Kayak Adventure's What to Wear & Bring Kayaking

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In the northeast, dress for kayaking depends on water temperature. Please note the current water temperature (next paragraph), and read our Water Temperature Note, Warm and Cold Water Outfitting, Cold Water Risks, and Life Vest Law sections, all below.

As of January 8, 2018, the water temperature in western Long Island Sound is 43 degrees, "cold." Please continue reading our discussion about water temperature risks below. Our current source for sea temperature data for western LI Sound is National Oceanographic Data Center - NODC . I scroll down and use the reading from Kings Point, NY or New Haven, CT.

Check the marine weather forecast before paddling. I prefer the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data for the New York to Connecticut coast, at this link: marine forecast.

Know the tides. Tides running against the wind cause choppy conditions. An outgoing tide, combined with offshore wind makes return to shore more difficult, by a factor of two-three, or more. Understand how moon phase affects tidal heights. Know the time of sunset before you launch. I've computed a 2018 Tide Calendar for South Norwalk, on mobile geographics. Scroll down the page to input different dates or sites. I use the Tides app on my iPhone. It automatically displays tides for the closest location. Both info sources show time of sunrise/set and tidal height information.
For Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table see this U.S.Naval Observatory site.

Water Temperature Note
The water temperature of Long Island Sound is mild to warm from June through October, with temperatures from the low-60's to high-70's. During this time "warm water outfitting" is appropriate for paddlers close to shore and those travelling in groups of three or more kayaks.
From November through May, water in western Long Island Sound ranges from 59 to 32 degrees, cold to frigid! During this time, "cold water outfitting" is mandatory on Kayak Adventure lessons and trips. We specialize in outfitting appropriately for year-round kayaking. Detailed information follows the discussion of water temperature risks.

Water Temperature Risks
Humans need a water temperature of about 72 degrees to maintain thermal balance. If you lose your kayak and are immersed in 60-70 degree water in summer paddling gear, you may lose consciousness in 2-7 hours. This is not long enough for someone to find you alive if it is dark by the time help is contacted. Check the hypothermia chart on the boatsafe.com website for a table of survival times for different water temperatures.

When sea temperatures dip below about 60 degrees, what you wear protects you from "cold shock" and "gasp reflex," which can take your life within moments of capsizing, if your head goes underwater (as it does when you capsize a sit-inside kayak). Individual variation to cold shock response is wide, and is affected by many factors. Cold shock deaths are common in April to May, when warm air temperatures lure unprepared paddlers onto the water.

Hypothermia is a serious threat year-round in the Northeast.  If alone and not dressed properly, you may have only minutes before your hands become too numb for you to get back in your kayak. The most serious consequences face solo paddlers who lose their kayak upon capsizing. This outcome has a high probability due to three factors:
- a third of paddlers kick the boat away from themselves when they wet exit.
- sudden immersion into water takes most people by surprise, and they are disoriented.
- wind can carry an empty kayak away much faster than any person can swim.

Injuries that impede re-entry (shoulder, wrist, hernia); medical conditions, such as asthma; or physiological reactions, such as claustrophobia or panic, could further reduce your survival time. In early summer, fall, and throughout the winter, proper dress is the cornerstone of survival strategy. If you paddle in Maine, Alaska and other northern destinations, cold water is a year-round condition.

Ms. Kayak's Cold Water Guidelines:  Never paddle alone. Dress for immersion (as if you plan to fall into the water). Always wear your life vest fully fastened and equipped with whistle, a waterproof means of communication, and a Coast Guard approved strobe light. Never paddle in sea conditions in which you have not practiced self-rescue. Use a paddle leash. Bring extra layers of clothes, a hot de-caffeinated beverage, and high-calorie snack to prevent hypothermia. Don't use 'recreational' kayaks in cold water. Sit-on-tops have two advantages over sit-in kayaks: your head usually remains above water if you capsize (so you avoid gasp reflex), and they are easier to get back onto, getting you out of cold water and lowering your hypothermia risk.

We recommend that you paddle in groups of at least three kayaks, paddling in close formation to be ready to help each other within seconds. All participants should be practiced in rescue procedures.

"Warm" Water Outfitting (water temperature above 60 degrees)
Kayaking is a water sport - assume you will get wet.  Use quick-dry nylon or polyester fabrics for your shorts/trousers/capris and long-sleeved shirt. Please, no cotton garments. Wear quick-dry underwear or a bathing suit (women, wear a two-piece suit). Bring a fleece top and waterproof windbreaker in case of rapid weather change, or to keep warm after wet exit practice. Wear a hat with dark under-brim to protect your eyes from glare off the water. Wear sunglasses with retainer strap. Apply sun screen. If you are going to become a regular paddler you may want to invest in neoprene gloves and boots, and a waterproof paddling jacket. We like neoprene shorts for excellent 'grip' to your kayak, for easier eskimo rolls, and to keep warm when wet. We rent neoprene shorts and Farmer Jane/John wetsuits for wet exit, re-entry and eskimo rolling practice, or when the water is still cool in June and October.

We recommend paddling gloves and booties.  Gloves keep your hands from sliding on the paddle shaft, facilitating proper stroke technique. They can be a critical re-entry aid, giving a sure grip on wet, slippery surfaces. They prevent chafing and callouses, especially important on longer trips. Neoprene booties, aqua-socks or sneakers keep you from slipping on algae covered rocks, and from getting cut, scraped and bruised when landing and exploring. They provide excellent contact with footpegs for maximum drive during the propulsion phase of your forward stroke. Make sure your footwear has no straps, which can catch on your footpegs and cause entrapment. Open footwear, such as flip-flops and sandals, are not permitted for any of our lessons or trips. (One man was found drowned when he practiced rolling alone with sandals. Another man severed a toe in the footbrace track when paddling with bare feet. These incidents did NOT occur on Kayak Adventure outings!)

Other things to bring: Always bring water. For trips over ninety minutes, we suggest a high energy snack and 8-10 ounces of electrolyte-replacement beverage taken every 20-30 minutes. Each person's need for fluid will vary depending on their weight, sweat rate, exercise intensity & duration, how they are outfitted, and the weather and sea conditions. Hydration before and after exercising is critical to optimal performance and recovery. For an excellent discussion of this topic, see this sports medicine site.

Eyewear retainers are recommended. If you bring your cell phone, a camera or electronic car keys, store them in a dry bag, waterproof case or in double zip-lock baggies. Nota bene: You should be able to use your means of communication while it remains inside the waterproof container.

Here I am dressed in full gear for a summer multi-day expedition, with Tilley hat, sunglasses, ACR strobe light, Princeton Tec navigation light, Fox 40 whistle, Stohlquist Life Vest with tow belt, nylon long-sleeved shirt, NRS neoprene spray skirt and nylon shorts. Not in the photo are my NRS Maverick gloves and NRS over-the-ankle zip Paddle Shoes.

For night time paddling: Kayakers must display a single white light, not flashing, from sunset until sunrise while underway. We like an LED bulb on a compact, waterproof light, such as the UST Marine See-Me Light 1.0 for PFD. Coast Guard regulations require kayakers to have a night distress signal. We recommend the ACR "C" Strobe, a compact, life vest worn, flashing white light to be used only in emergencies. Lithium batteries are required. The light and strobe must display these words: "USCG approved."

"Cold" Water Outfitting (water temperature below 60)
Your body:
Protect your torso by layering, using only synthetic fabrics, never cotton. Start with quick-dry nylon bikini or brief style undies. Then put on a long-sleeved thermal underwear top and a 3mm Farmer Jane/ John wetsuit. Add a medium weight insulating layer over arms & chest, either crew or mock-tee style to avoid bulk at the neck. Last put on a windproof, waterproof, breathable paddling jacket (with gaskets or secure velcro closures at neck, waist, and wrists). On winter days I use a thicker insulating layer and add paddling pants with velcro closures at ankles. If you can afford it, go for a drysuit or "Semi" drysuit, instead of a wetsuit. Since drysuits are shell garments, they must be worn with adequate insulation underneath. Fasten outer shell garments carefully to protect yourself from cold shock and gasp reflex. We rent Farmer John/Jane wetsuits for $15. Breathable, waterproof paddling pants or jackets rent for $5 each. Our cold-water rental package is $33, including wetsuit, jacket, pants, gloves, boots and hood.

Your head: Cold-water paddlers should have a neoprene hood to protect the head from cold shock in case of accidental immersion. A snug-fitting fleece or wool hat can be used if you improvise a chin strap. Otherwise, it will fall off in a capsize. My favorite hood features a visor, and perforated neoprene ear-flaps, which let you hear better than other hoods. We rent these for $3. In May & October, we suggest you wear a regular cap, but carry a neoprene hood or fleece hat in your life vest pocket in case you need to warm up quickly. During coldest months, we never go out without a neck fleece.

Your feet: High-top, 5 to 6.5 mm neoprene boots (with waterproof liner socks or dry-suit booties) are warm and flexible. Knee-high mukluks with thick synthetic socks keep your feet dry if you don't wade in water deeper than your boot-tops. They must be worn under dry pants, as they will fall off or fill with water if you capsize. We rent both styles. Note: To insulate best, all neoprene wear should fit closely, but with adequate "wiggle" room for toes.

In this winter photo I'm wearing a Kokatat Meridian drysuit, Stohlquist life vest, neoprene hood, and NRS Toaster Mitts with gore-tex pogies over my paddle shaft. My kayak is a Current Designs Willow, and my paddle a 210 cm AquaBound Spindrift Carbon.

Your hands: Neoprene paddling gloves with goretex pogies on top are suggested for warmest hands. Our favorite cold water gloves are 2-3 mm neoprene with a non-slip palm (NRS or Stearns). For hands that chill fast, use 3 mm neoprene mittens. For broad hands try the Stohlquist MAW. We also like 5 mm Deep See Thermocline gloves with zip-back, which are easy to put on, although they provide less grip. Rental of any style winter gloves is $3. Goretex pogies over your gloves keep the wind from cutting through wet neoprene. They are expensive, but definitely worth the price for winter paddlers. We rent them for $5.

Other gear: Bring your personal supply of water and snacks.
If you are outfitting your own kayak, we recommend these items:
Paddle leash by North Water Rescue $29.95;  Fox40 pea-less whistle $6.95; ACR C-strobe $25; Brunton 58 kayak compass $65; SOLAS tape strips for paddle and boat $10. A whistle and life vest are Coast Guard required.

Everyone should carry: a cell phone and/or VHF radio in waterproof case, compass, first-aid kit, hot beverage in a thermos, snacks, extra warming layers, and duct tape.

LIFE VEST LAW - CT state boating regulations require you to wear a life vest from October 1 through May 31, when the water is dangerously cold. New York State Navigation Law requires life jacket wear from November 1 through May 1 for vessels under 21 feet. MA regulations require a life vest be worn from September 15 through May 15. It is not enough to "wear" the vest. It must be fully fastened. A life vest that is unzipped will float off if you capsize, trapping your arms and making it difficult to swim and maneuver. I've personally seen two men lose their lifevests while practicing wet exits. They had not tightened the side straps.

On October 12, 2003 two college-age women died in Nantucket Sound, Massachusetts. According to the Boston Globe, they launched from the boat ramp at Harwichport, MA in two 8 foot plastic kayaks wearing t-shirts and bathing suits. When they hadn't returned forty minutes later, two friends called the local fire department and a search was started. Friends and family said the women, 20 and 19 years old, were athletic and strong swimmers. Mary, a junior at Brandeis College, had taken a course in sea kayaking several years before. A helicopter found the kayaks the next day at 10:34 am, tied together and floating about a mile off the coast of Monomoy Island. The Coast Guard found Mary's body four miles south of Monomoy Island. Sara was never found.

Two young men fishing off a single kayak died in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts on October 14, 2002 when their kayak floated away and they tried to swim after it. They succumbed to swimming failure in the cold water.

A 35 year old Yale graduate and strong athlete who paddled regularly between East Haven and Branford lost his life on November 8, 2002. His recreational kayak and a backpack washed ashore November 9, but his body was not found until December 3. There is no indication that he was wearing a life vest, although he did have a sprayskirt. The water temperature was between 53-61 degrees. The winds were 20 to 30 knots. Seas were reported to be four feet or more. A small craft advisory was in effect.

None of these paddlers were wearing life vests.

Copyright 2018, Michele M Sorensen. All rights reserved.