I was going to work on the fourth video in my series on different types of kayaks, but as I was doing my usual check of blogs and Facebook this morning, it became clear that this might be the time to give another reminder about the dangers of paddling in cold water. Dick Silberman’s blog today is about the unprepared kayakers that show up on Lake Michigan each spring as soon as the weather gets a little warmer. As I was looking through my Facebook page, I saw a post from Sea Kayaker Magazine about a kayaker that went missing on Lake Washington near Seattle this past Saturday. Given the time of year and the water temperature in the 40’s, I was assuming it was going to be a story about a sea kayaker. Then I watched the video of the empty boat that was recovered and saw a 10-foot recreational kayak being carried off the dock.
While I don’t want to sound like a kill-joy when it comes to the fun of kayaking, I can’t repeat these warnings often enough. Cold water kills, and I’m not talking about hypothermia. From the description of eye witnesses, this paddler in Washington did not succumb to hypothermia. He disappeared almost as soon as his kayak capsized. I would take bets that this guy experienced what is called “cold shock” and drowned almost instantly.
When you are submerged suddenly in cold water without adequate thermal protection, your body takes over with some involuntary responses. The first is a gasp reflex, which is my best guess at what happened to this man. The boat capsizes, the paddler’s head goes underwater, the brain produces an automatic gasp causing the man to swallow a lung-full of water, he experiences swim failure, and drowns almost immediately.
The other problem that can occur, especially with middle age and older paddlers, is cardiac arrest brought on by sudden immersion in cold water. The result is pretty much the same as experiencing a gasp reflex with your head underwater. Hypothermia, on the other hand, even in very cold water will take at least 15 minutes to an hour to take someone down. If you don’t believe me, please take the time to check out the website, www.coldwaterbootcamp.com, and/or watch the short video below.
Given the type of kayak, I think it is a pretty fair assumption that this paddler was not wearing a drysuit, since a drysuit would cost more than the kayak he was paddling. He most likely was not wearing a PFD either since the authorities have not yet recovered the body. I won’t even go into the issues related to paddling a recreational style kayak in rough conditions.
I, myself, do paddle in cold weather and on cold water. However, I wear several hundred dollars worth of immersion clothing in the form of a drysuit and several layers of long underwear and polar fleece fabric underneath. I also wear a rubberized skull cap or neoprene hood on my head often with a fleece or wool hat over the top. And I can say in all honesty, that I NEVER paddle without my PFD, even in the middle of summer on a pond, let alone on cold water in winter and early spring.
As tempting as it may be to go out paddling early in the season when the ice is just off the lakes, you need to stay on shore unless you are following some basic safety precautions.
- Wear a life jacket (PFD).
- Dress for the water temperature (preferably a drysuit or at least a wetsuit).
- Make sure you have the right kind of kayak and the skills to go with it for the waterway on which you want to paddle.
Please be safe out there this spring.