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.