Early Season Paddling: What to Know

Early Season Paddling: What to Know

It’s spring – the ice out in southern New England which means it’s time to get paddling!

Before you hit the water, however, please make sure you know what you’re getting into. Winter and Spring paddling is absolutely awesome. Nothing quite beats the feeling of getting out on the water to beat the dark-month blahs. The waters are high, the boats are out of the way and you can pretty much park anywhere you want. I love it. In fact, I spent a good portion of this past Winter driving around like a freak show with my kayak strapped to my car in search of open water. But, as much as I enjoy it, I have to respect the fact that it’s inherently dangerous.

Paddling on cold water is as serious as ice climbing. The water is icy cold and the weather is rough with more unpredictable winds and currents. Getting out in these elements requires experience, proper gear and an understanding of conditions. Let’s take a look:

1. The Water: Here in New England, waters are usually near forty degrees in March and April. That’s seriously cold, especially considering cold water robs body heat over 25x faster than cold air. Although the weather may be sunny and warm, the water is still in Winter-mode. Just dip your hand in for a minute and find out. In fact, I doubt you’d last a whole minute. I can’t. Never mind. Don’t do it.

There’s an old rule-of-thumb among boaters and paddlers, and it makes a heck of a lot of sense:
If the combined air and water temperature is below 130 degrees Fahrenheit, you need to dress for immersion. If the water is below 55 degrees, irrespective of air temps, you need to dress for immersion.

If you’re new to paddling on cold water, I suggest you head out for waters towards the lower level of your experience. If you were hitting Class I or II rapids last summer, consider choosing flat water until things warm up in May. This way you’ll be well prepared for the environment with reserve energy and abilities in case of trouble. I liken it to skiing: How the first run of the season is never as good as your last run from last season. It takes a little while to get back to the abilities you remember having. Don’t risk it. It’s impressive enough just getting out there.

That’s Me, Chasing the Ice Flows Last Week. Wicked Fun!

2. The Weather: Spring is windy. Winter is blowing out and warmer months are blowing in. The wind comes from all directions and can never really make up its mind. In the summertime, wind can be an annoyance for paddlers. When the water is forty degrees, it can be deadly. Be careful and know what to look for.

A gentle breeze of even 5-7mph can alter the direction of a kayak. Sit-on-top and recreational kayaks can begin experiencing weathercocking (moving in alignment with wind direction), especially with unstable Spring currents. That makes it tough to stay on a course that’s true. Be careful and maybe take a sleeker boat or search for still water or sheltered areas.

Lighter winds of 8-14mph can easily turn up waves higher than the sides of a kayak and can reduce paddling efficiency by over a third. You’ll get sprayed and work hard. It’s a ton of fun, just be ready for that. Winds stronger than 15mph can be problematic. You’ll see whitecaps and waves of over 5 feet. Getting knocked around is likely. I recommend these conditions only for very experienced, advanced paddlers with proper gear and training. Yes, I take a conservative approach, but why not?

Putting In at the Lower Merrimack River in Amesbury, MA

3. The Gear: With the growing popularity of paddling there has been an equally proportional development and availability of cold water paddling gear. You wouldn’t go hike a high peak in the Winter with your Summer gear and the same logic holds true for Winter and Spring paddling. With just a few key items you can get out there safely and well-prepared. I recommend the following things:

Drysuit- A person can die in under 15 minutes of immersion in freezing water. A person in a proper drysuit can safely float in chilly waters if they’re wearing proper insulating layers underneath. These suits are great. Drysuits serve as a waterproof shell over whatever layers you’d normally wear and the newer models allow for tons of movement and flexibility. Remember James Bond beaching with his drysuit and revealing a dry tuxedo underneath? Like that.

Be Careful Approaching Ice Flows. The Waves and Current Can Quickly Push You Into It.

Wetsuit- Not as good as a drysuit, but they still work great. In super cold water, I’d go for a full 6mm suit, or a two-piece, farmer john/shorty set. They’re crazy buoyant and will keep you toasty in cold water. You just give up some flexibility and comfort.

Remember to take care of your hands and head as well. When paddling, your hands are just as important as your feet are during a hike. I prefer gloves with a neoprene cuff to act as a seal against the cold water. Bring two pairs (in case the first set gets soaked through). For really rugged conditions I’d recommend using a neoprene hood. Well, I’d actually recommend staying home, but that’s just me. Otherwise, a skull cap or other weather-protective hat is great. From top down, think warmth and safety.

Oh, one last thing: WEAR YOUR PFD! It does you no good strapped to your boat.

So here’s to an awesome year of paddling; whichever you prefer, exciting or relaxing, I wish you the safest and best season ever. See you on the water, or on my blog, at Outdoors by Cracky!

Justin Chase

Justin "Cracky" Chase is the author of the online journal, Outdoors, By Cracky! Want to get outdoors in New England? Follow him! www.outdoorsbycracky.com

1 Comment

  1. March 22, 2013, 6:40 pm

    The good folks at the New England Kayak Club facebook page were quick to add some great points to this list; points that I wouldn’t consider season-specific, but still tantamount to the concepts I covered. Tips such as never paddling alone, letting people know where you’re going, bringing dry clothes, etc. All great stuff!

    Cheers to safe and awesome paddling!

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