea, and a radio, and I was in familiar waters. Conditions were actually quite light, other than a strong (but weakening) current, with winds around 6 MPH. Paddling during snow is beautiful, and fog is always sublime. You can be the only person in the world, witnessing how well thing get on without people. Well, maybe not the train, but still: it was beautiful.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Winter Troupe

It was cloudy, nothing but clouds overhead, with predictions of 100% rain in the afternoon. "Cats and Dogs," said the trip leader, "this afternoon all hell will break loose." We planned to be back before then. With almost no wind, today was going to be a good day for a trip north, practicing skills along the way. This was a trip out from the shop at Pier 40, with two clients and three coaches.

We left about two and a half hours after high tide at the Battery, meaning we'd have mostly slack on the way up - a good way to gauge un-assisted speed of our students.

Just north of Pier 40, on the right edge of photo.

Paddling north was fairly uneventful; it may not have looked like it but it was a brilliant day. With almost no wind, and little traffic, we could practice some of the more fiddly stokes, like hanging draws and draws on-the-move.  Our clients worked on edging and bow rudders.

Sauntering past Pier 76, or about 36th street.

It was a relatively warm day for winter - air temperatures in the high 40s. The water temperature was 47 - cold, but not terrible to touch.

Nonetheless, we did not see a lot of riverfront pedestrian traffic, just a couple of fishermen.

Circle Line terminal, around 40th street.

On the calendar this was a trip to the Intrepid, NYC's retired aircraft that is now an "air/sea/space museum". The giant box on the deck is temporary cover for a space shuttle. I made my usual joke about it being the one with low miles.

The Intrepid, viewed from a kayak on the river.

Since our group was doing well speed-wise, we pressed on to Pier 96, only a few blocks further north, past the cruise ship terminals.

Pier 96 Embayment.

We took some water and took in the view before deciding to head back. By the time we were heading out, a thick fog had rolled in, and hose with lights switched them on.

Then came the rain.


It came hard, pelting our boats and even the water rather loudly. I pulled up the brimmed hood of my drysuit. The rain wasn't bad; wind would have been worst. It lasted about ten minutes, and both the rain and the fog rolled away by the time we were past the Intrepid.

Tailgating, Kayak-style.

On the back we had our students practice edging and using edging to steer their boats. One of them had a habit of stern rudders to keep straight, and the other would do a sort of reverse-sweep/pry move that just completely killed momentum. Edging is a great way to make course corrections on the move, while still propelling the boat forward.

Actually, edging is good for a lot of things. That is just one of them.

Almost back.

When we got back to the Pier 40 embayment, we didn't go straight in. These guys are signed up for a rescue class later this winter, so we're taking as many opportunities as we can to let them practice. That requires a victim, and so the trip leader (who is also the head coach) asked me if I was prepared to get wet.

Well, I had been on the fence about attempting a roll, but sure, this cinched it.

We picked a rescuer, and I did a roll. The water was noticeably cold, and when I came up, I needed a moment to let the ice-headache effect wear off. It's only going to get colder, and I have a goal of rolling in the Hudson at least once a month this year. I'm building up a tolerance.

With that out of the way, I capsized and exiting the boa. My rescuer came over and performed a pretty decent rescue, talking me through a heel-hook. At one point, hanging on to the stern of his boat, I made a semi-faux grimace at the cold to one of the other coaches, but indicated I was OK. I have learned that its better to float my entire body on the surface. Among other things, the water is warmer than five feet below!

After talking though improvements he needed for the rescue, we had that student go in and the other rescue him. The main note for both was paddle management, and also boat control - using deck lines to dump, right, and put the boat where it needs to be for the rescue as quickly as possible.

I'll tell you, speed is key when the water is cold.

I went in one more time for the lead instructor to demonstrate a good rescue. After that, we were done - a good thing because I was ready for hot tea.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Drysuit Paddling

The first thing I feel is the impact of the water. If I'm perfectly lined up it's on my shoulder; if not, I take it on the cheek, cool brackish water slapping me in the face.

Then I'm under, and I feel my drysuit crinkle around me, air rushing to my arms and legs. I pull myself over and then sweep myself up.

Or, if I'm practicing re-entry and roll, I'm out of the boat, my feet in the cockpit while I sort my paddle, my legs inflated with whatever air was in the suit, and then I take a breath, stuff myself back in, assume the position, and roll on up. After than I'm sitting in six inches of water and wondering if I should even bother wringing my hair out.

At the shop, some of our students and other clients bought drysuits and have asked to continue paddling into the winter. So we've had a gradual introduction to drysuit paddling. For the record, the water temperature has been in the 50s Fahrenheit and dropping, yesterday 54 F.

Here are my observations.

Entering and Exiting the Suit: It's important to check and double-check all zippers; it isn't difficult to leave that last half inch open. Be sure to grab and hold open the gaskets and not just poke through them. Absolutely bilge the suit of internal air, not just before going out but every couple of hours if possible.

We had one student who, on a wet exit drill, could not get completely over because he had so much air in his suit. This made getting out of the boat difficult, flopping around like a fish until his legs were free.

Range of Motion: Drysuits allow for a range of motion, but do make the paddler bigger all around. I have to adjust my PFD sizing when I go to the drysuit, and I feel like I fill my boat more than I do in the summer, wearing only sandals and rash guards. I notice this the most getting in and out of the boat.

Temperature Management: This might be the biggest topic so I'll give it several grafs.

First of all drysuits keep you dry; they do not keep you warm. A drysuit is essentially a Ziploc bag shaped like a person, or a drybag for people. To stay warm, wear layers underneath.

One challenge in this part of the season, and in early spring, is that the air and water temperatures are very different: yesterday the water was in the 50s but the air was in the 30s, low forties by the time we were on the water. In the spring it's the opposite: the air warms up to the 60s but the water is still in the 50s, leading people to underestimate the potential risks.

On top of that, being on the water, and immersion in water, tends to be colder than street weather. Without protection, humans lost heat twenty-five times faster in water than in air. Even fully layered and in a drysuit, that water felt colder than the air did on land yesterday. Even out paddling, the proximity to water, with exposure to the wind, makes it feel colder.

Last weekend, one of the other students felt overheated as we talked through the float plan in the cozy confines of the classroom. He disappeared for a bit and, as we learned later, stripped down to his trunks. When he capsized later, he felt it. He was not in long enough for it to be debilitating but he was longing for his layers.

Second of all, drysuits work in both directions: as you paddle, you're going to sweat, and that sweat isn't going to leave the suit. So, however many layers you wear, you'll want to make sure you've got something that will carry that moisture out away from your body. Most athletic wear does this, and drysuit manufacturers have their own lines of products meant specifically for this in drysuits.

What you want to avoid is a scenario like the following: It's cold, so you dress warmly. You paddle for an hour, and then the day turns sunny. Now you're hot and sweaty and beginning to wonder if the drysuit was overkill. Then you stop for lunch, clouds obscure the sun, and now you're cold and clammy until you start paddling again.

So, layers: stay warm, manage moisture, and practice gradually.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cold Water Paddling

I sent an email to my club recently about cold water paddling. Given we're expecting a blast of cold this weekend, I figure I ought to cross-post here.

A lot of risks can be mitigated with a cautious float plan, gentle conditions, and going out in a group. Being able to self-rescue and rescue quickly help too.

You want to dress for the water, but be aware of what’s going on in the air as well. Once you’re wet, a steady breeze will chill you. Keep a paddling jacket handy just in case it gets wet and it’s windy. 

Bring hot tea in a thermos that will keep it hot. Future you will thank present you. Hot chocolate is good too. 

You lose body heat about 25x (twenty-five times) as fast in the water as you do in the air. So, if the water temperature if 56 degrees and it takes you two minutes to get back in your boat, imagine wearing what you are wearing if you stood outside for about an hour. Next, imagine being wet afterwards, losing heat at your normal rate.

Wear synthetic materials or wool. Wear layers. Start with something that will wick up sweat underneath, with additional material in the middle, and a windproof shell as your outermost layer. Bring spare clothes to change into later, either optionally or as necessary.

If the water temperature is:
  70s F  - rash guard; swimsuit
  60s F - neoprene or similar insulation
  Below 62 F - wetsuit
  Below 50 F - drysuit

Drysuits keep you dry; they do not keep you warm. You will need to layer up underneath it just as you would for a walk in the park.

I get cold pretty easily so I end to progress sooner; your mileage may vary. I switch to a drysuit sooner because 1) I have one and 2) it simplifies everything. 

The water temperature last night at Battery was 55 F. After Thanksgiving it will probably drop below 50F, then to the mid-thirties in January and February, and not above 50F until the very end of April. The anecdote is that there are more cold water incidents in April than any other month because the weather is nice, but the water is still crackin’ cold. Even in June it’s in the mid-sixties.

There is no reason to be afraid of cold water paddling. It’s quite nice and a nice contrast to summer. Safe paddling is all about risk management. Use your judgment, learn from others, and build experience.