For me, the most enjoyable paddling is after the season, from Labor Day to Memorial Day of the following year, when the hordes of motor boaters, jetskiers, sailors, and sunbathers have abandoned the water for more land-locked activities, and the shore has returned to its pristine, just discovered character. Looking at the deserted beaches and rolling hills, I can imagine how this scene looked and felt to a Connecticut native long before the white man ventured ashore.
So if I’ve succeeded in wetting your appetite for some out of season paddling, then I must warn you that the environment you are about to confront is cold, wet and unforgiving, and you’ll need more than your PFD, sunscreen, tee shirt, Teva sandals and Baggies shorts.
GLOVES AND LINERS
Gloves are foremost on my list of winter gear. I have an array of Patagonia Capilene glove liners, both light and expedition weight. Bunting Gloves are my personal favorites and are ideal for lunch ashore, or relieving yourself when it’s cold and windy.
I have three pair of Neoprene Paddling Gloves: light weight, mid weight and heavy weight. Throw out your pogies. They are less than useless! They are a “royal pain” to get on, especially the last one. In the event of capsize, they give you NO PROTECTION, and this is when you need hand protection the most.
The first thing to go in cold water is finger and hand dexterity (put your hand in a bowl of ice water for a minute or two and then try tying your shoes). The notion that you have to “feel the paddle shaft” is foolish. I have absolutely no trouble feeling with any of my gloves. In fact, they give me a very secure “safety net” feeling which I also get from my PFD, wetsuit or drysuit.
A scuba gear company from Hawaii makes my light and heavy weight gloves, which are available at any good dive shop. The mid-weight gloves are a Northwest River Supply item and are reasonably priced and have a good gripping surface on the palms. Before using, spread Aquaseal (thinned with Cotol-240) on the inside edge of the thumb and forefinger, especially the non-control hand since the turning paddle shaft erodes away the uncovered neoprene.
The best I’ve found are the slip on, terry lined, non zippered Javlin “J” socks imported by Ken Fink’s Poseidon Kayak Imports, Walpole, ME (Ken should know, Maine water is ALWAYS COLD!). Get them Extra Large so you can layer a couple of pairs of polypro socks under them.
Also of interest is Nike’s Aqua Boot, a neoprene boot with side zips and adjustable velcro strap. While you’re at it, check out Nike’s new improved Aqua Sock, with a new molded cupsole and velcro “anti-motion strap.
DRYSUIT OR NEOPRENE WADERS AND A DRYTOP
The waders combo is a new idea used by Don Jones, Dave Anderson, and Patrick Warren last season as an alternative to an expensive $200-400 drysuit. The waders are available from L.L. Bean, REI, and Scupper for approximately $100. They are just loose enough to layer some polypro or pile underneath, and enclose your feet with built in socks. These can be combined with a pair of NIKE Aqua Socks for acceptable foot protection. If torn, the neoprene waders are easily repaired with Aquaseal and should last many years with minimum care.
Kokatat, at around $115, makes an excellent dry top with a latex neck and wrist seals that has neoprene overcuffs and a waist seal. An added feature is a spray skirt double seal inner tunnel. For my first drysuit outing this season, I wore this Dry Top over my old Harishok rear entry Drysuit, which is no longer watertight, because the waterproofing has delaminated from under the arms and neck, along with the wrist seals which have deteriorated. However, the Drysuit zipper and the latex foot seals/booties are still functional. So don’t discard that trashed Drysuit, just create a two piece by adding a good Dry top.
My favorite insulating material is a one piece drysuit liner from Stohlquist for about $79. The leg cuffs are very snug, so be sure to put on a pair of polypro socks first so they slip on and off easier. For more insulation, Patagonia and Sierra Designs make a Synchilla/Polar-Fleece vest which adds core warmth without over bulking your arms. Last season I layered too many long sleeved shirts under my drysuit and cut off the circulation in my arms after about 15 minutes of paddling. This season I’ll buy a vest.
NEOPRENE HOODS AND MASKS
Last, but not least, head protection is extremely important, since you loose the most body heat from your head. I have a variety of head wear, but my favorite is a heavy, terry lined, neoprene diving hood, with which I can Eskimo Roll and get no water in my ears. Only my mouth, nose and eyes are exposed to the jolt of the icy water, so this year I’m going to experiment with the addition of a neoprene face mask which should also help topside with wind exposure. I also use an L.L. Bean neoprene hood/hat and a Blue Puma shelled pile hat, but their drawback is water in the ears every time I Eskimo Roll. For beach pit/lunch stops I have an EMS pile Sherpa hat with ear flaps.
PADDLE SAFE - PADDLE INTELLIGENTLY
Alright, you’ve got the gear, now get out there and experience the feeling that the Ocean was created just for you. But remember to extend your paddling season intelligently. Go with a partner, take a stainless steel thermos with hot water for coffee, tea, and some Lipton Cup-of-Soup mix. Take sandwiches and extra food to compensate for the additional calories your body demands in the cold. Stop often to eat and drink. Even in the winter, dehydration is a very real danger.
Remember, the days are shorter and the rule to follow is this: In the winter, everything takes twice as long, is twice as hard, and takes twice as much energy. So plan on going half the distance that you normally would cover in the Summer. That way, you’ll be around to paddle again next season.
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