I’m dreaming of a white…Easter???? The spring season should be well under way now and all we can do is seek solace in chocolate eggs after the coldest Easter on record. It was actually warmer at Christmas!
My hubby said this week that everybody knows how to keep warm for winter watersports. Then the news showed two windsurfers being pulled out of the Solent with advanced hypothermia. The one featured on the RNLI footage was wearing a shortie wetsuit… On the basis that this is highly inappropriate, I think that there might be value in re-visiting some Hot Tips on Brrrrrr-aving the chill!
Here are some facts; I know that it is technically spring and the daffs are out, but even in a normal year, water temperatures are at their lowest in March. It is obvious when you think about it – the water has been cooling down all winter. The water is warmest in Autumn, when everyone thinks you are mental for going out! Prolonged cold weather means that water temperatures are lower than usual this year. Sea temperatures are hovering around 5C – lower off the North Sea coast. That sounds chilly but let’s put it into context; without protection, your expected survival time from immersion in water at 5C is around an hour, but you will be unconscious and unable to save yourself within just 30 minutes.
Pic by Dave White
Of course, we take part in surface water sports and never fall in… but even on the surface, some cold, hard physics comes into play. The cooling effect of wind chill, even at low wind speeds, can make it feel at least 2-3C colder than the ambient air temperature. At low temperatures, 20mph can easily feel sub-zero and that is when you are dry. When you are wet, you discover the principles behind refrigeration! Your grub stays fresh or frozen because heat is removed very efficiently from your fridge by evaporating liquid. Evaporation increases the effects of wind chill on a wet body. Water has a very high specific heat capacity and thermal conductivity. Fall in and it removes heat from the body 25 times faster than air. Swim or struggle and the heat loss increases. Down time in cold water is, quite literally, a killer!
So cold weather and cold water is clearly not to be trifled with, but while “Ye canna change the laws of Physics” – you can certainly work with them. If you know what you’re up against, good gear and a sensible strategy will keep the watery wonders open all year!
Cold Weather Gear;
- Winter Wetsuit – if you do only one thing, wearing a well-fitting dry- or semi-dry winter wetsuit is a MUST; thicker neoprene insulates the core; welded, taped seams and seals around wrists, ankles and neck prevent water from flushing through the suit and chilling the body; slick neoprene means water runs straight off, reducing chill from surface evaporation; titanium linings reflect body heat back. Winter wetties are technical bits of kit, so they aint cheap, but mine is still going strong after 10 years; as such, a safe, comfortable and vastly extended season is costing me less than £30 a year – and reducing!
- Layers – a fleecy or neoprene rash vest underneath your wetsuit keeps you even warmer.
- Get Ahead – Get a Hat! – a neoprene hat or balaclava. You lose as much heat through your head as through any other part of your body, so cover it!
- Protect your Extremities – well insulated boots, which cover your ankles, will keep your tootsies toasty. For windsurfing, gloves often reduce grip and fatigue the forearm. I have some shaped neoprene gloves with leather palms, which work well. Palm-less kayaking mitts were not too bad and some swear by Marigolds, although I haven’t tried them!
Pic by Dave White
The Hot Aches and Hypothermia
“Like small shards of broken glass being hammered into my fingertips” is how climber Andy Cave described the hot aches. It is the painful sensation of hot blood going back into cold extremities. You will avoid it if you follow my advice, but if you do suffer, stick your hands back into the water for a few seconds to slow down the blood flow. I will mention hypothermia; it shouldn’t be a risk if you’re sensible, but Google it. It is wise to know the signs and treatment. Blue lips = Bad!
- Double Up – a good rule of thumb before going out is to make sure that something (either the water or air temperature) is in double figures. I will push it to an air temperature of 8C and some do go below, but do so with caution.
- Energise – keeping warm takes a lot of energy, so eat well pre-session and take some Scooby snacks. Although entering tartan blanket territory, you will be glad of a hot flask and some Cup a Soups when you come off the water!
- Warm up! – cold muscles are more prone to injury, so don’t skimp on your stretching.
- Stay Warm – once you get cold, it is very hard to warm up. I drive to and from the beach wearing my wetsuit. Alternatively, join or find a club who will let you use their changing facilities and hot showers for a day rate. A coat or rigging jacket and a warm hat will keep you toasty as you rig and de-rig. You could select a bigger board, so that you are less likely to fall off and get cold. If you start to feel cold on the water, go back to shore IMMEDIATELY, before it becomes a problem.
- Location, Location, Location. – a. As winter comes, the sea remains warmer much longer than lakes, as it is a much larger body of water. b. Head north and east and it generally gets colder. c. If you can find a shallow harbour, falling off is less painful as it will not result in full immersion. d. Or you could fly south to Egypt or the Caribbean..!
- The Right Direction – choose your wind direction “The north wind doth blow and we shall have snow…” Southerlies and westerlies are usually warmer than northelies and easterlies!
- Short Sharp Sessions – don’t stay out for too long and come back to shore well before you feel too shattered. Cold really saps your strength, so don’t underestimate it.
- Be Realistic – you should always be realistic about the equipment and conditions that you can cope with, but in cold weather this is especially so. Check your kit before you go out. If you get trashed or your kit breaks, or the wind drops when you are on a small board, you have much less time to sort things out before you are in real trouble.
- Buddy Up – never go on the water alone, especially in winter. If you do get into difficulty, your buddy can raise the alarm.
- Move It – if you live too far from the coast to drive there in your wettie, consider moving or buy a motorhome!
Pic by Helen McClean
I hope that these Hot Tips will help you to get the most out of the conditions that we have. Stay safe, but most of all, have a wonderful warm and watery wintery spring!