Friday, March 10, 2006

Spring in the air, winter in the water - yep, it's hypothermia lecture time again...

Heading off for what should be a nice weekend with my adventure-travel-agent friend & her husband - we're northbound up the Hudson (ok, by car this time) for a visit with Donna & Ralph Diaz (egads, there I go name-dropping again). I think I've figured out where I want to go on this other thing I'm writing (why is it that I can blither blithely by the hour here, but when I tell somebody I'll write something I freeze up & decide every single thing I'm thinking of saying isn't worth saying & is either going to be boring or patronizing or both? ok, angst moment over, guess that's why I don't really think of myself as a writer, just somebody who likes writing) & I gotta go jump on that now. One thing here first though - it's quick.

I walked out the office door into a night that felt like pure Spring tonight. That was wonderful, I'm thrilled, Winter could still put in a last appearance but warmer, longer days are around the corner. The only problem with Spring is that this has to be the worst time of year for boating accidents of the incredibly preventable variety, where a simple lack of simple knowledge kills somebody. Every year, it seems like a couple of news stories do the rounds of the kayak listserves, and they're all the same, just with different names & locations. The elements: a warm day; a lightly-clad boater; a pfd in the canoe, under the decklines, anywhere but being worn; an overturned or empty boat found; a frantic search; a tragic ending. Feeling that warm air, it's all too easy to forget that the water temperature is still very much winter cold. I was happy to have my new drysuit (gore-tex-sockless though it be) in Florida; here in New York City, the current water temperature is 40.1 fahrenheit (4.5 celsius). According to the average survival time chart on's hypothermia page, when the water temperature is 40 - 50 degrees the time until unconciousness is 30 - 60 minutes. The problem is, in the time leading up to that state, your ability to actually help yourself undergoes a steady, predictable deterioration, with the first things to go being manual dexterity & mental acuity. Strenuous activity, like swimming to shore or repeated attempts to get back into a small boat without having practiced enough in controlled circumstances to be able to do it smoothly under pressure, move that process along even faster.

So please - if you're stumbling across this blog, and you're a temperate-zone paddler who's thinking it might be nice to get out on the water to enjoy some lovely Spring weather, and you aren't familiar with the risks of cold-water paddling, please do everyone (starting with yourself & anyone you care about or who cares about you) a favor & take the time to learn about those risks.

I recommend the site linked above; I'm also very fond of Chuck Sutherland's hypothermia pages (which include a number of other good references). Here's the Coast Guard's short & sweet version, which actually includes a graph that I think shows the risks at different temperatures better than the boatsafe one. If you're not sure how the water in your area is & what precautions you might need to take, I'd say just call a local outfitter or kayak & canoe shop - any paddlesport professional worth their salt should be able to (and happy to) tell you what how the water conditions are & what you need to know (and wear, starting with your PFD of course) to have a safe Spring boating experience.

For the drysuit-ownin' frostbitin' boat-fiends that I think make up 60 percent of my 20 regular readers - I apologize for the worrywartitude of this post - but I think you folks will understand why I'm doing this more than anyone. For the tropic-dwelling set that comprise 20% more...well, what can I say but - lucky you live Hawaii, or Malaysia, or Singapore, or wherevahs, yeah?

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