At this time of year, you occasionally get those lovely days when the sun is shining, the wind is gentle and the air is warm. Perfect days for paddling. It happens again in October and November. But the water is cold -- too cold for safety, if you aren’t prepared.
Cold water and human beings don’t mix very well. That’s true whether you are talking about a getting soaked in a 33-degree rainstorm in January or falling into a 45-degree river in April. The danger, of course is hypothermia.
I haven’t been able to track down the original source (both have been attributed to the Coast Guard Auxiliary, but I can’t verify that), so I can’t speak for their absolute accuracy, but I’ve seen two different versions of the so-called 50-50 rule of how rapidly hypothermia can affect you in cold water.
One of the 50-50 rules states that you only have a 50-50 chance of being able to swim 50 yards in 50-degree water. Again, I imagine it depends a lot on the swimmer’s body composition, physical condition and age, but it certainly helps explain why people often drown very close to shore in cold water.
The other 50-50 rule is that a 50-year-old person has a 50-50 chance of surviving 50 minutes in 50 degree water.
The best information I’ve found on the web about hypothermia from cold water immersion is a Canadian website called Cold Water Boot Camp (www.coldwaterbootcamp.com).
But just as you don’t let "bad" weather keep you prisoner in winter, you don’t let cold water keep you from paddling in the spring and fall. You prepare for it with the proper equipment and make smart choices.
My buddy David and I wanted to paddle to his river island (he owns a share of it) to clean up around the campsite. The day we’d originally planned was just too cold, windy and rainy, so we waited for better weather.
Finally the day arrived, and we loaded the kayaks with camping gear and tools and dressed ourselves in protective gear (me in a Kokatat dry suit, him in a neoprene "farmer John" wetsuit), donned our PFDs, launched, and paddled the mile and a half to the island. The wind was steady but at our backs and didn’t really affect us.
The next morning, we got an early start despite the fact that our water shoes were frozen solid. The river in the early morning light was simply gorgeous and the wind was calm as we paddled against a mild current back to the cars. The exercise kept us warm enough for comfort (except for David’s wet feet).
Neither one of us got anything more than our feet wet, and that only while launching or landing. But that taste of cold water was more than enough.
We were well dressed and prepared to get out and paddle on not one but two perfect days in early April, with a whole season of paddling ahead.
Cold, hard facts
The Cold Water Boot Camp documents a controlled experiment directed by Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht (known as "Professor Popsicle"). Volunteers jumped into very cold water and attempted to save themselves. (It’s important to realize that these people knew they were going to go into the water and were surrounded by people to help them if they got into trouble. This helped them avoid the panic most of us would feel if we suddenly flipped a canoe or kayak. The videos of these voluntary immersions (click on "Boot Campers") are absolutely fascinating.
Dr. Giesbrecht has coined the concept "1-10-1" to describe the first three stages of human reaction to cold water immersion and the approximate time each stage takes.
Your initial reaction to a plunge into cold water is "Cold Shock." This lasts about a minute, and if you don’t have a life jacket on to help you stay afloat, you can drown almost that quickly.
The second phase, which takes about 10 minutes (or less) is "Cold Incapacitation."
Even strong swimmers lose the ability to move themselves through the water. And worse yet, some who could still swim swam directly away from shore and safety. Again, without a life vest, you will likely drown in 10 minutes or less.
Stage three is unconsciousness due to hypothermia. According to Dr. Giesbrecht, it takes about an hour for most people to lose consciousness.
Assuming you don’t drown, how long you live after that depends largely on your body mass, on your gender and on how you are dressed. There’s a chart on the 1-10-1 page which shows this clearly.
Some rules to live by
If you are going to go paddling at this time of year:
n Don’t go alone. Have at least one other person along who can help you if you end up in the water.
n Have a quality life vest and wear it. If you go overboard without it, you probably won’t be able to get it and get it on before the cold incapacitates you.
n Dress properly. Best is a full dry suit with layers of synthetic insulation beneath. Second best is probably a full neoprene wetsuit which will insulate your core and extremities. Third is a "Paddling suit," either one-piece or separate top and bottom, which won’t keep you perfectly dry but will certainly help you stay safer.
n Don’t take chances. Strong currents, strong winds, traveling far from shore all increase the danger. Pick your day, pick your place, pick your companions, and paddle safely.
Tim Jones writes about outdoor sports and travel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.