A few years ago, I published a blog covering everything I could think of around cold water paddling. I was then fortunate to add a great addendum from a customer and fellow cold water paddler who has been at it for many more years than me. But as with all things, it is an evolution, and since publishing that blog, I’ve logged upwards of 200+ more hours in my surfski in cold water.
My approach hasn’t changed too much, but there have been new technologies worth mentioning, and a few areas that are worth expanding on further. First, I want to share one of my favorite new discoveries, which is the website www.seatemperature.info This site has 10 years of water temperature readings for pretty much anywhere in the world. I love it! But it is also quite an eye opener. Many of us around the world are paddling in much colder water than I ever realized. Below is the 12 month average for my local spot. According to their thresholds I only get one month of warm water per year 🙂
Bullet Proof Skills
Bracing: If you aren’t an expert bracer, don’t risk your life going out in cold water. This is a non-negotiable skill. You should be strong on both sides of the boat and be familiar with the 3 strokes and a brace drill. Check out this blog for an eye opening account of how that drill saved the life of Ivan Lawler, one of the greatest paddlers in the world.
Remount: You should be able to remount quickly from both sides of the boat in any conditions. We don’t typically remount from the downwind side of the boat because it is very hard, but if you can pull this off on the first attempt 4 out of 5 times, in 1 meter + waves at 15 kts + , then that is what I would consider bullet proof
Power: You must be able to generate enough power to make headway upwind in 20-25 knot winds and 4-6 foot waves. Even though you may be planning a downwind, you never know when you might find yourself in a position needing to go upwind
Bullet Proof Paddling Equipment
The Boat: It must be stable and it must be robust. By stable, I mean, it should be very rare for you to come out of the boat. By solid, I mean that there should be no major leaks, the rudder assembly, pedals, and lines should be maintained like your life depends on it.
Leashes: There have been a lot of leashes sold over the past 20 years that are simply not that bullet proof. They also tend to wear out after a couple of years. Paddling in cold water is not the time to roll the dice with your leash. Make sure it is relatively new and in robust condition. From what I can tell, there are very few quick release leashes that don’t have some possibility for failure. Assuming you aren’t spending a lot of time in big surf, you are better off without a quick release. Personally, I’ve been using a Mocke Lifeline Leash with the quick release wired shut on my main winter boat (V8 Pro) , and a Meta Leash on my Epic V10 which I take out on mellower days. I typically only use a leg leash, but I carry a paddle leash in my PFD. When the wind is sustained at 16 knots plus, there is a strong argument to have both. The only trick is you need to be sure you’ve practiced remounts managing through the potential entanglement issues. Several years ago I posted a blog from a friend and fellow paddler who came up with a great DIY leash setup. This is still a great option.
Paddle: Modern surfski paddles are incredibly durable, but big water is powerful and there are enough stories of broken paddles to know that it can and does happen. Mitigate your risk by having a strong paddle and keeping the ferrule mechanism in good shape. It is also critical to practice paddling with a single blade, so that if you ever do break a paddle, you aren’t panicked and know you can still manage the boat and get to shore.
Broken Rudder Solution: First off, if your rudder line is at all compromised, replace it. This is relatively cheap, and with the right technique, not hard to do. But things happen and rudders can still break. Mocke now offers a great on the water fix, and you can also experiment with foam blocks or other implements to wedge the tiller bar.
Cell Phone: This goes without saying, but there are a few points worth stressing. Be sure your battery has a good charge, and know that it will lose battery much faster in cold conditions. If you spend any time on the water, it is worth upgrading to a phone that is fully waterproof, even if you still keep it in a waterproof bag. SafeTrx has been a godsend for paddlers in regions where it is used by search and rescue. I don’t think it is used in the US, but I run Life360 (comes with your phone and free) so that my wife can always track me on the water. I know there are several other apps that perform similar tracking functions. Another common phone function is the emergency dial that is activated by pushing the side button. This is a great option in cold conditions where gloves likely make it impossible to perform regular dialing.
Emergency Locator Beacons: These don’t come cheap, but at least for me, they are a non-negotiable. I hope to never use it, but in the middle of winter there are zero boats in the water within a 100 mile radius of me. And my only rescue option is the Coast Guard Helicopter stationed 20 miles away.
VHF Radio: Great option if there are boats in your area, but keep in mind, you still need a way for the boats to spot you, which is not an easy task on the open sea in rough conditions.
Flares/Strobes: Most of us don’t ever plan to be out after the sun goes down, but if things go really wrong, there is a good chance you will be. Fortunately this is an area where LED lights and Laser technology has come a long way. I don’t have one yet, but I’m strongly considering one of these waterproof lasers from Great Land Lasers. I recently added a LED strobe light to my PFD safety kit.
Storage is one aspect that I don’t think is talked about enough, if at all. I’m fortunate to be able to keep my boat in a heated garage and the water is only 1 minute away. As a result, I know that I always start my paddle with a dry boat and a fully functioning rudder system with no moisture or ice build up. I’ve gotten off the water many times where my PFD, paddle, and boat immediately ice up, but I’ve never had the rudder system ice up. However, I have heard of this happening many times. The only thing I can think of is that the boat is stored outside and/or there is a long drive to the paddling location in icy conditions, and the rudder seizes up during this time. A malfunctioning rudder is not something you want to risk in cold water. I would NOT put my ski in the water if I couldn’t be certain there is no ice build up in the rudder system.
What to Wear on the Water
If you do generic searches on the internet, you’ll still find a lot of debate around whether a wetsuit or drysuit is better for cold water paddling. Within the surfski/performance paddling community, I think that debate is largely settled, and a high quality wetsuit is far safer than a drysuit. The simple fact is that when exerting any level of effort in a drysuit you will sweat and your clothing will get saturated. Not too mention the risk of leaks at the wrist and neck gaskets, and zippers, or god forbid a puncture while on the water. Everyone is different, but for me, the saturation point starts at about 30 minutes into a paddle where I’m going at a L2/L3 pace, and I’m actually wearing a semi-dry suit with a neoprene neck that breaths better than almost anything else on the market. Even with materials that insulate while wet (fleece, wool, etc.) if you end up in cold water, you will have very little protection from the cold. Contrast this to a high quality wetsuit with titanium or other such lining, where the more heat you generate, the more heat is trapped inside the suit. Additionally, in the event of a long swim, the wetsuit will provide more flotation, less resistance, and will continue trapping the heat generated by your body as you swim.
All that said, I still use a drysuit on the mellower days and when I’m staying close to shore. It is simply easier to get in and out of, and it feels easier to push hard in the drysuit and I experience less resistance.
In summary, where I stand now is a drysuit on mellow days when staying close to shore, and a 4/3 full wetsuit when I’m further from shore, going out for longer than 50 minutes, or the conditions are more intense. When paddling in the wetsuit, it will help tremendously to manage your own expectations. The wetsuit will take a lot out of you, so be very careful pushing too hard or too long in it. If you’re doing a downwind, use the wetsuit days to really practice catching runs with minimal effort. Another option I’ve been experimenting with is using a chest zip wetsuit and on warmer air temp days, paddling with the neck off (not detached, just left sitting behind my neck). I got this idea from an extremely insightful blog posted by Peter at Valkyrie Downwind, which is well worth a read. This makes it much more comfortable, but it is still relatively easy to pull it on if I end up in the water and need the extra protection.
I recently ordered a custom fit 4/3 from Seventh Wave in New Zealand. I haven’t received it yet, but I’m excited to try it once I do. This suit is titanium lined and double blind glued and stitched, meaning it will let in very little water. Additionally the high quality Limestone neoprene won’t absorb water, further adding to the warmth and reducing weight. One thing to note when shopping for a high quality wetsuit, they are not designed for surfski paddling. I have an O’Neil 4/3 Pycho Tech, which is an amazing suit, but they used Smoothskin (neoprene that blocks wind, but is not very durable) on the back and within a couple of paddles, I had ripped a seam where my lower back rubbed against the seat. Seventhwave can custom build the suit with a little extra length in the back to better suit our seated position, and a more durable neoprene to prevent tearing from rubbing the back of the seat.
You lose a tremendous amount of heat through your head. A 3 mm balaclava or built in hood will make a world of difference . Even if the air temps are high and you don’t think you need the head protection, you should always carry it with you in your PFD. Several years ago I purchased an NRS Hydroskin (.5 mm) balaclava which weighs almost nothing and takes up very little space in my PFD. On days when I’ve needed it, it has been a life saver. I wear a wide variety of hats depending on the day, but generally a thicker wool based or neoprene hat will be the best.
As the combined air/water temps start to reach toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit you can start to entertain lighter and more flexible options. The most proven setup in these conditions is a sleeveless farmer john style wetsuit with some form of dry / semi-dry top. The wind/splash breaker top might be long sleeve, short sleeve, or sleeveless depending on conditions and preferences. Vaikobi has recently launched a new line of neoprene suits optimized for high output paddling. I’m super excited to put these to the test.
Feet and Hands
I’m fortunate to have good circulation in my feet and hands, and they are never really cold when I’m on the water. That said, I’ve found the ultimate boots and gloves. I go with the Patagonia R5 Bootie, and the Glacier Glove (perfect curve). I wear the booties over my drysuit (built in socks) or with my wetsuit. The gloves are only 2mm but whatever the magic is, they perform like a 5mm glove. Just be sure they are a little loose so they can trap the heat of your hands. I’ve been out on several days where the wind chill is 15 degrees Fahrenheit and the water temp is 35 and my hands and feet are not cold.
This should be a no-brainer, but I’ll err on the side of caution and mention it anyway. Be very aware of the wind potential, and avoid off-shore winds at all cost. As much as we all love a good downwind, long point to point paddles can introduce many varying conditions. It is often better to just find an onshore wind and do out and backs, maybe even venturing only 1/2 kilometer off shore. This still provides a great workout, immersion in nature, and some perfect downwind surfing (since you always have the perfect line)
If you’ve gotten this far, you are definitely interested in cold water paddling, it may seem like a lot to take on, but the feeling of being toasty warm and safe with minimal technology, in what appears to the land lovers to be a completely inhospitable environment, is simply priceless. I won’t get into the science of it all, but there are many who believe the stoke factor of cold water paddling/surfing is greater than anything. If you can make it reasonably safe, the opportunities for surfing cold water runs are seemingly endless, and for many of us, the only viable option 11 months out of the year!
Happy padding, stay safe!