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Field-Test Your Gear


Cold water gear is your lifeline if you capsize. Will your gear really keep you warm? How do you know? Wetsuit style, fit, and thickness are critical to your safety. So is the clothing worn under a drysuit. Does your gear work like it’s supposed to? How can you find out?

Should you wear a hood? What kind of gloves work best for you? Say, for example, that you paddle on 50F water. How much time will your gear buy before you become too chilled to function? Does it interfere with a rescue or roll?

Field-testing will answer all of those questions and more. As the name implies, you test and practice with your gear “in the field” at the water temperatures you’ll encounter if you capsize. That’s what expert paddlers do, and it’s the reason they’re intimately familiar with their gear, and all of its strengths and weaknesses.

This may seem perfectly obvious, but it's surprising how many people paddle around in wetsuits, drysuits and other assorted cold water gear without ever having gotten into the water and really checked it out. Field-testing can be fun, it will open your eyes, and it will definitely build your skill and confidence as a paddler.

The Cold Facts

Valuable Things You Can Learn From Field-Testing

How and where to field-test

Practice with your gear in a safe location, in weather conditions and at water temperatures like the ones in which you'll be paddling. You need to know how your gear performs in those conditions and field-testing gives you the opportunity to work out any kinks in the system. Always field-test new gear.

Bottom Line

While wearing all of your cold water gear, can you...?

Note: Many of these points involve making absolutely sure - through experimentation and practice - that you have sufficient manual dexterity while wearing gear - such as neoprene gloves - that protect your hands from the cold.

Make certain that you can use all your gear smoothly and effectively - even when you're under stress. That takes practice.

Although you may not own or know how to use things like a sprayskirt, strobe, pump, paddle float, tow rope or VHF radio, reading the Case Studies associated with each Golden Rule will help you appreciate how valuable gear like that can be.

Field-testing vs Swim-Testing

Case Studies

Case 1: Sand Island, Apostle Islands Area, Lake Superior

Case 2: Isles of Shoals, Atlantic Ocean, 6 Miles East of ME / NH Coast

Case 1

A Chilling Experience for Greg Martin
May, 1987 Sand Island, Apostle Islands Area, Lake Superior
This classic, textbook case is all about keeping your hands warm. It's an important subject because you can be rendered completely helpless by cold, numb hands - even though the rest of your body is toasty warm inside a drysuit.

The incident began when Greg Martin, an experienced paddler, capsized in large, confused seas about 100 yards off the point of Sand Island on Lake Superior. For the record, May can be a challenging month on Lake Superior - even for very fit, experienced paddlers.

On the day Martin capsized, there had been snow flurries in morning, the air temperature was 35-40F (2-4C), and the water temperature was in the low 40s (5-6C). Although he was wearing a perfectly good drysuit with plenty of protection underneath it, the only thing protecting his hands were pogies, a type of fingerless, tube-like mitten that wraps around the paddle shaft and allows your bare hands to be in direct contact with the paddle. Many kayakers find that contact reassuring, however, as you're about to discover, if you have to do anything with your hands other than hold the paddle, the pogie system has a very significant disadvantage.

Following his capsize, Martin was unable to roll up, which forced him to remove his hands from the pogies in order to pop his sprayskirt and bail out. Although he was able to reenter his boat within five minutes using a paddle float, he had to do the entire self-rescue with his bare hands exposed to the cold air and water. During that short time, they became so cold that he was unable to reattach his sprayskirt. Without the skirt, every wave washed into the cockpit and pumping was useless. Pushed by the wind and waves, Martin's beloved Nordkapp was heading for what proved to be a very destructive rendezvous with sea cliffs and he prudently chose to swim an alternate route to shore.

Case Note:  
By themselves, pogies are a bad choice for keeping your hands warm in cold conditions. It's much better to get used to wearing neo gloves. If you insist on pogies, limit their use to milder conditions or use them in conjunction neo gloves.

No matter what system you use to protect your hands, you should rigorously field-test it. Proper field-testing would have alerted Martin to the fact that his pogies only worked as long as hands remained inside them.

When you hear the words "numb hands" in relation to kayaking, picture trying to paddle with boxing gloves on your hands. You can't do it.

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Case 2

Hamilton Wood, February 28th, 2009
Isles of Shoals, Atlantic Ocean, 6 Miles East of ME / NH Coast
Hamilton Wood, 59, launched his kayak from New Hampshire's Odiorne Point State Park around noon on Saturday, February 28th. His destination was the Isles of Shoals, nine rocky isles located roughly six miles off the New Hampshire/ Maine coast. He was paddling alone (solo) and wearing a wetsuit of unknown thickness and a PFD. The water temperature was 37F (3C).

Shortly after he launched, a concerned citizen in the Odiorne Point area called Coast Guard Station Portsmouth Harbor and reported a kayaker in what appeared to be rough seas. The Coast Guard investigated, found his car, learned both who he was and his intended route, and launched a 47 foot motor lifeboat that followed the same route.

The Coast Guard boat located Wood around 1:30 pm approximately 6 miles offshore (average paddling speed a respectable 4 knots), spoke with him, and determined that he wasn't in trouble. Wood told them he was planning on having lunch on nearby Smuttynose Island.

He agreed to call the Coast Guard on his cell phone before leaving the island, and again, when he reached his car and was off the water. Wood called at 3 pm to say he was heading back. "At that point, we re-emphasized to him to contact us when he arrived because the seas were getting a bit heavier," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Matthew Merical.

That was the last time anyone heard from him. Based on his previous crossing speed, he should have arrived back at Odiorne Point around 4:30 pm. When he failed to check in by 5pm, the Coast Guard went back to the state park and checked his car again. "Once it was determined the vehicle was still there and we couldn't contact him via cell phone, we launched the 47-foot boat again", said Merical.

That was the beginning of a huge search effort that included the 47-foot motor lifeboat, the cutter Reliance, and a Coast Guard helicopter and plane. Police and fire units from Kennebunk, Ogunquit, York, Kittery, New Castle and Rye also responded, in addition to Maine and New Hampshire marine patrols.

A big problem immediately encountered by the searchers was lack of light. Sunset on 2-28-12 was at 5:30pm and Nautical Twilight was at 6:32pm. Even if searchers had been able to arrive on scene immediately, they would have had no more than 60 minutes of gradually diminishing twilight in which to locate Wood before darkness fell.

According to Coast Guard Chief John Roberts, conditions were bad Friday night with very poor visibility and 8ft - 10ft swells, forcing most searchers to return to port. The search resumed at daybreak, and Wood's kayak was found capsized and floating in the ocean near Boon Island, which is 11 miles NE of Smuttynose and nowhere near his intended route.

A paddle with a float attached was recovered with the kayak, indicating that he had attempted to self-rescue.

The search continued until it was finally called off on Sunday, having lasted 40 hours and covered 400 square miles of ocean. In addition to the 37F (3C) water temperature, a snowstorm that dropped a foot of snow Sunday evening was a contributing factor in the Coast Guard's decision to suspend the search. In reality, there's no way that Wood could have survived even the first night in the water.

Wood's body was recovered by the Coast Guard two months later, washed up on the rocky shore of Lunging Island, which is on the New Hampshire side of the Isles of Shoals, and only ¾ of a mile (1.2 km) from Smuttynose Island, where he had eaten lunch.

This indicates that Wood very likely capsized in the rougher water surrounding Isles of Shoals shortly after leaving on the return leg of his trip. When his self-rescue failed, he was unable to swim to shore - or reach a spot where the rocky shoreline prevented him from getting out of the water.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, family and friends described Hamilton Wood as a dedicated father to his two teenage sons, a gifted educator and active outdoorsman. His wife, Lisa Wood told the press that he was a victim of bad luck, not recklessness, saying that he was "an extremely experienced kayaker". His brother-in-law, David Eberhart, was quoted as saying "He has done this trip out to the Isles numerous times. He's very conscientious about watching the weather and making sure conditions are OK for doing this."

Case Note:  
Several things are obvious from the circumstances surrounding the incident:

Proper field-testing of his gear, including below 40F (4.4C) solo rescue practice with a paddle float - in rough-water - would have clearly demonstrated to Wood that both his thermal protection and his self-rescue skills were inadequate for the water temperature and conditions in which he chose to paddle.

Making a trip multiple times without encountering any problems doesn't sharpen your senses; more often than not, it breeds a certain complacency that can lead to overconfidence. This was no ordinary outing. It was a solo, very exposed, 6 mile open-ocean crossing - on brutally cold water - in winter.

Regardless of a paddler's level of experience, 37F (3C) water isn't just a little more dangerous than, for example, 50F (10C) water. It's more like the difference between a Siberian Tiger and a pussy cat - many orders of magnitude more dangerous. If the paddler is solo, as Wood was, the risk simply cannot be overstated. As many incidents have demonstrated over the years, those are circumstances in which even a small miscalculation like missing a brace can get you killed.

Isles of Shoals has the potential for being a very dangerous place for small, human-powered craft like sea kayaks. sles of Shoals has the potential for being a very dangerous place for small,human-powered craft like sea kayaks. A place name like Isles of Shoals should send a strong cautionary message to any paddler. A shoal is a shallow area surrounded by deeper water. Shoals, sandbars, and underwater ledges often cause waves to steepen and break – even when the water appears relatively calm. Depending on things like waves, wind, and currents, conditions in an area like this can quickly change from tame to extremely rough.

As indicated on the Nautical Chart below, many large shoals and rocks surround the islands. Additionally, rough water with complex patterns also blocks many potential landing sites.

Chart:Portsmouth Harbor Cape Neddick Harbor to Isles of Shoals; Portsmouth Harbor

Sea kayakers should be aware that islands and other obstructions form an obstacle to waves, causing them to “bend” or refract. As shown in the figure below, waves converging from opposite directions on the down-wave side of an island form intersecting wave patterns that can create very rough, confused conditions.

Depending on the sea conditions, Isles of Shoals has the potential for being a very dangerous place for small, human-powered craft like sea kayaks.

This excellent 2 minute video, shot in slow motion on the coast of Oregon, shows how intersecting waves can amplify each other and create really fierce conditions: Ocean Backwash / Warped Waves

The following Google Maps satellite photos of Isles of Shoals also show intersecting wave patterns and very rough water.

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