The off-season, between Labor Day and Memorial Day, is perhaps the best time of year to kayak. The launches aren't crowded, powerboats do not speed by in droves, and the coast takes on a completely different appearance.
Unfortunately, off-season boating is not without its drawbacks. Not only are there fewer folks on the water to help in case something goes wrong, but the water is much colder. Cold water decreases your body temperature four to five times faster than cold air, leading to loss of use of hands and arms followed by hypothermia and death.
Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself. With proper preparation, skills, and clothing, you can safely kayak well into the off-season, even year-round. This article is designed as a jumping-off point for those looking to extend their paddling season.
During hypothermia, a person's body temperature drops below the normal 98.6°F. Hypothermic persons exhibit a progression of symptoms that begins with shivering (body temperature between 94 and 96.5°F), moves to increasing loss of dexterity, mobility, coherence, and memory (86-94°F), and ends with unconsciousness (around 86°F) and cardiac arrest (79°F). Unless the victim is wearing a PFD of Type I or II, which floats the victim on their back, unconsciousness is quickly followed by death due to drowning.
Hypothermia is clearly a major concern, especially to a boater who might end up swimming in cold water. But how fast does hypothermia set in? The rapidity of heat loss from the body depends on a large number of factors, including water temperature, water circulation, clothing, and the individual.
Water temperature is an obvious factor: the colder the water, the faster it will cool your body. For instance, look at the graph below. At 60°F, an average victim wearing a PFD and floating calmly in the "HELP" position (described below) might remain conscious for more than five hours. However, at 40°F, a normal ocean temperature
for Portland, Maine in April, this average victim has perhaps two hours before succumbing.
Water moving across your skin increases heat loss and hastens hypothermia, so victims who are moving (by swimming or treading water) or are wearing thin, baggy clothing are at increased risk. Therefore, off-season boaters should always wear a PFD to provide adequate flotation without requiring movement. Also, as will be discussed later, clothing that prevents circulation of water against the skin will dramatically increase your survival time, and therefore your chances of rescue.