It’s a sad fact that we have to face every year here in New England. The temperature drops, the days get shorter, and the water gets downright frigid. There are a lot of great things about winter. Heading up to the mountains to go skiing or snowshoeing, or maybe even just grabbing a sled and driving to the nearest hill with the kids all make for some fun times. But getting out on the water usually is not one of the first things that come to mind when looking for a fun way to spend the afternoon. But as long as the water isn’t frozen over, it is possible to grab your SUP board and take a few strokes on a calm winter afternoon. When the conditions are right, this can be one of the most relaxing, Zen inspiring activities that you will do during the colder months. With a bit of preparation, your paddle season can last nearly all year.
Develop a float plan:
This is best practice all year long, but in the winter it becomes critical. If for some reason you become disabled out on your journey, having others know where you are going goes a long way toward getting back safely. Something as simple as a sprained ankle as you walk the beach two miles into your paddle can slow you down enough to return dangerously close to sundown, and there won’t be any friendly boaters out there to tow you back. Having a plan is also just plain courteous. Can you imagine walking into the house on a January afternoon to find a note on the kitchen counter from your spouse that reads, “WENT SUPPING”? Not sure about you, but I generally like a bit more information. Be sure to include where you park, expected times on and off the water, and route that you are paddling at a minimum. Sharing your iPhone location with someone is also a good idea.
Choose your location wisely:
If you are new to winter paddling, then it’s normal to be a bit nervous in the colder weather. Choosing a route that stays close to shore, or in shallow water helps to alleviate that stress and allows you to fully enjoy yourself. Where we live, a great destination for winter paddling is the Mashpee River. It is protected from the wind on both sides and at the right tide is shallow enough to stand shin deep in the event of an unexpected polar plunge.
Check weather conditions before heading out:
Paddling in windy conditions during the summer months can be annoying, but in the winter it can be trouble depending on your skill and confidence level. Choppy water increases the risk of falling overboard and at the very least, makes for very chapped lips. Not much else needs to be said here. Just make sure it’s a calm day out there and you have plenty of daylight remaining.
Have the right gear:
In addition to your board and paddle, you’ll want the following items:
- Leash – You’re going to want to stay within an arm’s reach of your board if you take an unexpected toss. Having yourself tethered to the board makes getting out of the water a quick process. If you think that it’s too much of a hassle and that you will be able to quickly swim to your board, I’ll advise you to hop into a cold shower and see how well you function. Granted, your wetsuit or drysuit will protect against the extreme cold, but best to have less to think about if you’re suddenly dunked.
- PFD – In most cases, it’s the law no matter what time of year. However, in the dead of winter, there will be nobody out there to enforce it. It’s up to you to use good judgement. Not just carry it on the board, but actually wear it. If you go overboard, it will help keep your head above water, which will likely be the one part of your body that’s not protected from the water. It also provides some extra warmth as you are paddling.
- Wetsuit or Drysuit – Drysuits are an excellent way to protect yourself. They are usually more comfortable than a wetsuit and provide more freedom of movement. You can think of a drysuit like a giant raincoat. It keeps you dry, but the warmth comes from the insulating layers underneath. So you will also need non-cotton base layers such as fleece or wool to go along with your drysuit. Drysuits also are quite a bit more expensive than wetsuits, which is probably the biggest reason more people don’t use them. Wetsuits, on the other hand, will keep you warm while paddling, and warm enough if you fall in depending on the thickness. During the winter months, a 4/3 wetsuit should do the trick. What that means is that the neoprene thickness is 4 mm throughout the torso, and 3 mm at the arms and legs. This thickness is probably not warm enough for surfers and kiteboarders who expect to be immersed throughout the session, but for our purposes where we expect only a few seconds of cold water exposure it should be fine. One disadvantage of wearing a wetsuit is becoming too hot. In fact, don’t be too surprised if you sweat out quite a bit of fluid. One thing a neoprene wetsuit cannot do well is dissipate heat. For this reason, you may even have to keep your paddle session short to avoid overheating on milder winter days. Make sure to carry water and re-hydrate along the way.
- Neoprene Booties – 5mm to 7mm booties will help keep your tootsies warm, even with the occasional splash over the board.
- Gloves and Hat – Your hands and your head is where you will radiate heat. You want something made from non-cotton, moisture wicking material that is easily put on and taken off. Fleece is a favorite as it provides warmth and ventilation at the same time. Materials that provide wind protection, like ski gloves, are usually unnecessary. You won’t be going out in the wind. I recommend carrying a small drybag with an extra hat and gloves. If you get wet, you’ll need them. You might also want to change them out halfway through your paddle if they get too sweaty.
- Cell Phone – You may not want the inconvenience or risk of carrying your brand new iPhone, but it’s always best to be able to quickly contact help in the event that you need it. You can store it in an old peanut butter jar before tossing it in your dry bag for added protection.
Take a friend
This actually might be harder than it sounds. Your paddle buddy that loves to go in July might not have the motivation or equipment in February. But having some company does help with settling the nerves during your first few winter outings.
Really, it’s no different than any other outdoor winter adventure. If you have the knowledge and gear, you can easily mitigate the risks of the harsh weather and have a great time. You will enjoy the peacefulness of being on the water at a time when many people are having a rough time dealing with the short days and cold temperatures. It’s good for the mind. So get out and give it a try. You’ll be glad you did.