Warm air masks coldwater dangers for paddlers


Parts of the Chesapeake region experienced expectedly warm weather recently, with some days in February feeling more like April. For paddlers, those first bursts of warm weather awaken the call of the kayak. If you count yourself among them, Moulton Avery, director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety, has a message for you: stop and think.

Avery, a long-time kayaker and former director of a wilderness institute, first confronted the dangers of cold temperatures when he was a young, new and unprepared backpacker, spending a bone-chilling night in the Smoky Mountains. He has since spent years training people to prepare for extreme weather, and he considers cold water — especially on days with mild air temperatures — to be an especially deceptive hazard.

“The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that people have no idea how dangerous it is. They don’t realize that immersion in water between 50 and 60 degrees is a life-threatening event for the vast majority of people,” Avery said.

The greatest misstep is to assume that warm air temperatures mean the water is comfortable, too. “People have been cooped up all winter, and they want to get out,” Avery said. “They look at that water and don’t see anything dangerous at all, just a sparkling opportunity to go have some fun.”

While kayak enthusiasts may have a healthy fear of hypothermia, they are less familiar with the impacts of cold shock, which can incapacitate even skilled, athletic paddlers and increase the risk of drowning. The maximum physical impact hits between just 50 and 60 degrees. “It won’t be worse at 35 degrees, because it can’t get any worse,” Avery said during an annual workshop offered by the Chesapeake Paddlers Association in January.

Gasping and hyperventilating are the body’s first response. “Then, as your muscles and nerves begin to cool, you lose the ability to use your hands, your arms and your legs,” Avery said.

The combined effect is swimming failure and the inhalation of water, which can cause spasms in the back of the throat. “Even in a PFD (personal flotation device), your mouth is about 6 inches above the water. If the water is rough, that’s not good.”

Dizziness, cramping and a buzzing in the ears can follow. If your hands and fingers don’t work, recovering a kayak or paddle can be difficult. If you haven’t practiced kayak recovery skills, the challenge may be greater still.

Avery cautions against relying on anything other than water temperature as the first indicator of whether to launch your kayak. You can check temperatures reported from a buoy or monitoring station, but you can also do a touch test: Submerge your forearm along the shoreline or from a pier. Hold it there and imagine its effects.

If you are determined to hit the water, don’t act on impulse. Plan ahead. Investigate a full range of safety gear and, most importantly, test it in the water, close to shore, with others present. Dry suits that don’t protect arms and hands won’t be helpful in cold water, and leaks in seams are not uncommon. Layers matter. Learn how it feels to move in your gear and how long it takes before you begin to feel cold. Practice recovery skills routinely, in warm weather.

“Kayaking is wonderful, it’s fun,” Avery said, “but here’s the thing: Unless you are willing to do a lot of extra work, you really don’t have any business being out in a small, easily capsized craft when the water is cold.”

To learn more about cold water safety for paddlers, visit You’ll find details on these “5 Golden Rules” and 20 related case studies:

1. Always wear your PFD.
2. Always dress for the water temperature.
3. Field-test your gear.
4. Swim-test your gear every time you go out.
5. Imagine the worst that could happen and plan for it.

Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors of the Chesapeake region.

April 24, 2017

Main image: Two kayakers paddling on the Potomac in the winter (image courtesy: woodleywonderworks / Flickr)
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