Old Sea Dog’s Gear Locker [39]

By Norm Sanders

Winter paddling has focused the OSD’S mind on cold. More specifically how to survive cold and even be comfortable while kayaking on the icy waters. In fact, our waters are comparatively tropical, but death is only delayed a few hours by the relative warmth compared to the more polar regions. In addition, wind chill is a serious problem even here.

Our winter ocean waters can often be about 15 degrees Centigrade. At this temperature, a person has the following times of useful consciousness in hours: Naked — 1.5 hours; Ordinary Clothing — 4 hours; 5mm Neoprene — 6 hours; Dry Suit — 8 hours plus. Before loss of consciousness, physical and mental performance is increasingly impaired.

A full dry suit is obviously the best choice, but it is expensive. The OSD favours a dry top, with latex cuffs and neck, from HotNDry in Ulladulla. He can roll repeatedly and stay warm and dry in the breathable Milair fabric. As long as he stays in the boat, he is comfortable. When severely trashed and forced to do a wet exit, the dry top still keeps him warm, as he tucks it inside his spray deck and water is slow to enter. Inside the dry top he wears a polypropylene top and has recently discovered the ultimate in paddling gear, a four-way stretch Polartech jumper, also made by HotNDry. Sheer pleasure.

Of course, hypothermia is often caused by less dramatic events than capsizing. Hypothermia is defined as the lowering of the body’s core temperature below the usual 37 degrees C. There are two basic forms of hypothermia. One is Acute Hypothermia, which is a rapid drop in core temperature, typically due to sudden immersion in water. The other form is more subtle, but can be just as fatal. This is Chronic Hypothermia, where the heat loss is gradual over a period of time. The physiological response to the two types is quite different, requiring distinctly different first aid techniques. Briefly, Chronic Hypothermia calls for slow rewarming, while Acute Hypothermia is treated by rapid heating. Heating a Chronic Hypothermia victim too rapidly can cause death. This subject warrants a separate article.

The best way to avoid Chronic Hypothermia while kayaking is to keep warm and recognise the symptoms if starting to feel cold. Shivering is the first obvious sign, followed by goose bumps and inability to perform complex tasks with the hands. When the core temperature drops two or three degrees, muscle incoordination becomes more apparent, movements become laboured and there may be mild confusion. Loss of more heat brings on violent shivering and difficulty of speech followed by confusion, incoherent and irrational behaviour, stupor, unconciousness and death.

Many kayakers have experienced the less severe symptoms of hypothermia. The OSD reduced his shivering bouts markedly over the years by closing off the avenues by which body heat escapes. A great deal of heat is lost from the head. The OSD found that a neoprene hood was one solution. The hood had the added advantage of keeping cold water out of the OSD’s ears while rolling. Cold water hitting the eardrum can cause vertigo. When not wearing the hood, the OSD uses ear plugs. Another way to keep the head warm is to wear a hat, which he does under the helmet he always wears.

The dry top protects the torso and arms. On his hands, he wears neoprene windsurfing mittens, which have the palms cut out so that he can grip the paddle. He has also used neoprene gloves, but he gave these to Fishkiller. Another, cheaper method is to wear rubber washing-up gloves over polypropylene liners. Neoprene surfing shorts keep the groin and thighs warm, and wet boots insulate the feet. The boots must be big enough so that the toes don’t hit the front. The OSD lost a toenail last year on a long paddle.

Obviously, if the core temperature starts to drop, a good way to raise it is to increase heat production through work, or more rapid paddling. If a person feels chilly or is starting to shiver, the options are to get active, put on more warm gear, or get out of the cold. On a long paddle, this might mean landing on a beach. The OSD always carries a Space Blanket in his first aid kit which can stop further chilling, but it may be necessary to build a fire to replace lost heat.

Chronic Hypothermia can also arise while camping after a day of winter paddling. Get out of wet gear as soon as possible and climb into warm clothes. Put on socks and shoes — or Gore Tex socks and Tevas. A good down sleeping bag is essential, as is a tent. Choice of a tent site is also important. Avoid low spots where cold air pools during the night and instead camp on a hillside if possible. When starting to feel cold at night, curl up in a ball. (This foetal position is also the best way to conserve heat if dumped in the ocean.) Munching on a bar of chocolate may give some warmth. Chemical heat pads are another way to gain heat. However, for the utmost in luxury, the OSD has discovered the Hot Water Bottle, which he fills in the evening with two Trangia bowls worth of boiling water. There is almost nothing as sensuous as climbing into a pre-heated sleeping bag after a cold paddle.

As in everything else, prevention is better than cure. Prepare for the cold with good gear and develop the skills which will keep you in the kayak, right side up. Then, go out and enjoy the crisp winter days.

Keep warm.