Rule 3 /Case 1

Field-Test Your Gear


A Chilling Experience for Greg Martin May, 1987 - Sand Island, Apostle Islands Area, Lake Superior


This classic 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.

Sand Island Cliffs and Caves on a Very Calm Day

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 45F (7.2C). 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 hand-to-paddle contact reassuring. However, if you have to do anything with your hands other than hold the paddle, the pogie system has a very significant disadvantage: You have zero protection if you have to remove your hands to do anything - like scratching your nose, assisting with a tandem rescue, pumping out your cockpit, or re-attaching your sprayskirt.

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. ​

Lesson Learned 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 or neo mittens with a neo liner glove. If you insist on pogies, limit their use to milder conditions or use them in conjunction a pair of lightweight neo gloves so that you'll at least have some protection if you remove your hands. ​ 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. ​ Finally, 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.


Major Contributing Factors


  • Unable To Recover From Capsize

  • Unable to Call For Help (Before cell phones or hand-held VHF radios were available.)

  • Being Complacent / Overconfident

  • Poor Group Management

  • Paddling Solo (due to poor group management)