This blogpost is inspired by a growing enthusiasm, within the club where I am member, for kayaking in surf at the coast from Bakkum (Noord Holland); The direct result of having now storage for 5 kayaks at the beach, making it very easy to go paddling for an hour or so.

As I noticed that some new members, being very enthousiastic, keep on paddling although december is coming near, I was a little bit worried about them. Knowing they capsize regularly, I could not resist to warn them for hypothermia and to give some advices.

Having written an extended mail, I thought that the information fits perfect within my weblog and might be of use to somebody else: So that's why I translated the story underneath :

Being in the mid ot november the moment comes nearby that circumstances starts being too cold for a LongJohn made from 3mm neoprene. If you capsize close to shore this is not a big problem because you can walk to shore.
However, if it is not possible to stand up and you have to swim with your kayak, you will be in the water for a more extended period (certainly when you are in a shallow with current in the direction of the sea) and you are risking to get hypothermia, unless wearing gear that is dedicated to low temperatures.

The first signal is given by your hands: after 3 minutes in winterly-cold-water, you do not have enough power anymore to get hold of you kayak for instance. The second is (uncontrolled) shivering.

Once, having paddled in a winterly surf, I was very cold myself and needed about 45 minutes in the car, with the heater at maximum, to stop shivering. At that moment I did not know what was happening, but I know now this was the first stage of hypothermia!

For those who want to continue paddling in winter in surf, I advise to pay attention to equipment and some other issues.

Based on paddling in surf since 1978, I swept together everything I could think of concerning safety in cold surf and I created the list with advices underneath:

  • buy neoprene gloves
  • buy a neoprene bivouac-hat: Most of your body-heat gets lost via your head. This neoprene hat covers the head completely as well as a part of your neck, while leaving only eyes, mouth and nose visible. This hat can be worn underneath the helmet.
  • Go by car when paddling in winter: just to be able to warm yourself if necessary.
  • Wear, underneath you kayak-jack, a thick woolen or fiberpile sweater
  • Your jack should have latex-rubber-seals around your wrists. Preferably also around you neck to prevent too much water coming in.
  • If your wetsuit is only 3mm thick, wear raintrousers on top of this. Take precautions that it can not slip down when swimming.
  • Try if you can wear thin thermo-trousers underneath the longJohn. A thick ladies stocking will help as well.
  • The warmest outfit is a drysuit, but such a thing is rather expensive. A steamer (kind of longJohn with long sleeves and tight fitting around wrists and neck) is also a good solution. In such a steamer from 6 or 8mm thick neoprene, it is not likely to get cold. The only thing is that you have to take care in choosing the right size and fit because it should not interfere (getting your muscles tired because of constant pressure) with your paddling stroke. Because of the risk to get sore muscles, a steamer is not suited to extended kayaktours and you buy it only for surf or wet exercises.
  • It seems usefull to me carrying a nicosignal (signal-bullets) in your PFD to draw attention if necessary.
  • If the water is really cold and your head is immersed under water frequently, earplugs are advised. Cold water in your ears can effect your balance and cause a total desorientation. On longer term, when you enter cold water on a regular base, this can cause also excessive growth of the bone in your earchannel, causing the opening to get smaller.
  • Think permanently about how you are feeling. STOP IMMEDIATELY when you start shivering. Don't go for surfing a last wave then, despite the fun you have.
  • Timing: preferably don't paddle in surf during lowering tide and/or offshore winds to prevent getting swept out at sea. That's no big deal because approximately 1 hour before the high tide the best surfingwaves occur (at least here in Holland) and with offshore winds the surf is most of the time not very interesting for paddling.
  • Take care that enough experienced persons are at the spot as well. At least 1 experienced person at 2 with less experience. Going with 3 or 4 inexperienced paddlers means 2 experienced paddlers are necessary, otherwise the responsibility becomes too big for one person. If 1 person has to take care of 4 others, you may not think of the situation they start swimming all together. Certainly not when they should get out of the water FAST.
    A good question is what to address as an experienced paddler: to my opinion he or she has a bombproof roll. In fact it must be somebody who does not exit at all and thus always able to help someone.

When there is not very much wind and the waves only 50 cm, all this issues are less important for beginning paddlers. But assuming that a beginner grows and starts paddling heavier surf: Be aware !!!

I hope all these warnings does not discourage anybody: My only purpose is to make you aware of the dangers of hypothermia and how to deal with it, or prevent it.

Safe paddling