Cold-Weather Kayaking Safety Tips

Although solitude is one benefit of off-season paddling, kayakers would be well-advised to travel with a companion and leave a detailed float plan with friends or family. Photo/Hobie

Even though winter is bearing down and water temps are plummeting all along the coast, we can still expect some calm, sunny days here in New England. If you’re a moderately experienced to experienced kayaker, such weather affords an opportunity to enjoy a solitude rarely experienced during the busy boating months of summer. You may also see different types of wildlife, especially waterfowl that are migrating south from their northern breeding grounds.

Ed Duggen doing what he loves. Photo/Kayak Learning Center

The downside, of course, is the increased risk of exposure, especially if you wind up in the water. To get some advice on cold-weather paddling safety, we spoke with Ed Duggan, owner of the Kayak Learning Center in Beverly, Massachusetts. In his 25 years of kayaking, the strapping 6’ 4”, 200-pound Duggan has accomplished some incredible paddling feats, such as a 40-mile trek from the tip of Cape Cod to Salem, Massachusetts, and a crossing of Canada’s Bay of Fundy. He trains year-round in the waters of the North Shore, and has competed in 20-odd Blackburn Challenges, yet he never takes cold water for granted.

We caught up with Duggan last April and asked him for some advice on how to dress for early-season kayaking and some of the safety gear he recommends keeping onboard.


Dress for Comfort—and Survival

A dry suit can keep you alive longer if you end up in the water.

Duggan is big on layering. In the early spring and late fall, he starts off by donning breathable, lightweight polypropylene undergarments, such as poly underwear or full-length “farmer johns”.

On top of this he recommends a full dry suit, which seals out water in the event of a roll. A dry suit is critical in very cold water, where the human body can only withstand a few minutes of immersion before simple motor functions become impossible. Duggan points out that a dry suit won’t guarantee survival, but it may buy you enough time to reach shore or climb back on the kayak.

Waterproof gloves are key to a firm grip.

Obviously, the most important paddling garment is a PFD, which will keep you afloat even if your limbs become useless or you can’t get back in the kayak. Always wear one, even on hot summer days.

Duggan points out that warm, waterproof gloves are another key item to wear. “Cold hands will take you down,” he says, pointing out that you can’t get very far in a kayak if your hands can’t grasp the paddle.

The Right Ride

A sit-on-top kayak provides a greater margin of safety in cold water, as they are easier to reboard after a roll. Sit-in kayaks are very hard to re-enter and de-water, especially when you’re freezing and wearing bulky garments.

Shore Thing

Staying close to the shoreline is a great way to stay safe. It might take longer to get where you want to go, but at least you’ll be within easy reach of dry land if you become exhausted, capsize or if the fog rolls in. Also, you’ll be less likely to be hit by another vessel.

Buddy Up

Always paddle with a partner. A friend can help you get out of the water, make it to shore, or alert rescuers in an emergency. He or she can also keep your spirits up if things get scary.

File a Float Plan

Always let people on shore know where you are planning to paddle and your estimated time of return. Just don’t forget to tell them if your plans change. A float plan can be as simple as a sketch or description of your route left on the seat of your vehicle.

Watch the Weather

The weather can change quickly in the spring and fall, so make sure you check the forecast before setting out. On the water, watch the skies for any sign of an approaching front. If the wind starts to pick up, consider cutting your trip short and turning around.

Life-Saving Devices

PLBs are a good investment for any outdoor enthusiast.

Perhaps the best safety device—aside from a lifejacket—to consider is a personal locator beacon, or PLB. When activated, a PLB will alert search-and-rescue personnel and lead them to your location via GPS and satellite signals. You can also use them for camping and other types of boating. They retail from $200 to $600.

Other safety items to consider:

  • cell phone in a waterproof bag
  • waterproof handheld VHF radio
  • A handheld GPS can get you back to shore in the dark or fog, and let rescuers know where you are.

    handheld GPS or compass

  • whistle
  • airhorn
  • signal mirror
  • flares
  • food
  • water
  • mylar “space” blanket

About Ed Duggan and KLC:

For the last 20 years, Ed Duggan has run the Kayak Learning Center, based at Lynch Park Beach in Beverly, Massachusetts. KLC offer lessons, guided trips and rentals of may different types of kayaks, and recently added stand-up paddleboards and ocean outrigger canoes to their lineup.

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