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.