A student of mine suggested that I blog about the subject of how to dress for paddling. Given the rather chilly summer we have had and the fact that we are now heading into autumn, it is a timely suggestion and one that I am going to heed. For those of us who paddle in the northern climes, what we wear while paddling has more to do with safety than with style or comfort. In other words, we have to dress for the water temperature. About a week ago, the water temperature at the mouth of the Milwaukee Harbor was reported to be about 50 degrees. That is not a swimsuit temperature. Frankly, that is a dangerous temperature if you find yourself dumped into the water from your capsized kayak.
Before I go into any specifics about how to dress for the water temperature, I want to spend a few moments talking about why you need to dress for the water temperature. It seems that most people have heard about hypothermia, the lowering of one’s core body temperature that can lead to eventual death. Hypothermia is certainly a concern for paddlers, but perhaps surprisingly, hypothermia occurs more often as a result of the slow gradual chilling that takes place when a paddler isn’t eating or drinking enough and is experiencing a slight chill from wind and dampness. Even in extremely cold water, hypothermia takes several minutes to set in, so if you can get out of the water quickly and prevent evaporative cooling, it probably won’t be hypothermia that kills you. To prevent hypothermia, then, you really have to be dressing for the air temperature, warding off that slow chill caused by damp clothing and wind, and making sure that your body has adequate fuel and water to keep producing heat.
I don’t wish to diminish the danger of hypothermia to a paddler, it is a serious threat to safety, but the real killer in cold water, and the main reason we need to dress for the water temperature, is a phenomenon that very few people seem to be aware of – COLD SHOCK. When your body is unexpectedly thrown into water less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when the neck and head go under, there are some very serious, sudden physical effects that your body experiences. The first effect is an involuntary gasp reflex. I don’t think I have to go into much explanation of why it would be dangerous to be gasping while your head is underwater. When this occurs, it is not unlikely that the victim will never make it back to the surface unless he/she is wearing a life jacket. Drowning can be instantaneous. Even if you do make it back to the surface without swallowing water, the cold will make it very difficult to synchronize your breathing meaning that if there are waves, you will not be able to control your breathing well enough to keep from breathing in water . Again, you will likely breath water into your lungs with drowning as a result. I have had a personal experience with this aspect of cold shock. My first rescues class was in Lake Superior on a cold, gray day in mid June. I was wearing a wetsuit, polypro long underwear, fleece pullover, paddling jacket, and neoprene hood. After coming to the surface following my wet exit, I felt like I had been punched in the chest and it took me probably at least 30 seconds to get control of my breathing as I was hyperventilating. Thankfully, my clothing gave me enough protection that I did not gasp involuntarily underwater, and we were in a calm area where my PFD kept my head above water until my breathing returned to normal. I no longer paddle in those water temperatures without a drysuit, no matter what the air temperature. It’s easier for me to cool off on hot days than to worry about ending up in cold water. Finally, one other effect of falling into very cold water is that it can slow the heart and possibly even stop it. This is probably most dangerous for paddlers with underlying heart conditions, perhaps an undiagnosed heart condition. I have been told by a friend of mine who is a retired cardiologist that in the old days before doctors had all the medications that are currently available to control the speed of the heart, they used this technique of immersing the face and neck of a patient in cold water to intentionally slow a person’s heart.
If you start doing some research, you will come across documented cases of fit, healthy people who seemed to drown very suddenly when dumped into cold water without adequate thermal protection of the torso and head. For many years, these deaths were attributed to hypothermia and other conditions that caused drowning, but it appears now that most likely, cold shock was the cause of death. Every spring we hear of deaths among paddlers who appear to have drowned in cold water. Unfortunately for us, the news media reports the death when it happens, but never comes back to let us know what the autopsy results were. I think it is fair to assume that many, if not most of these deaths are probably a result of cold shock brought on by paddlers who were not sufficiently dressed for immersion in cold water.
Now that I’ve hopefully got your attention regarding the seriousness of dressing appropriately for canoeing and kayaking, I’ll take up the topic of exactly how to dress in my next blog post. Stay safe!