Dress for (Immersion) Success!

by Jennifer Pivovar
March 2003

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[Webmaster's note: Jennifer wrote this for us several years ago.  It most certainly has not gone out of date.  Cold water does not bear fools gladly.]

The temperature (air) has hit 50 for the first time in 5 months... Are YOU ready to paddle yet?? We're all looking forward to getting our of our winter caves and back on the waves. Of course, this time of year we'll be getting our ‘sea legs' back under us while the water temperature is dangerously cold. This combination is a potential lethal mix, so it might be time to think a little about how to minimize the risk.

The chart below illustrates how quickly we become helpless in cold water (and how warm “cold” water really is) without any immersion protection.

Water Temperature in °F (°C) Loss of Dexterity Exhaustion / Unconsciousness
32.5 to 40 (0.3 to 4.5) < 3 min. 15 to 30 min.
40 to 50 (4.5 to 10) < 5 min. 30 to 60 min.
50 to 60 (10 to 15.5) 10 to 15 min. 1 to 2 hrs.
60 to 70 (15.5 to 21) 30 to 40 min. 2 to 7 hrs.

There are 2 factors we can employ to mitigate the risk: Gear and Skills.

In the Skills category bombproof, practiced recovery and self-rescue skills are essential for cold-water paddling. This is true even if you never paddle alone. If you capsize while paddling with others and are not adept at helping yourself, you place them at greater risk as they assist you. Practice your wet-exits, self-rescue and assisted rescues of choice at every opportunity. Build up your bracing and rolling skill so a wet exit is less likely. Most importantly, practice these things in actual conditions! Practicing a self-rescue (with safeguard measures in place) in 50° open water in the gear you would be wearing while paddling in those conditions is quite different from hopping in your boat on a summer day while wearing a bathing suit!

As far as gear goes, paddlers need to always dress for the water temperature. The body cools up to 25 times faster in water than in air, and no one is immune from capsize! A 3mm neoprene wetsuit & socks, booties, paddle jacket, and skull cap can make a dip in 50° water a day at the beach. Well, maybe not, but it makes the swim bearable and drastically extends the functional time you have to address your situation. Insulated waterproof gloves will go a long way toward maintaining your dexterity, and a latex bathing cap under the skull cap will reduce the initial shock even more.

We probably won't see water temps over 60° until sometime in June on our large lakes. Until then, a comfortable (yes, they are comfortable!) wetsuit is very cheap insurance, and quite flattering to the figure, too :-). Of course, if you aren't prepared to get wet, you should probably not be on the water. If anyone would like to swim-test their equipment but wants a little support, please drop me a line at kayak(at)headwinds.org. We can have a little swim party before the beaches get crowded!