Surfski paddling safely through winter

Updated January 9th 2017

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Winter upwind February 2016

First of all – thank you very much to everybody who kindly sent their own winter paddling safety tips in preparation of this post – greatly appreciated.

Putting your hands in ice water for a as long as you can is an old party game and a medical pain tolerance test. It´ll sting, bite and make you scream within one minute, it´s a scary test for a paddler, and not one you´d want to repeat with your entire body hundreds of meters into the waves.

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Proper winter downwind February 2016

Every year several Scandinavian paddlers will drown or become comatose during a winter paddle due to hypothermia. Getting out of the water fast to avoid loss of dexterity is a key feature to survival, so easy reentry is key and this just makes a surfski the perfect winter paddling craft.

 

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Christmas fun

Remount
Remount is paramount. But loss of manual dexterity comes fast. Don’t think you get five chances in choppy 0ºC/32ºF waters. Do your remount training in summer and check your skills in full winter gear.

 

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Winter remount drills December 2017 in a V14

Hypothermia
Cold water sucks out your warmth 25 times faster than cold air, if you move to keep warm in the water this rate actually increases as you´re constantly exposed to fresh cold water instead of heating the layer next to your skin. At 0ºC/32ºF you get about two minutes before you loose manual dexterity – depending on your clothes . Very important that you get out of the water. But once you’re submerged cold shock will hit you with a very direct and scary physical response as explained below. To a degree this even happens when you’re in a dry suit. Know this and try this in safe settings so you can deal with it as a routine thing and wont panic and start flailing aimlessly about loosing the warmth that you need to get out.

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Nice day for a time trial in the V12

A fall into cold water 0-15ºC/32ºF-59ºF (!) in normal clothes will do this to you:

Cold shock
On falling into cold water, cold receptors in the skin cause immediate physiological responses, the first of which is a “gasp” reflex. If this happens when your head is under water, you are in deep trouble. Next, you begin to hyperventilate, within seconds, your heart begins to race, and your blood pressure spikes. Hyperventilation may make it difficult to get air into your lungs, leading to panic and further hyperventilation. These symptoms can trigger cardiac arrest in susceptible individuals. Even healthy individuals will have difficulty keeping their airways above water without a flotation aid while undergoing these major physiological stresses. The effects of cold shock normally peak within the first minute and stabilize very soon thereafter.

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Shoveling the ski

Cold incapacity
After a few minutes, the muscles of your limbs are affected. Neuromuscular activity slows and body fluids literally congeal in the muscles. You feel the effects first in your hands and fingers. Then the deeper tissues in your arms and legs cease to operate properly. It becomes more and more difficult to perform any tasks requiring manual dexterity, such as using flares or other survival equipment. Survivors have reported that after a few minutes it was impossible to open a package of flares or to tie a knot in a line. After ten minutes immersion in very cold water, your arms and legs will no longer respond to your will. Even experienced swimmers have difficulty co-ordinating breathing and swimming strokes; short swims may be impossible. In heavy weather you have difficulty keeping your face out of the spray and you may not be able to avoid inhaling water. You will certainly have difficulty keeping your airway above the water without the assistance of a flotation aid.”

(from http://www.shipwrite.bc.ca/Chilling_truth.htm)

Chilling to say the least

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Dry or wet suit
I´ve paddled through a Norwegian winter in a 7mm wetsuit and can´t recommend it. It´ll keep you warm, but moving around gives you more resistance than you need, a bit like being wrapped in latex resistance bands.

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Get a good light flexible dry suit. Your speed will drop compared to summer and rotation will not be as easy. But its the beast way to actually be paddling through winter and enjoying it. Check the latex wrist and neck seals often, they tear and if they don’t fit tight they can send a bucket of ice water down your spine when you fall off.

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Be aware that holes render the suit useless and are dangerous. Fall off and water will be pressed through any holes and the water settles towards your feet giving you heavy legs that you just can´t lift out of the water. You´re now wearing an anchor!

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 Minus 8ºC/17ºF is not a problem in a good dry suit. This is a heavy Kokatat. Update: In 2017 I´m spending most time in a very light Ursuit, even when -11ºC. Tears easily, but flexibility is most important.

Yes it does get warm from time to time if you misjudge the temperature and  intensity vs. warm layers under the suit. But remember that you have cold water at hand. Try a remount drill to cool off.

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Update 2017: Under armour
This is not specific to surfski in winter, but specific to all winter activity. Wool on skin is highly recommended by my fellow Norwegian paddlers and friends on cross country ski. I do not like this. It´s itchy so I find a good technical substitute and add a full body fleece. Full body to avoid too many seams that´ll rub skin.

Dealing with ice
Ice is dangerous. Period. Update 2017: Check the video above.

It´s mostly a very solid object if you hit it with your carbon boat or paddle. Might not do more to your gear than a few scratches, but as you have nothing to hold on to it´ll tip you over as easily as a rodeo bull would, especially if you’re going at any speed.

Tempted to take this short cut?:

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I was, but as I shot this image the left floe 200m x 100m x 2inches  started gliding with no sound and hit the right floe crushing the edge until the left floe went under the right like tectonic plates. I should’ve known that the thick pieces of ice on the edge didn’t get there by coincidence.

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The very best scenario if I had gone this way is that the ice two inches thick would have broken my boat. Always asume that all ice moves.

Even thin ice will drift and stack in wind and can catch you and send you drifting away as well. Having a small boat at hand to break a path for you is a luxury I got today, so I got away with just some scratches in the gel coat. Not that it was dangerous at all but the line is thin so be aware of the dangers around ice.

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On thin ice

On cold windy days ice breaks up, but as soon as the wind lessens ice can form around the shore in under and hour and will do so if water temperatures are close to 0ºC/32ºF. Blocking beach access or the strait you need to go through. You can´t paddle through it, can´t hack with a carbon paddle, can’t ram your light boat through it but only up on it making you fall off, you can´t swim through it, it can’t support your weight. You need to find another landing if you can.

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 No way back to the club

Just don´t mess with ice.

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Phone
Always bring a phone. Remember to fill the bag with air so you can use it when droplets stick to the plastic and would´ve confused the touch screen. Update 2017: iPhone 7 home button is good, but not in a bag, it just doesn´t work. I´m leaning towards an old dumb-phone.

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Surfski Design
Some surf skis have a bailer that doesn´t close. Clearly indicating that the manufacturer never thought people in temperate countries would want to try this wonderful sport in winter.

When it´s -10ºC/14ºF a closable bailer is such a nice thing and actually the only thing that’ll make you able to take a rest without freezing your feet and butt off. It wont freeze.

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Many – most – surf skis don´t have space in the foot well for good winter boots or even socks in neoprene shoes. Some do and among these are the ones that figured out the bailer thing.

Choose a stable ski compared to your skill level and the conditions. Update 2017. I only paddle my V14 in winter now, all other boats are too heavy to drag through the heavy winter water, but that is only because I know my remount drills in this boat very very well! Exception is after dark, stability is needed when the horizon goes away.

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Paddles
Viscous drag increases dramatically with falling temperatures. You can almost sense how the viscosity and density increases during winters as water goes still and heavy like quicksilver.

This might mean that a smaller blade and shorter paddle is better. Winter paddling clothes will restrict your technique a bit also pointing towards smaller blades.

But most importantly go with a paddle that you’re totally familiar with, knowing exactly what it will do in and out of the water.

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Gloves
You get pogies, neoprene five fingers, toaster mitts, latex covered neoprene, open palm mitts etc…

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Controlling your paddle and knowing its position and the rotation of the blade is key to your stability and not something you want impaired by stiff slippery neoprene gloves.

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Pogies

For the same reason lots of people prefer pogies. I don´t do pogies when it’s freezing as you´d loose dexterity very fast when taking them off to fix something or even remounting. If you feel tippy don´t consider pogies.

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Gloves that has the palm cut out are good too if you need a lot of control, but mostly for autumn as they’re too cold.

In any event hand protection is probably the most personal choice you´ll  have to make.

I have a whole mountain of gloves and try to go as thin as possible. These thin NRS hydroskins are good for down to -4ºC\25ºF, maybe not really god for my skin, but better for maintaining good technique. Update 2017: They´re just too thin, read on…

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Update 2017: You´ll loose heat with split fingers. Try mitts like this. It´s clumsy off the water but will give you loads more warmth and control on water, much more like paddling without gloves. Bad for photography of course…

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Test different gloves.

 

Other safety measures
I´ve had many suggestions in preparation of this post. Like bringing an ice pick to avoid getting caught or a knife to cut a fixed rudder from fishing nets or lobster pots. Personally I don´t like to many gadgets around me on the water, but do what you find safer. Don’t need to mention pfd or leash.

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However I think it´s a very good idea to think through what sort of safety redundancy your winter paddling has. What if the hull suddenly leaks at sea – if you hit a reef. What if the rudder lines freezes – (you can work them free by continuous small left/right jerks). What if you loose your paddle?

A phone seems to be a good choice to keep some redundancy when one system fails. Maybe even a PLB or a flare especially if doing winter downwind. And if you do, bring a buddy!

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Going to the beach

 

Test your gear
It is cold I know and a bit scary. But do get into the water where it´s not too deep and see for how long you can avoid shaking and can keep manual dexterity. I aim at 15 minutes. So thats my window for remounting or getting to the shore. Swimming is not effective in winter gear at all, try it and don’t rely to much on doing it in an emergency.

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 How long can I stay here?

While I’m basking in the water people often shout at me or approach me, sort of nice to know that people care, but also tells you that this is a bit extreme. Do do remount drills. It’s more heavy and difficult than in shorts and 20ºC/68ºF but not much, and surely beats falling out off and remounting a kayak.

In an emergency remember that if you lack the strength to pull yourself completely clear of the water, any amount of your body removed from the water will extend your survival time.

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Winter training -3ºC/27ºF with Einar Kjerschow & Mats Grov

Dark
If you want to train outside weekends and have an average 8-16 job you´ll be dry paddling in a gym or paddling in the dark.

Don´t get a head lamp as the reflections from the boat will blind you so you loose the feeling of the level horizon and then you get wet.

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Snowblind

Your eyes get used to the dark, try it and take your time. This works especially well if you have a touch of city lights or moon light handy. This is enough, but stay away from the rocks and reefs at the shore that you can see in daylight, but not too far away. If there’s a risk of dark invisible ice be aware, as hitting ice in the dark at 12km/h isn’t going to end very good. Use non-blinding lamps on the boat, shoulders or head as boats can’t see you. In most places the law requires you to use lights.
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Swearing
Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University in England, has published a study where students stuck their hands in cold water.

After their fingers and hands had returned to their normal temperature, the students were asked to say a profanity of their choice over and over again while their hand was immerged the cold water again. Less pain was experienced and on an average the students were able to keep their hands in the icy water 40 seconds longer than they did when they were not swearing.

This one is optional!

 

Enjoy!
Winter paddling is a special feeling, it makes you feel close to nature and is way better than going to the gym. Take your precautions, stay safe and you’ll have a lot of fun fitness!

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Paddling with the boys

 

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