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Posted In: Features

Safe SUPing in the winter

Andy Thompson

February 19, 2012 4:00pm

 With this kind of winter, we can paddle year round! Without snow in the forecast (except for today, of course), 50-degree days can be invitations to paddle with the Grim Reaper, and he never brings hot chocolate! 50-degree days can go from play to panic in less than 2 minutes. Even with the “proper gear”, you may just about have your hands full regulating body temperature, hydration, blood glucose, hypothermia, and hyperthermia.

I write this article after reading about a person’s near death experience just a few weeks ago on the Chesapeake Bay. An experienced kayaker decided to paddle into conditions which they thought they could handle, a wave overturned them and they missed their roll, and ended up in very cold water without proper clothing. If not for a random boat nearby, this story would not have had a happy ending. The complete story is on our Black Dog Paddle Facebook page.

Years of whitewater kayak instructor experience, raft guide experience, and training as a certified scuba instructor have drilled into my head the idea you always “dress for the swim.” We at Black Dog Paddle teach in our Basic SUP course that water, air temperatures and wind chill play an important part in any paddle sport or activity. Since we are somewhat more exposed to the air and wind standing on a board, we must understand our actions and decisions.

Let’s jump past a cotton T-shirt and jeans, after all it is 50 outside and you are on the water. I’ve decided I won’t be in whitewater today.  Great! That means I will be on flat water and can wear my nylon paddling pants as a wind breaker and a short sleeve jacket since I will be “working hard” and building a sweat.  Think about the result if you fall into a 40-degree river. Your pants fill with water and get heavy, your arms chill instantly and your furnace, which has been running hot, quickly chills and slows to a slumber.

A wetsuit, while warm by itself just due to neoprene and cutting down of the wind chill, needs water inside it to properly insulate the body in water. You may not even have water sweat in your suit while paddling, so the second you hit the water cold warps it way up your spine taking the breath from your lungs. Shock is a real and present danger. The dry suit is another option which has it’s own problems.

Paddling the Haxall Canal is best done during warmer months.

We, as SUPers and paddlers have a HUGE dilemma on colder water, warmer air days.  How do we properly dress to swim and keep from overheating?

Let’s start with the basics: The 100 degree rule.  Air + water temperature must be greater than 100 or hypothermia may be quick to set in. 40-degree water temp + 50 degree air temp = strong chance of hypothermia. Personally, we up this to the 120 rule! 60 and 60 is a lot nicer with a stronger margin of error. My wife would prefer the 180 rule!

Plan your trip and ask yourself some questions. Whether it is a mile sprint, or a six-mile lazy paddle, think about the journey. Is the water level on the James at Robious Landing higher than six feet, a modest current, or higher than seven feet — a stiff current — or higher than eight feet, a downright workout to stay in place going upstream? What are the air and water temperatures? Wind speed? Are there others around to help me? Am I able to help anyone else? Do I have a phone in a waterproof box, inside a waterproof bag? Do I need gloves or a wind proof hat? What is my footwear? Have I told anyone where I am going?

After falling into the water, the U.S. Coast Guard says shock may occur within 2 minutes, functional disability within 2-15 minutes, and hypothermia within 15-30 minutes, with full collapse outside that time frame.

What happens when your heated body falls into cold water? You first gasp, then hyperventilate. Can you keep your head above water? You may see stand up paddlers using a waist style USCG approved PFD during warm water months. This is fully approved and encouraged! Much better than no PFD at all, though against the USCG Federal Regulation, as of now. During the cold-water months, we wear a jacket-style PFD. You may not be able to physically pull that rip cord on the waist-style PFD, or you may forget until your body goes into shock. I also have a dry suit. I layer my undergarments to plan for the water temperature. So, this causes me to sweat while working out. So, I bring a water bottle and plan my drinks knowing that I am burning water faster than I can consume it. I wear a wind-proof hat and bring gloves, and shed those as needed to try to regulate temperature. The head is a great place to regulate perceived body temperature without sudden changes to actual core temperature. 

There is no formula. Each body is different and regulates temperature according to many factors. You can’t plan for everything, but you can at least give yourself a good fighting chance when it comes to paddling with the eagles, or floating with the sturgeon. Paddle smart and take a lesson……when it is warmer. 

To learn more about coldwater exposure, read the U.S. Coast Guard’s PowerPoint: www.uscg.mil/pvs/docs/coldwater1.pdf

About Andy Thompson

I was the Outdoors Columnist at the Times-Dispatch from 2007 to 2013, writing twice a week about mountain biking, fishing, hunting, paddling and much more. I live a 1/4 mile from the James River, close enough to see bald eagles soaring over my house on their way to find a meal. Pretty cool, eh?