Cold-Water Paddling Tips
June 1, 2015
If you plan to kayak, paddleboard or canoe in coastal Maine waters this summer, keep in mind that water temperatures never get much above 55 degrees in many places. If you accidentally end up in water that cold, you have very little time to get out of the water or summon help before your body begins to shut down due to hypothermia. In this article we’ll review some paddling gear and advice designed to keep you safer—and more comfortable—on a cold-water trip in Maine.
This one’s pretty obvious, but needs to be mentioned. Not only will a lifejacket keep you afloat if you become hypothermic, a good one allows you to store all kinds of lifesaving devices on your person. A PFD will also keep you afloat should you experience “cold-water immersion syndrome.” That’s when your body involuntarily reacts to a plunge in super-cold water by suddenly inhaling. That can cause you to breathe in water, which could prove fatal if you’re also struggling to stay afloat.
A great item to consider if you do a lot of paddling in cold water, cold weather, or rough water is a dry suit. They aren’t cheap, but then again, neither is your life. While a dry suit won’t keep you warm indefinitely, it’ll at least buy you some time to summon help or get to shore.
Aside from a lifejacket, perhaps the most important piece of safety gear you can carry is a Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB. When activated, a PLB uses a satellite network system to alert search-and-rescue personnel and lead them to your general location, pretty much anywhere on earth. Retail prices for these devices start at around $200, and they are getting smaller and lighter every year.
While a PLB is a great safety device it should only be used if you can’t get yourself out of trouble. Activating it will initiate an extensive and expensive search-and-rescue operation that could divert assets away from other emergencies, so think hard before using it to summon help.
You’ll probably bring a cell phone with you no matter what, but make sure it’s protected by a completely waterproof case and is fully charged before you take off, or it won’t do you much good.
Cold water always brings a risk of fog. If the fog rolls in, or darkness falls while you’re on the water, you’ll need some way to orient yourself. A compass and paper chart are always a good idea, but so is a charting app like the kind offered by Navionics. Just remember that you need to be within range of a cell tower for it to work.
If you have room, pack a small, waterproof handheld VHF. If other boaters, the Coast Guard or marinas are nearby, they may hear your transmission.
**Watch the Weather**
Check the forecast right before you hit the water, because the weather can change quickly and fog can roll in unexpectedly, especially in the spring and fall. On the water, be alert for any signs of an approaching front or fog bank, and check the latest weather updates on your mobile device. If the wind starts to pick up, don’t be afraid to cut your trip short.
Other tips for cold-water paddling include staying close to shore and traveling with a friend. Oh, and if you’re headed out alone, be sure to let others know where you are planning to go and when to expect you back. That’s simple advice that could reduce the time it takes rescuers to find you—and time is critical in cold water.