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Cold Water Training for Sea Kayakers

Posted by on February 8, 2013

I’ve come to believe that safe paddling in cold-water conditions hinges on the paddler’s respect for the dangers of cold water.  Reading about relevant topics such as recognizing and treating hypothermia, dressing for immersion, and what to do if you capsize in cold water is a great first step toward developing awareness. However, there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to developing true appreciation for something. Here are a few fun activities that will help you develop an appreciation for cold water and make you a safer, well-prepared paddler year-round…


Practice reentries in your cold water gear:

It’s always a good idea to set some time aside to practice the various self and assisted reentries with your paddling partners at points throughout the season. If you’re planning to paddle late into the season then make the point to schedule a “cold water” practice session while the water temperatures are still warm.

The X-Rescue is a great cold water reentry to practice with your paddling partners

The X-Rescue is a great cold water reentry to practice with your paddling partners

The point of this session is to review and practice recovery techniques (such as the X-rescue) while wearing all of your cold water gear including: dry suit, thermal layers, gloves, and life jacket. All of this gear can feel a little bulky and may have a slight impact on your reentry techniques. This is especially true when wearing cold water gloves as they limit your dexterity quite a bit.

Focus your efforts on improving the efficiency of your techniques such that the “swimmer” is able to reenter their kayak on the first try, every time.  Efficiency (not necessarily quickness or speed) will limit the amount of time that the “swimmer” is in the water. It’s also a good idea to practice towing techniques and review field treatment strategies for hypothermia.


Go for a swim (or a float) in your dry suit:

Dressing for immersion provides a critical line of defense against the dangers of cold water. However, donning all of that cold water gear can sometimes create a false sense of security. It’s important to understand that the dry suit does not make you invincible to the effects of cold water. It’s designed to keep you dry but will not keep you warm forever. Don’t believe me?? Then give this little experiment a try and see for yourself…

Swimming in Dry Suits

Head down to your local pond in the early Spring when all of the ice has broken up but the water remains cold. Put on your dry suit, gloves, hat, and PFD and walk into the pond until you’re floating. Don’t forget to bring along a watch to measure the amount of time that it takes before you start to feel cold despite your dry suit. The last time that I did this the water temperature was in the mid-upper 40s and it took about 12-15 minutes before I started shivering. Granted, I would have been shivering nearly instantaneously had I been wearing nothing but a swim suit but you get the point.


Participate in a “polar plunge”:

There’s no better way to experience how cold water feels than to take a dive in the middle of winter wearing nothing but your skivvies! I’ll always remember my first polar plunge out on Plymouth Beach during February back in High School. It went something like this: I ran into the water, dunked, and ran straight back out to the beach. Total time in the water: about 5 seconds. It was numbingly cold and certainly a humbling experience for the kayaker in me.

Oh that is sooo cold!

Organized polar plunges are put on annually by fundraising organizations all across the country so chances are good that you can find one close to home and be able to contribute to a local charity.  I highly recommend that you participate in an organized polar plunge with your paddling partners if you’re planning to venture out on cold water. They’re a really fun time and will provide you with an unwavering respect for what cold water immersion can do to your body.


If you have any other favorite cold water training activities then feel free to leave a comment as I’d love to hear from you!

Happy and Safe Paddling!

-Kayak Dave

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