Spring is here, or at least what passes for spring in our part of the country. Wind Lake just opened up. Do you have everything you need to begin the season? Before you head out on the water, keep in mind that the water is very cold – dangerously cold if you fall in. For the time being, a drysuit is the only sensible option when it comes to dressing for the water temperature. If you aren’t willing to invest in a drysuit, I strongly recommend that you hold off on your paddling until sometime in very late April or early May, and you should probably still be in a wetsuit even then. Don’t assume that you won’t end up in the water. That can be a dangerous assumption if you accidentally find yourself upside down in forty-degree water. Do you know about cold shock? You should.
While you wait for warmer water, it’s a good time to inventory your stock of equipment, especially the safety gear. Is everything in good repair? Are your tow ropes and rescue ropes becoming brittle after prolonged exposure to saltwater, mildew, or UV rays? Check the expiration date on your flares. Is there a hole in your paddle float, leaky valve in the flotation bags, or tears in your life jacket? Fix what you can, but then make a list of those things that need replacing. Don’t trust your life or the lives of your friends to faulty equipment. When checking your gear, don’t forget to check that most important piece of equipment, your boat! Do the grab loops, deck bungies, and perimeter deck lines need replacing? Is the rudder or skeg in good working order? Are there any cracks or holes that need to be repaired? Maybe you should think about adding some foam in the cockpit so that the boat fits you better and is more comfortable on longer paddles.
At the same time that you make your list of things to replace, take some time to evaluate whether or not there are some things missing from your current gear list. Is this the year to finally get that VHF radio? Do you have an adequate first aid kit and do you know how to use all the items in it? Do you have a bag of spare clothing and fire-starter to treat a fellow kayaker for hypothermia if he/she ends up in the water unexpectedly? Never assume that you or anyone else will not capsize. Experiences in my own paddling career can testify to the importance of being prepared in cold water situations.
Perhaps you are relatively new to the sport of kayaking or canoeing and are unsure of what you need to be completely prepared. Asking around among more experienced paddlers can be a good place to start, you may want to check out some good “how-to” books as well. Experienced paddlers sometimes get into bad habits when it comes to the gear that we carry or don’t carry. So-called experienced kayakers can get lulled into a false sense of security by a long run of good luck. It couldn’t hurt all of us to compare our own practices to those recommended in good paddling books and magazine articles. We may decide that we have a good reason for carrying (or not carrying) a particular item, but it’s best to take some time to think about our safety (and the safety of those who paddle with us) before we find ourselves on the water dealing with an emergency.
If you still need some more direction on putting together an equipment list for early season paddling or help in figuring out how to repair your gear, feel free to shoot me an e-mail with your questions. As time permits, I will be adding an equipment list and a suggested reading list to the “Resources” page of this website. I’m also giving a seminar on boat repair and maintenance on Thursday, March 26th at 6pm at the Laacke & Joys store on 1433 N. Water Street in Milwaukee. The seminar is free.
Be safe and I’ll be seeing you on the water!