Cold Water Workshop
by Dave Konz
When most of my non-paddling friends see pictures of me swimming in water with slabs of ice in it, their reactions vary from “Humf!” to “You’re out of your mind!” When I tell them that the water was 34 degrees (fahrenheit), and, yes, we had to use an ax to break through, their reactions range from “Humf!” to “YOU ARE OUT OF YOUR MIND!”
My typical response back, usually ranges from “Maybe!” to “Because I paddle a kayak and was testing my equipment. And besides, its fun.”
"....the water was 34 degrees, and, yes, we had to use an ax to break through....!"
For those of us who paddle year round, the reasons why we should be swimming in 34 degree water are clear: We need to test our ability to survive and function in the event of a capsize. Where survive and function means a wet exit (for those like me who don’t have a bomb-proof roll) while keeping our wits about us (i.e. not going into cold water shock immediately upon immersion) while performing some type of rescue such as reentry and roll with paddle float or simply staying calm while waiting for assistance from another group member.
Basically, this means we should be continually testing ourselves and our equipment in controlled situations, so that when the weather turns bad and the real thing happens, we’ll be as ready as possible. Also, to be as self sufficient as possible, to minimize the risk to other members in the group. Remember, if things are bad, your friends may not be able to help without putting themselves in considerable jeopardy.
In this regards, Moulton Avery and Brian Price pretty neatly sum it up with a few choice one liners:
If you’re not willing to get out of your boat at any time and just start swimming around,
you don’t belong on the water.
A rescue, self or otherwise, is successful when your back in your boat, the spray skirt is attached, your boat is emptied, all gear is properly stowed and you’re paddling away. Cold water, more than any other thing, kills kayakers.
And to these I’ll add one of my own: Every time you change or add a piece of equipment, you need to get out on the water and try all your techniques again.
If this rings true, I think you’ll also conclude that the only safe way to paddle is to practice your rescue skills every time you get the chance. And if that means swimming around in 34 degree water, then so be it.
As you can guess, I’ve been thinking about cold water for some time and have even taken a SCUBA class to better study how divers deal with immersion for hours at a time. Still, as the cold weather began approaching, I found I was becoming more anxious about not only my own survival gear, but also what types of cold water gear my friends would be using, and whether they tested it?
As fate would have it, I was recently talking with Brian Kassenbrock, the Lake Sebago ACA camp director, about the possibility of using the lake in the winter to work on my cold water gear.
Brian was not only supportive but also suggested that maybe a cold water workshop could be organized and conducted on the lake. This he noted would have the double benefit of meeting the camps objective to support paddle sports as well as showing that the camp had much potential for use during the winter. Brian also noted that since this would be a group activity, insurance might be acquired through the camp. Such enthusiasm was more than I could have hoped for and so the idea of using the lake to conduct cold water, cold weather practice sessions was born.
Basically the idea is to get properly-attired participants into cold water in the controlled environment of the lake. This would have several benefits such as: Entry into the water could be controlled. People could either slowly dip or plunge right in, depending upon their level of confidence. And just in case something did happen, there would be ample opportunity to react, rather then conducting the sessions during a regular paddle where we might be miles from a take out point.
Since people would be coming down specifically to do this, there would be less reluctance to getting in the water and certainly no one who wasn’t reasonably dressed for cold water would get in. Also, participants would develop some idea of how well their equipment performed and if they would really feel comfortable if they capsized. Once the workshop was done, participants would be more inclined towards proper cold water dress and to continue practicing in the future.
Backtracking a little, the first cold water workshop I attended was sponsored by Ron Casterline’s store, The Annapolis Coastal Kayaking Center. The indoor portion was held in the dinning room of the Crab Cafe at a nearby marina. Just before the lecture began, we asked Brian Price, the main lecturer, if he would mind his talk being recorded so that others who couldn’t make it could still get to see it. He smiled enthusiastically and said his whole purpose was to get the information out to as many people as possible, so shoot on. Brian then proceeded to talk, using a flip chart to emphasize his key points, which were:
More than any other thing, cold water kills kayakers.
Even 50 or 60 degree water is dangerous if you are not properly dressed.
"Cold water shock is a reflex action, where a person essentially gasps in water, possibly causing death instantly. This is a greater threat than hypothermia, since one needs to live through this first."
You meet a lot of people who talk about cold water but have never gone in it. And it’s not enough to stay alive for a while, you need to retain the ability to re-enter your boat and handle equipment.
Brian followed this by handing out a chapter from the Chesapeake Bay Costal Kayakers’ instruction manual, dealing with cold water. After the formal portion of Brian talk, we discussed different types of cold water gear. A few samples were passed around as other participants shared their knowledge of wetsuits, drysuits, and a variety of combinations, including multiple accessories. The two new items which seemed to elicit unanimous raves were the Gortex dry suit and the Severe Weather Glove from Gale Force. According to Charlie Cole, not only did the Severe Weather Glove keep his hands warm, but they were supple enough for him to re-attach his spray skirt while in the water.
At the end of the discussion, Brian P. called for a break and said we’d meet outside for the on-water portion of the event in about an hour.
An hour later, there we were, Jane Ahlquist with her dry suit, me with my wet/dry combo, and John Petrocelli videotaping and taking photographs. Brian P. announced that the water was just a bit above 32 degrees, which was colder than he had expected. Anyway, as us New Yorkers swam, those who brought their boats started practicing their rolls, which was really a pleasure to watch. It was clear that here were folks who knew how to roll, smoothly, effortlessly, calmly, even in very cold water.
I watched as Cindy and Charlie Cole did this wonderful lay-back skull. They’d lie flat on their backs, their heads completely in the water, and maneuvering their paddles so subtly I almost didn’t notice the movement, up they would come. They did this several times and it was a beautiful thing to behold.
One fellow, Steve, did hand rolls in his sea kayak. Later on, Charlie told me the lay-back roll I saw him doing was something they had worked out last year. This year they were trying hand rolls, but Steve usually got the techniques down first.
After about an hour, when everyone was ready to get out of the water, Brian P. used me to try some rescue techniques dealing with an unconscious paddler. I wonder how he knew that acting unconscious was one of my specialties?
Inside, hot cocoa, cake and granola bars were served at the follow-up meeting where we discussed our experiences in the frigid water.
And in conclusion I’d like to say: From all of us up here in the NY area, thank you Brian Price, and Charlie and Cindy Cole, and all the others who put together last year’s workshop. It was informative and a joy to participate in. We thank you very, very much.
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