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.