Back to Golden Rules

Always Dress for the Water Temperature
- No Exceptions -


Because cold water can kill you. Not wearing thermal protection when you paddle on cold water is gambling with your life. The air temperature is irrelevant. The only thing that really matters when you fall into cold water is whether you are dressed for immersion.

Dressing for the water temperature means a lot more than simply donning a wetsuit or drysuit before you head out. It means knowing with certainty that the garments you're wearing provide enough thermal protection to keep you warm and allow you to function - physically and mentally - should you wind up in the water.

Cold water immersion is always a race against the clock, and depending on how well prepared you are, it can be a desperate race or one you can walk rather than run.

The Cold Facts

Dressing for the water temperature means:

“For the record, when I say “wearing a wetsuit”, I mean a good quality, well-fitted wetsuit appropriate to the conditions one is paddling in.  And that means IMMERSION. A 3mm farmer john with some polypro and an anorak when paddling the Mendocino Coast is not “wearing a  wetsuit”. - Andy Taylor – Comment on the Tsunami Rangers blog.

Tsunami Rangers co-founder, Eric “No Exceptions” Soares emerging from the chilly Pacific Ocean wearing a full-thickness (7mm) wetsuit and neoprene hood.

Why we say “No Exceptions”.

A lot of people who don’t want to be bothered with dressing for the water temperature argue that you can make a lot of exceptions to this rule, and they’ve come up with all sorts of excuses and rationalizations to justify paddling unprotected on dangerously cold water:

Common Excuses for Not Following Golden Rule No. 2

“I‘m not going to wear a wetsuit or drysuit because”:

The Bottom Line

Case Studies

Case 1

Irina McEntee and Carissa Ireland
May 16th, 2010 - Casco Bay, Maine
The water was calm and the weather was gorgeous and unseasonably warm when two young women, Irina McEntee, 18, and her best friend Carissa Ireland, 20, launched their kayaks for a short, round-trip paddle between Peaks Island and Ram Island in Casco Bay, Maine – a trip that Irena had made many times before. Irena’s parents actually had a view of the paddling route from their house on Peaks Island and saw both girls land safely.

Ram Island is only a mile across the water from Peaks, but the location is exposed - to the East, South, and Southeast, there's nothing but open ocean, and neither Irena’s parents nor the girls were aware that the National Weather Service had issued a Small Craft Advisory for that afternoon.

When they attempted to paddle home, the weather had changed and the wind was blowing out of the north and gusting to 22mph. That may not sound like much on land, but out on the open water it’s another story, particularly for small human-powered boats like kayaks.

Unable to make headway against the wind, Irena and Carissa were blown out to sea and into much rougher conditions where, dressed only in shorts and light shirts, they capsized in brutally cold 48F (9C) water.

When the girls failed to return home on schedule, Irena’s parents could look out the window and see much rougher conditions had become - and that there were no kayaks in sight. By then it was 2.5 hours before sunset. Heartsick with worry, they called the Coast Guard, which responded by promptly dispatching the 207-foot US Coast Guard cutter Campbell, launching a Jayhawk helicopter and Falcon jet from Air Station Cape Cod, sending out an emergency broadcast on Channel 16, and contacting their “local partners” - civilians with SAR capabilities in the Casco Bay area - setting in motion what was to become a massive search operation.

HH-60 Jayhawk Medium Range Helicopter – US Coast Guard

As any pilot can attest, it's not easy to spot small objects from the air. At best, a person wearing a PFD will have only their head and upper shoulders exposed - not an easy target, even when the light is favorable and the water flat calm. The same goes for twelve foot blue-green kayaks.

When the sun set at 8;00 p.m., searchers were left with roughly 90 minutes of gradually diminishing twilight before darkness fell. Nevertheless, by 8:30 p.m., both kayaks had been located, floating in the open ocean roughly seven miles South of Ram Island, and about a mile SSE of Cape Elizabeth. One kayak was upright and contained a jacket and T-shirt; the other was upside-down. Irena and Carissa were nowhere in sight.

Map of Casco Bay

Search teams on the ground had initially concentrated their efforts on Ram and nearby Cushing Island, but found no sign of the missing women. With the discovery of the kayaks, the ground search moved South to probable landing areas on Richmond Island and Cape Elizabeth. When twilight faded into night, searchers began using aerial flares for illumination.

After a grueling all-night search involving the U.S. Coast Guard, multiple local agencies, and more than 150 people, they were found by the Coast Guard at 9:00 am the following morning, floating lifeless in their PFD’s, three miles offshore and seven miles south of their original destination.

Case Note:  
Even strong and experienced paddlers can be overwhelmed by the wind, which is why they pay particular attention to Marine Weather Forecasts. This information is broadcast by the National Weather Service and you can access it with an inexpensive weather radio – the kind you find at Radio Shack. Information is also available online.

Inexpensive, reliable, waterproof cases that are available for cell phones allow you to operate the phone without removing it from the case. You can program your phone with the number of the closest Coast Guard sector.

High quality, waterproof, hand-held VHF radios can be purchased for under $150. The US Coast Guard continuously monitors emergency Channel 16 (the one you’d use on your VHF radio to call for help) as do many commercial and private boats. Most VHF radios also have an automatic weather alert feature that activates whenever an adverse weather broadcast is detected.

Back to cases

Case 2

Michael and Daniel Madders
August 23, 2009 Loch Maree, Scotland

Wearing fluorescent PFD’s, Dr Michael Madders, 52, a well-known and highly respected ornithologist, and his son, Daniel, 7, set out around noon on Sunday from Tollie Bay for a short, 20 minute canoe trip on Loch Maree, a remote loch in the Scottish Highlands.

At twelve-and-a-half-miles long by two-and-a-half miles wide, with a surface area of 11 miles, Loch Maree is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland and the largest north of Loch Ness. The water there is very cold year-round, and area residents were quoted as saying that conditions on the lake were notoriously changeable and had been particularly poor that afternoon, with driving rain and waves that could easily overwhelm a small vessel such as a canoe.

Tollie Bay is a short distance from the village of Poolewe where Dr. Madders had lived for the last few years with Daniel’s mother, Christine Cain, and when the pair didn’t return home on time, she went down to the loch to look for them and found their overturned canoe on the shore around 4:30 p.m.

The Stornoway coastguard rescue helicopter was scrambled shortly afterwards and located the missing pair by 5:30pm. Although reports indicated that both father and son were alive when found, they were pronounced dead when they arrived at the Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway after being airlifted across The Minch to the Outer Hebrides. Christine was left with the heartbreaking task of identifying their bodies.

Nick Thompson, manager of the Loch Maree hotel, was quoted as saying "I warned off three other kayakers on Sunday – the waves were 3ft high. It was dangerous conditions, there were white caps everywhere. A lot of people just don't know the loch. It can change quickly and become very treacherous suddenly." He also noted that a father and daughter had been lucky to escape with their lives three weeks earlier when their canoe capsized. Fortunately they had been able to swim to the shore.

Case Note:  
Canoes are notorious for being very difficult or impossible to handle in strong winds. The most likely scenario is that a sudden weather change caught Dr. Madders and his son out on the loch. The high wind would have made it impossible for them to return to shore, and large waves would have filled the canoe with water or otherwise caused it to capsize. Wearing PFDs wasn’t enough. In those conditions they needed thermal protection to survive.

Back to cases

Case 3

Kevin Dammen
June 7th, 2011 Little Sand Bay, Apostle Islands Area, Lake Superior
According to news reports, the incident took place on the afternoon of June 7th, when four Minnesota college students who attended Winona State University launched their kayaks at Little Sand Bay on Lake Superior. They planned to paddle across two miles of open water to Little Sand Island and then return that day via the same route. They were identified as brothers Kevin Dammen and Kyle Dammen, 20 of Austin, Minn.; Grant Schlicter, 21 of Winona, Minn.; and Travis Hawley, 19 of Winona, Minn. All were wearing PFDs.

Although air temperatures across the Great Lakes region were reported to have increased significantly for several weeks prior to the incident, the water temperature was still a brutal 47F and the National Weather Service had issued a marine small craft advisory for the area with a prediction of winds gusting to 30 mph.

When the group was 2/3 of the way across, 4 foot waves caused one of the kayaks to fill with water and submerge, forcing the paddler out of the boat. As the other three kayakers were turning around to help him, one of them, Kevin Dammen, capsized and exited his boat. He had on a life jacket, swim trunks and a t-shirt. Although he had a wetsuit with him, he wasn’t wearing it.

At that point, Kevin reportedly directed the two kayakers who remained in their boats to help the other paddler in the water. They accomplished this by having that person hold on to the rear of one of the kayaks, which, accompanied by the other kayak, proceeded to tow him through the water the remainder of the way to the island.

There was no indication in news reports as to whether the party made any attempt to salvage and reenter either of the submerged kayaks, and no reason was given as to why Kevin wasn’t taken under tow by the second kayak.

When the two kayaks reached the island with the other kayaker in tow, one of them turned around and paddled two miles back to town where, at 5:30 p.m., he contacted the Bayfield County Communications Center via 911. According to reports, a water and shoreline search was started, and a boat was dispatched to Sand Island to retrieve the two kayakers who remained there.

After being notified of the situation, Coast Guard Station Bayfield immediately launched a 25-foot Response Boat-Small with a rescue crew on board. The Coast Guard boat found Kevin in Little Sand Bay at about 8 p.m., floating dead in the water. He was wearing his blue life jacket and had the bottom half of his wetsuit on. The boat crew pulled him out of the water and performed CPR while they transported him to shore where the Ashland Paramedics and Life Link III medical crew, along with the Red Cliff Ambulance EMTs, were waiting. Resuscitation efforts were continued, but the paramedics were unable to revive him.

Chief Petty Officer James Robertson, officer-in-charge of Station Bayfield, is quoted as saying that the boat crew didn’t see Kevin until they were relatively close, because his life jacket blended in with the color of the water.

Case Note:  
You have to wear your thermal protection; “having it with you” doesn’t count. Even if the water is warm, it is exceptionally difficult to put on a wetsuit while you’re in the water, and it’s impossible to pull it up over your torso without removing your PFD. This is why Kevin was only able to get his wetsuit half-way on.

Back to cases

Case 4

Fengquan Guan
May 9th, 2010 Milford, Connecticut
While on an annual visit with friends in Milford, Fengquan Guan, 32, of Beijing, went paddling alone on Long Island Sound in a grey, 16-foot double kayak that he had used on previous occasions. He set out at 11 a.m., wearing a black sweater, black jeans, and a Body Glove PFD, for what he thought would be a short trip along the shoreline. The water temperature was a very cold 54F, and conditions in Long Island Sound were rough, with winds gusting around 23 mph and 2-3 foot seas.

When he didn’t return within two hours, Guan’s friend called the local police and the Coast Guard was brought in to search the area. Using helicopters, falcon jets, and rescue boats, police and Coast Guard personnel initially canvassed 1,250 square miles searching for him. The search was finally called off the next day at 9 p.m. after no sign of either Guan or his kayak could be found.

One day later, however, his kayak was discovered by Southold police officers, swamped at the high tide line in Goldsmith Inlet, and the search was resumed, again without success. His body was finally recovered two weeks later when it washed ashore on Ocean Beach in Amaganset. The Body Glove PFD was found washed ashore nearby, suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t properly fastened and came off in the water.

Case Note:  
Milford, where Guan launched, lies in a crescent shaped indentation of the Connecticut coast that’s quite protected unless wind is blowing from the East or South. Although offshore conditions in Long Island Sound were quite rough, the water would have appeared fairly calm to Guan when he was standing on shore preparing to launch his kayak, because the water almost always appears deceptively calm when the wind is blowing offshore.

Back to cases

Case 5

Mark J. Tamkus
March 17th, 2011 Millsite Lake, Redwood, New York
Mark J. Tamkus, 62, of 42607 Camp Tousey Rd., in Redwood, NY, was found under his capsized kayak at 3:00 p.m. by the Jefferson County Special Tactics and Rescue team after his family had reported him missing earlier in the day.

The kayak was found floating upside down in a small area of open water in front of his lakeside home. Millsite Lake was still mostly ice-covered, and the water temperature at the time of capsize was 32F. Mr. Tamkus, who was not wearing a sprayskirt, drowned before he was even able to exit the kayak.

Following an autopsy conducted that evening at Samaritan Medical Center in nearby Watertown, Jefferson County medical examiner Dr. Samuel A. Livingstone, ruled that he died of asphyxia due to cold-water drowning.

Mr. Tamkus was a part-time veterans benefit counselor and advocate at the Veterans Affairs Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Watertown. Millsite Lake is located in the Jefferson County town of Redwood, about 90 miles north of Syracuse, NY.

Case Note:  
This incident is an excellent example of what happens when cold shock causes a person to gasp while under water: they immediately drown, often before they’re even able to exit the kayak.

Back to cases

Case 6

David Arthur Dickerson
April 21st, 2012 Omena Bay, Lake Michigan
Family members said that Dave Dickerson, 43, loved being out on the water and usually paddled his canoe for an hour every evening on Omena Bay, starting around 6 p.m. From all accounts he appears to have been a lovely, kind, generous, and thoughtful man who was well-respected in his community.

According to the information below, posted on the internet by his sister, Dickerson had a lot of assorted outdoor experience under his belt:

  • “He left a good job as the buyer for the world's largest paddling retailer to live on Omena Bay, because that's where he wanted to live”. 
  • “He was fueled by a passion for living. Salmon fishing in the Pacific. Ice climbing on Mount Washington. Downhill skiing black diamond slopes of Bridger Bowl in Montana. White water rafting the Galliton River in Yellowstone Park. He paddled the Gales of November in Lake Superior. His sailboat was the first on Omena Bay in spring and the last to come out”.
  • “He built his life around kayaking, canoeing, sailing, hiking, snowshoeing and climbing. He found grace in every weather. And he took it seriously, buying the best quality gear and the right clothes for the weather. He bought my daughter's first life preserver, her first sled and her first snorkel. He organized her first canoe trip, and her second and her third”.

On the Sand River, Ontario

Omena Bay is formed by a small indentation in the shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay, which itself is a part of northern Lake Michigan. On the final evening that he went paddling, Dickerson took his dog with him in the canoe. Although there was no wind and conditions were calm, the water temperature was a brutally cold 41F (5C).

He was expected home by 7:00 p.m., and when he didn’t return on time family members went looking for him. They couldn’t find him, and at 8:15 p.m., his sister called 911 for help and Leelanau County dispatch notified Coast Guard Sector Sault Sainte Marie, which launched an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Traverse City, and dispatched a 25-foot Response Boat–Small from Station Charlevoix.
MH-65 Dolphin

Within minutes of getting airborne, the helicopter crew located the overturned canoe and also spotted Dickerson, who appeared unresponsive, floating in the water about 100 feet away. Minutes later, Northport firemen and emergency medical technicians made the recovery, confirmed that he was unresponsive, and transported him to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His dog survived and returned home soaking wet at 9:30 p.m.

Case Note:  
Dave Dickerson’s sister, Rachael North, contacted us and provided a number of important details which we’ve included in this article. In the aftermath of the tragedy, she also contacted the Coast Guard at Traverse City and worked with them to create a safety video to alert others about the danger of cold water. Watch the video here.

Rachel also shared a video of Dave - fully dressed for immersion in a drysuit, neo hood and gloves - rolling his kayak on Omena Bay the previous December, and told us that he had both a wetsuit and drysuit hanging in his closet – a piece of information that naturally raises the question of why in the world he wasn’t wearing any protection when he went out that night. Watch the video here.

Dickerson was a very competent paddler with a wealth of outdoor experience, and yet he left his cold water gear at home. How could that happen? What was he thinking? The sobering answer is that a person can easily make this kind of bad decision without even thinking about it.

In November, 2011, I wrote a safety article for Sea Kayaker magazine analyzing a very similar incident in which another competent and experienced paddler, someone who also knew better than to leave his wetsuit in the closet, went paddling solo on the freezing Mississippi River and came within a whisker of dying.

We have four documents on our site that relate to these seemingly inexplicable lapses in judgment, and while no one will ever really know what Dave Dickerson was thinking, I believe this information can help us to better understand his tragedy. (Click on links below.)

  • Cold and Alone on an Icy River
    Randy Morgart’s gripping personal account of his near-death experienced on the Mississippi appeared in the August 2010 issue of Sea Kayaker.
  • Short Video Demonstrating the Power of Moving Ice
    This video, taken by Randy Morgart shortly before he capsized, shows sheets of ¼ inch ice moving slowly along with the Mississippi River flow. It’s a pretty, tranquil scene – until you see that ice knocking a large steel buoy all over the place.
  • Anatomy of a Bad Decision
    This article explores the age-old tug of war between reason and emotion, and sheds light on the question of how an experienced paddler could decide to leave his wetsuit at home and go kayaking on freezing water.
  • Short Analysis of Randy Morgart’s Immersion
    This article is a closer look at Randy Morgart’s experience with both cold shock and incapacitation. Also discussed is his clothing, his successful self-rescue, and his inability to think clearly throughout the entire incident.

Back to cases

Case 7

Nine U.S. Marines
March 6th, 1968, Potomac River, Quantico, Virginia
It was 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. The air temperature was in the 40’s (5-9C), and a light breeze created small ripples on the surface of the water. Nine U.S. Marines, dressed in sweatsuits and paddling a 25-foot canvas covered “war canoe” with a 4-foot beam, were nearing the end of a two-mile crossing of the Potomac River, 25 miles south of Washington, D.C., when they suddenly capsized approximately 100 yards from shore.

The Marines were all excellent swimmers, part of an elite group that had trained for two months as close-combat, physical-fitness, and water-survival instructors at the nearby Marine Corps Physical Fitness Academy. They were a tough bunch, and their group leader had taught water-survival for five years.

No one was wearing a PFD when the canoe turned over, but it was equipped with seat-cushion-type life preservers - one for every man on board. Why they capsized, and whether they attempted to right and reenter the canoe will never be known, because despite a valiant attempt to swim to safety, every single one of them drowned. The water temperature was 36 degrees (2C).

Case Note:  
No matter how strong, fit, determined or motivated you are, sudden immersion in cold water is a life-threatening event.

Back to cases

<< Rule 1 Rule 3 >>