Monday, February 18, 2013

Notes: Drysuit

I bought a drysuit this year. Not only did I buy a drysuit, but I bought a pretty high-end one. I got a good deal on it, as it was an older model, and also had some cosmetic blemishes that brought the price down close to the high end of my budget. I bought it not only because I wanted to paddle in winter, but to comfortably extend the ends of the paddling season into periods when the water would be cold despite reasonable air temperatures.

W hile there are many manufacturers, most have a light layer and a heavy layer of materials to choose from; in my case, I went with the heavy-layer Kokotat Gore-Tex Expedition WFR (Women's with Front Relief). It's essentially a (wo)man-shaped Gore-Tex bag with latex gaskets at the wrist and neck, and a heavy zipper running diagonally from the right shoulder the left waist. "These zippers are the same kind they use in body bags," said the man at the shop. He would know: He also works as an EMT.

Regardless of material, the idea of a drysuit is true across all models: to keep its wearer dry. A drysuit does not keep one warm; it only keeps one dry. It's like wearing a plastic bag. Staying dry in cold weather is imperative; humans lose body heat in water at a rate about 25 times faster than in air. That is, if you stop functioning after thirty minutes standing on the street at twenty-eight degrees F, then in the water, you would would last just over a minute. Furthermore, layers of clothes don't help in water much; you're still wet and losing heat. On top of all that, God help you if the wind picks up while you're wet. Wind chill can be deadly.

A drysuit's waterproof materials and gaskets keep the interior of the suit dry. Within the suit, one wears whatever layers will fit for comfort; in my case, some Kokotat wool pants, a light rash guard, and a heavy wool military surplus sweater. Sometimes, I wear another sweater underneath that. My feet have wool socks, inside Gore-tex "socks" that are just footies built in to the suit. I wear paddling boots over those, and my regular paddling gloves on my hands. Every inch of my body is covered and water-sealed except my head and hands, and even those have something over them. Only my face is continuously exposed to the elements.

Donning the suit is no easy task. It's easiest with a partner to help with the zippers, but I've managed to get in and out on my own. With this particular model, first you step into the legs, through the massive opening across the chest. Then, left arm, slipping hand through gasket. I'm not sure which is easier next: head or right hand. Both require poking through a gasket. With the right arm on first, the neck gasket is pulled tight across the back. With the head in first, the right shoulder is in close enough that some interesting bending is required to get the arm in. Either way, it helps to be physically flexible.

Next comes the zipper. As described, these are huge zippers, dragging across giant zipper teeth sewn onto Gore-Tex. To avoid damaging anything - including yourself as well as the suit - ideally the zipper will be lined up straight with the pull. This is no easy feet for something folded across your chest in an arc, using your off hand. I find that once below the shoulder it's pretty straightforward. However, when donning and exiting the suit, getting over the shoulder is the hard part.

Finally, bilge. I didn't know what this meant the first time I was told. Isn't bilge a nautical term for crap? It's also a pump. In this context, ir means becoming a bellows to press out as much trapped air as possible. Congratulations, you've just sealed yourself in a Ziploc bag. To disgorge the air, hold the neck gasket open and squat into as small a ball as possible. This squeeze out extraneous air, forming a tighter fit.

Once wrapped up, I feel like I'm in armor. Not invincible, but protected. I've waded into 40 degree water and back out, and not felt ill effect. Oh sure, while I was in the water, I was colder, but about the same as if I was wearing a winter raincoat in the same temperature air. I feel it, but it doesn't suck away my strength.

Care of the drysuit is imperative. While the Gore-Tex is warranted for life, the gaskets can deteriorate over time. I have been advised to wash them with regular dish or hand soap after every use, to remove body oils that can destroy the rubber. I also rinse the drysuit throughly in the shower along with all of my other gear. Waterways in the New York City area are salty, brackish at a minimum, and should always be rinsed of with clean freshwater after use.

Paddling with the drysuit is comfortable, though different from more summery paddling experiences. It traps some body heat, and so while underway I find myself warming up. This has been great on the colder days, but earlier in the season, when our winter was unusually warm, I found myself almost too warm and wishing I'd worn fewer layers. There's no good way to vent excess heat, other than opening the suit or pulling open the neck gasket. I have a better sense now of how to layer up for given air temperatures.

A few words about "Front Relief" - the horizontal zipper placed in front, just below the waist. On men's drysuits this is the default, while for women, it's an option; the default is a wider zipper in the rear. With very rare exception, my waste disposal requirements on long kayak trips are always liquid in nature, not solid. Last year, I bought a funnel designed for women to more efficiently tend to these sorts of requirements, and I bought the WFR version of this drysuit for the same reason. It's been great, and there have been a couple of times when I've been out, no formal bathroom in sight, and made use of this arrangement. Your mileage may vary, but ladies, I for one recommend the WFR over the standard "rear door" model.

Paddling with a drysuit allows one to paddle dry. It's great for cold water, or paddling where you're going to get wet a lot. It extends the paddling season and allows for conditions that might otherwise deter paddling. I'm glad I bought it, and expect to get several more years of use out of it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Powder Paddle 2013

My fingers are cold, and my toes are numb. I haven't even gotten into the boat yet.

Air temperature is 25 F, and the water, about 10 miles south at the Battery, is 39.2 F. A light powder of snow covers the ground. Across the river, the Palisades would be gleaming, if this cloudy overcast would stop blocking the sun.

It's time for my first true winter paddle.

I've been out a few times in what I used to refer to as the off-season. Normally, kayaking season in NYC runs from mid-May to late October at most, relying on jackets and layers at the front and back. Beyond those limits, the water temperature id low enough to warrant a wet suit, and eventually a drysuit. I bought a dry suit about three month ago and have been out a few times, to the south, to the north, and into the Harlem river.

However, the weather has been unusually warm. Not warm in an absolute sense, but for December and February, relatively warm. The air temperature at times has been in the forties and fifties, and until this past weekend, hardly any snow to speak of. And so, finally, we had a cold snap and precipitation, and I was able to get out and paddle in a somewhat wintry wonderland.

Inwood Canoe Club High Deck

We started out at the Inwood Canoe Club. I paddled with three compatriots, AA and AW, who are members, and a mutual friend MB, who is considering membership. I was the first to arrive, and behold the unsullied layer of snow on our road and our dock. Lumber for repair and saddle for cleaning the boats had been left out. To the south was the George Washington Bridge, a familiar, if chillier sight.

Fort Lee? A high rise and low rise, next to each other.

After paddling down and across the river, I grabbed some snaps of the New Jersey skyline. We had paddled south along the Manhattan side, under the GWB, and coming short a bit of Riverbank Park. We had a decision to make - would we cross, or not? We were on a somewhat limited schedule, but with this group, the real question would be: why wouldn't you cross? We crossed the Hudson diagonally, from about 145th street to about 135th street.

MB Paddles the Manitou

I miss my boat. I miss the Argonaut, and its rugged, steady, Crown Victoria frame. Except for AW, we were all in plastic club boats, AA in a Necky Looksha IV and MB in a Necky Manitou. I paddled a new addition to our fleet, a plastic Necky Elaho with an aluminum drop-skeg. Hard-chined, it proved stable but tricky to track. I sed a lot of rudder and sweep strokes.

L-R: AW, MB, AA huddled up.
We stopped to take pictures.

L-R: AA, Kayak Cowgirl, AW.

We paddled on to a now-familiar sight: the Ferryboat Binghamton. If we'd had more time we might have gone on down to Mitsuwa and landed for soup and tea and what have you. This is a route I've run more than a couple of times now and I'm pretty comfortable with it. I think it'd be interesting to bring others along to see this landmark, at least until it it demolished and towed away.

The Ferryboat Binghamton.

We took a break - water, conversation, granola bars. As cold as it was, when paddling, one builds up body heat, and that body heat gets retained. Once we stopped, it seeped out. A key to winter paddling is to keep moving, because otherwise you won't replace precious body heat. After some rest, we headed back up on the New Jersey side of the river.

Edgewater (I think), New Jersey.

We were closer to the shore as we paddled up, so I tried to take more pictures. I really wanted to capture the snow on the ground, as if I needed proof of winter paddling. It wasn't thick, but it was everywhere. In the photo above, it coated the rocks that protected the shore against the water.

Paddling towards the George Washington Bridge.

As we paddled back, the wind kicked up a bit in our face. It was nothing insurmountable, but it made me pull up the hood on my drysuit, and burrow into the wind. Fortunately, the current started to turn, so we ha a little of that with us.

AA and AW paddle northwards.

When I show these pictures to fellow New Yorkers, the most common response I get is "you're crazy", for braving either wintery temps or waterborne pollutants. The next response, however, is more telling: "I had no idea it was so beautiful." Especially from Upper Manhattan, with the Palisades, it's easy to forget we're in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the US.


We kept paddling.

Ross Dock.

After paddling under the GWB, we came up to Ross Dock, a large square-ish park at the bottom of he Palisades. It's a good place to hide from the current, if needed, and in warmer days, plenty of parties and tourists admire the view. On this day, it was empty.

Group Hug!

I was thinking we should get a group photo when we got back, but then MB suggested enlisted a running couple on the trail. they were out with their dog. Sure enough they obliged, and I paddled up to hand over my camera. The husband braved slippery rocks and caught this nice shot of the four of us, with Manhattan, and the GWB, in the background.

Paddleboarder at Dusk.

Much later, we were visited by C, a paddleboarder who was acquaintances with MB and AW. We'd seen him paddling up earlier with the current. As badd-ass as any of us might have felt, seeing a man stand on a board in the open river was pretty inspiring.

Paddleboarder in Winter.

He was wearing a drysuit, and head protection, and attached to his board by a cable. That said, the nice thing about sitting in a kayak is the lower wind profile. My legs might have have been a layer of plastic away from water but at least they were covered !

It was a great paddle. Wind, as predicted, was low; while the temperature was low as well, a few layers of wool and some robust paddling kept us all warm. Altogether we paddled nearly nine miles - not bad for an impromptu mid-winter paddle.

View Binghamton Paddle February 2013 in a larger map