Photo Credit Buck Forester
The Dangers of Kayaking in Cold Water
Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature, usually caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. The risk of cold exposure increases as the winter months arrive, but if you're exposed to cold temperatures capsized on a summer day, you can also be at risk of hypothermia. Hypothermia is defined as body core temperature below 35°C (normal body temperature is 37°C).The body loses heat in water 25 – 30 times faster than in air. Hypothermia can kill even after the victim has been rescued from the water. However many people who die from cold water immersion do not die of core hypothermia. Many die before this has had a chance to fully take effect from cold shock.
Cold water shock is a leading cause of death that many people fail to appreciate. One of the authors of "Essentials of Sea Survival", Professor Mike Tipton, is quoted as saying "if you are lucky enough to survive long enough to die of hypothermia, you have done very well; most die in the first minute of immersion".
In cold water conditions, the effort involved in righting your kayak will accelerate hypothermia and substantially reduce your survival time. By the time you upright your kayak, your chances of being able to climb into the kayak, will be hindered by reduced grip strength and limb stiffness. It may be better instead to just pull yourself onto the hull to get as much of your body out of the water. The most important priority is to get as much of your body as you can out of the water as quickly as possible, and then to cover your head, which accounts for 50% of body heat loss.
"If you are wearing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) then you will probably be able to adopt the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) – basically the “fetal position” – cross your arms across your chest, keeping the elbows close to your sides, and then draw the knees up to the chest. This gives added protection to the body areas of high heat loss i.e. armpits, groin and chest. If you are not wearing a PFD then you have no choice but to tread water. However, this markedly decreases survival time by up to 50%. You must avoid all unnecessary movement. " shares Jane Blockley author of, Cold Water: How to Increase Your Chance of Survival.
Jane recommends. "to reserve your energy by not tyring to right the kayak if you are able to just climb onto the upturned hull – that is unless you are certain of very quick success. In cold conditions the effort involved will be huge and will use precious energy and promote body heat loss. Having succeeded you will then need enough energy left to climb back into the kayak, and by this time your hands and arms and legs will be numb.". The decision to swim for self rescue must be the last resort, as this is the least likely to end successfully. Swimming or treading water will greatly increase heat loss and can shorten survival time by more than 50%
Cold water paddling requires proper clothing.
Paddlers who are immersed in cold water lose body heat four to five times faster than when in air of the same temperature. Such rapid heat loss can lead to cold shock, cold incapacitation, hypothermia, and death.
What to Wear to Keep Warm While Kayaking in Cold Water
When do you need to wear your cold-water gear? When both the water temperature and the air temperature are below 70°F National Oceanographic Data Center Coastal Water Temperature Table
Water Temperature is:
55 – 59 degrees F wear a wet or dry suit.
45 – 54 degrees F a dry suit is recommended.
Below 45 degrees F a dry suit is strongly recommended.
A wetsuit is a neoprene garment that traps a thin layer of water between itself and your skin and reduces the circulation of this water.
A dry suit is a waterproof garment with latex gaskets at all openings (ankles, wrists, and neck) to keep out all water. No water circulates across your skin during immersion, and the insulating layers worn under the suit decrease heat loss to the water. Because dry suits are made of breathable materials, they trap less sweat inside the garment than traditional, non-breathable fabrics like urethane-coated nylon.
When dressing for cold water paddling you want to wear layers that can be added and removed to adjust your clothing to the changing outdoor temperature. All clothing you choose should retain very little water if it gets wet; otherwise you lose a tremendous amount of body heat warming the water in your clothes. For this reason, clothing made of cotton should never be worn while kayaking.
Your hands can easily become cold when kayaking in chilly weather. Neoprene gloves protect your hands, but can hold water and reduce your grip on the paddle shaft.
Waterproof hats will keep your head warm and dry in rain or spray.
Neoprene booties are the preferred footwear when the water is cold.
You often don't die by drowning by falling in the water; you die by immersion in frigid water. Many of the fatal kayaking accidents occur in the "out-of-season" months when the water is cold. Cold water robs the body's heat 32 times faster than cold air. The colder the water, the more dangerous immersion becomes, so be aware of this increased risk, take precautions and dress accordingly.