Top 3 Reasons It's Okay to Paddle in the Winter (Some call this the "off season")

"So....What Do You Guys Do All Winter?" 

Last night was Downtown Trick or Treating, when Beverly businesses open their doors to the masses of children dressed up as everything from Princess Elsa to Iron Man to the Grim Reaper.  It was raining, so turnout was a little low- "only" around 500 kids came through our shop, compared to the 1,000 or so we usually get! We were themed, as we are every Halloween, and went back to a fitting favorite, The Little Mermaid. Ashley was Ariel (of course), and I was Sebastian the Crab (of course?). Shockingly, parents had no problem talking to a giant crustacean with a pink face (don't get the cream face paint, it doesn't cover as well), and, as it was outside was sort of raw and cold, we were asked the above question a lot. "What do you guys do all winter?". We tell them: 

Last year we began offering winter paddle tours to our customers, and it was a huge success! We were blown away by how many people zipped into a wetsuit and took to the water even as the mercury dipped below 30 degrees. 

Most then look at us skeptically, as they should. At first glance, and if you haven't done it, winter paddling seems like sort of a screwball idea at best.  So if you weren't among the brave souls that joined us last year, read on for the top 3 reasons it's totally okay to paddle in the winter, as well as answers to the top 5 questions you probably have about it. 

Reason No. 1 why it’s okay to paddle in the winter.

     We've put people on the moon.  The moon's pretty far away, with temperature swings from over 250°F during the lunar day to less than -200°F during the lunar night. But, outside of a few conspiracy theorists, no one thinks too much about how the astronauts survived such temperatures. Yet for some reason, when people see pictures of us paddling in the winter, they say things like, "Wow, you must be crazy!" or "Weren't you cold?!". But here's the thing: the moon is a way harsher environment than New England in the winter, at least on most days. If we can keep humans safe on the moon, we can definitely keep them safe and warm on the water in winter. Materials science has come a long way, which means we now have wetsuits and drysuits totally up to the task of keeping you warm and safe while you’re out there.  So, suit up, and join us on the water!

Reason No. 2 that it’s okay to get on the water in the winter

     We have incredibly accurate weather forecasts. Despite the jokes about meteorlogists and their forecasts, they’re actually amazingly accurate given how many variables there are in predicting whether (ha, whether) it’s going to be raining, sleeting, snowing, or a beautiful sunny day. This means we can pick the best winter days to get out there and feel reasonably certain that nothing crazy is going to happen. When most people picture New England in the winter, they picture howling winds and blowing snow. While those days happen, and we enjoy paddling on those days, we don't take customers out (because our lawyers said we couldn't :) ) The truth is, we have plenty of nice days during the winter. By keeping thresholds that are appropriate to the level of experience of our paddlers, we can ensure that our paddle tours are only going out when it's safe to do so.  If conditions push beyond those thresholds, we don't go out. 

Reason No. 3 it's safe to get out there in the winter

     Before I get into reason 3, I need to throw in a little caution here. Paddling in the winter without experienced guides is not recommended. While it is safe most of the time, if something goes wrong, it can go wrong in a hurry. With an experienced guide who can anticipate risks and hazards and knows how to handle anything that comes up, winter paddling can can be the beautiful experience we've been preaching. 

     To that end: I've been paddling in the winter for over ten years, and I've taken the liberty of making all of the mistakes during that time so that you don't have to. This includes paddling without gloves (ouch), sitting on mini-icebergs that break apart beneath me (didn't expect to go for that swim), and attempting to swim a flowing tidal stream with a torn dry suit.
In February.
At night.
(We had to abort that adventure until I could get appropriate gear)
Luckily, I've been fortunate to paddle with some really great people over the years, who have helped me learn from each of my mistakes. I now know how to plan for and avoid any dangerous situations, so we can enjoy being on the water, floating with friends old and new and sipping some coffee. Which makes me think... 

Bonus Reason you should join us on the water in the winter.

Thermos’s! This goes back to materials science. We have thermos’s that will keep your beverage (mine’s coffee, but for others it’s hot cocoa or tea) warm for hours. And hours. And there is no better time and place that I’ve found to have a cup of coffee then floating in the ocean with a light snow blanketing your board or kayak. 

Top 5 FAQ's About Winter Paddling

Isn't it cold? 

Yes.

But only sometimes. And as long as you dress appropriately and take heed of conditions, it's only uncomfortably cold, not dangerously cold. Skiing and snowboarding can be cold too, but people just accept that as a part of the sport. 

Paddling is typically associated with warmer months or climates, so people don't expect cold to be a part of it. However, that's actually one of the really cool parts about winter paddling. You can feel the crisp air on your face, but inside you're warm from paddling in your wetsuit or dry suit. Throw in that warm cup of coffee and you'll actually enjoy that little bite to the air. 
 

What if I fall in? 

We play it pretty conservatively, so last year we didn't have anyone fall in. We go out in calm conditions, and encourage paddleboarders to drop to their knees or bum if they feel unstable at any point. We keep a tight group so kayaks can raft up together if they experience any rough sections (but we typically don't.). 

However, there's a common notion among paddlers that we're all just "between swims." One of the most important things in paddling is to dress for the water temperatures, which is why we wear wetsuits or drysuits even if we get a random "warm" winter day. 

If you do fall in, it's good to know what to expect. As soon as you go in, your wetsuit will flood with cold water (a tighter fitting suit minimizes this.) This will be shocking, but it's important to not panic, knowing that you will very quickly warm that water up with your body heat. You'll also experience the dreaded "ice cream headache". This too will only last for a short time. It's important to slow down your breathing, letting your body distribute your blood supply as it needs to keep everything warm. You'll be amazed at how quickly you warm back up. 

It's also a really good idea to have a dry bag with some dry clothes in it, particularly insulating layers. These can provide extra warmth in the event you do fall in or capsize. If you're out with a guide (and you should be out with a guide if you don't have experience winter paddling) they will likely provide the extra clothes.  

What should I wear? 

There's two main options for paddling in winter: Wetsuits or Drysuits. I won't go into a full description here, but in general, wetsuits are close fitting one piece suits made of neoprene, which helps trap heat around your body, even if you get wet, due to the millions of little nitrogen bubbles inherent in the material. These create a dead air space between you and your surrounding environment, insulating you from the cold. They are cheaper than drysuits and provide better mobility when in the water.

Drysuits are usually one-piece, though there are two-piece options as well, and are made of a waterproof and breathable material that seals at the wrists and neck so as to not let any water in. This allows you to dress in warm, dry layers underneath, and typically allows you to be warmer than a wetsuit. However, they are significantly more expensive, and if you end up with a tear in one while your paddling, you could suffer some pretty serious consequences if you then get wet. 

Why do I keep hearing "Cotton Kills"? 

Unlike materials like wool and fleece, cotton does not retain its warmth when wet. It you end up in the water while wearing a heavy cotton sweatshirt, you're just going to have a heavy cold garment surrounding you. 

Can I pee in my wetsuit to keep warm? 

Yes. Which means if you own your wetsuit, and nobody else is going to have to wear it after you, you may pee in it all the live long day. My recommendation would be to dilute, dilute, dilute before hand. 

If your question really was "Can I pee in your wetsuit?" the answer is absolutely not. That's gross and can lead to some terrible nicknames if you're caught doing it. (And you will be caught, because we'll see the smile slowly spreading across your face as our wetsuit is flooded with sudden warmth). 

But fear not, the wetsuits will keep you warm even without your "extra" contribution, and if you need a little extra warmth, just paddle hard for a minute or do some pushups or jumping jacks on the board. (Have you done jumping jacks on the board? Not as easy as you might think.) 

So there you have it. 3 reasons it's okay to paddle in the winter, as well as answers to your top 5 questions. If you have any other questions, join us in the shop Thursday, Nov. 9th for an informal workshop about winter paddling. Let us know you're coming so we can have plenty of snacks and beverages! 

**I recognize that this blog only answered the question "Is it okay to paddle in the winter?" For understanding why on Earth you'd want to paddle in the winter, checkout my earlier blog Expanding Horizons . 

 

 

Aaron MearnsComment