Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gear: 8 Tips for Dressing Right for Your Kayaking Adventure

One question that comes up frequently when folks ask me about kayaking is "what clothing should I wear?". The answers have always seemed a bit obvious to me (and perhaps to experienced kayakers), but then, maybe they're not - and a discussion of the topic certainly can't hurt. I don't think it's necessary to spend a lot of money on high end gear, but the materials certainly matter. When it comes to extreme scenarios like very cold water, investing in a quality piece of clothing is essential to your safety. The most important concept to remember is that you are dressing for the water (even though you have no intention of swimming) as much as for the air. It can sometimes be challenging to be comfortable in the dry conditions, and yet still be prepared for an untimely wet immersion. So, here's some pointers on how to find the right balance:

1.The most important piece of clothing is your PFD. I know, your life jacket (personal flotation device) is not exactly a piece of clothing, but it is something you wear, and it is the single most important adornment you need for your safety. This is one of those items that is worth researching and spending some money on. Find one that is designed for the type of kayaking you will be doing, that fits snugly and can be tightened easily (LIKE THIS), and that remains comfortable when tightened while affording a full range of motion. Check the U.S. Coast Guard's guide to PFD selection. Find one that you like and wear it properly - always.  

2. Wear materials that dry quickly. The best way to keep warm is to keep dry. If you're wearing a cotton t-shirt and cotton shorts (or worse - jeans), you will not dry quickly and will be wet, and most likely cold (see my post "Florida Day" - Our Florida Paddle Adventure). Synthetic materials that are designed to wick away moisture work well in wet conditions. Make no mistake - drying off will make you colder. It's like sweating times ten, especially if it's windy. Getting dry quickly, however, will stop the evaporative cooling process and allow your body to regain its' proper operating temperature. A faster way, still, is to have a dry set of clothing safely stowed in a dry bag. A quick change is the fastest way to dry off and get your body heat back. You can dry your wet synthetic clothing under the deck rigging, then they can be your backup. I save money on this gear by sourcing it at discount retailers. Synthetic, wicking fabrics seem to be everywhere these days.            

3. Carefully consider your footwear. If you stay in your boat, and the most work your footwear has to do is rest on some pegs or push rudder pedals, then you can get away with a pair of water proof sandals (and no, I don't mean flip flops). How likely is that going to be the case? You might need to get out and walk on rocks or gravel, cross mussel beds or barnacles, drag your 'yak across tough marsh grass, or slog through ankle deep mud. Mud can suck the shoes right off you - so those water slippers you bought at ____mart will not cut it. I like to wear zip up wetsuit boots (LIKE THESE). The material stays relatively warm on my feet even when they're wet, and the snug fit keeps them on in the mud. I have a pair that also feature a rugged sole that can handle sharp edges like shells and barnacles. 

4. Wear a hat. On a sunny day you will be at the mercy of the sun's rays for extended periods. Your head (especially if you're getting a little thin on top like me 😉) will bear the brunt of the exposure. There are lots of styles available, but make sure the one you choose is made of quick drying materials, has a brim or visor of some kind, and has some method to stay on in windy conditions (like a drawstring chinstrap for instance). There are models available with flaps on the back to protect your neck, with bug netting attached, with a brim that can fold up to lessen wind name it. This is another item to consider carefully, and maybe to have a back up, in case yours blows away.  

5. Wear eye protection. The sun, the wind, salt water spray...all of it, can affect your eyes adversely. Water reflects the sunshine, and it can interfere with your vision - if a fast moving boat or jetski is moving toward you, that could be a safety issue. You don't have to shell out for expensive shades. Just get something that's UV rated, and get some kind of attachment (like croakies) that loops them on your head. I have mini-floats on mine in case I lose them - theoretically they prevent my shades from sinking, and I'll be able to locate the floats in the water by their bright yellow color. 
Floats that help keep sunglasses from sinking
Foam floats looped onto sunglasses
Buy cheap models so you can bring a backup pair.

6. Consider a drysuit. Ok, this is not an inexpensive proposition. A dry suit, when it works correctly, is designed to do just what it is named for - to keep you dry if you end up in the water. Why might you need one? If the water is cold enough, it can kill you - that's why (see my post Safety is a Mindset ). I wrote "when it works correctly" because the weak spot on a dry suit is the gaskets at the wrists, the neck, and the ankles (if booties are not attached). If any of these fail, water enters the suit - and you are not dry. These gaskets need to be maintained. Also, you'll want one with a front zipper if you're a guy. That way, you won't have to take it all the way off to do your business, if necessary. These cost at least several hundred dollars, so consider carefully what water temperatures you'll be paddling over before you decide to buy one. But remember - even moderate water temp's can send you into hypothermia if you don't get out of the water fast, and get dry fast. If you're planning springtime paddling, especially if you're going alone, you may want to purchase one. It could save your life. Do your research, and get a good model.

7. Consider wet suit separates. What do I mean by separates? Well, wetsuits come in full suits (all one piece - legs and arms covered), which I wear when I surf my waveski (see my post What's That Thing Called?). They also come in two piece arrangements, versions with short bottoms, sleeveless versions, and "farmer john" over-all type designs. You won't want a full wetsuit in case you need to answer the call of nature. Two piece bottoms can easily be removed, and "farmer johns" can be peeled down. You'll also want to pay attention to the thickness, which is measured in millimeters. 2mm is a relatively thin layer, 3mm and 4mm are thicker, and 5mm is for very cold water. If there are two thicknesses (usually thicker in the body, thinner on the limbs), there will be two numbers - like a 3|2 or 4|3 for example. Remember, wetsuits are named as such because you will get wet if you fall in the water. They are designed to keep you warmer while you are submerged, by trapping a layer of water against your body. The thicker the material, the warmer it will keep you. However, this does not mean you will be impervious to the cold water - it just buys you some more time. Once you're out of the water, you'll want to get the wetsuit garments off, and get dry asap. Recently, I went on a paddle where the air temperature was close to 80F, and the ocean temperature was around 48F. The water where I was paddling was a little warmer (outbound tide), so I'll estimate it at 58F. If I had been in a full wetsuit, I would have been baking in the sun. So, I wore a pair of drysuit pants and a 2mm wetsuit vest over a synthetic top. This way, I was not too hot in the sun, but I had a little insurance should I go for an unexpected dip. I had to wade through some water at one point, and the dry pant ankle gaskets failed - a good lesson to learn in a non-emergency situation. I'll have to revisit those pants to see if they're sufficient for future trips.

8. Wear gloves. Neoprene gloves can help keep your hands warm - very cold hands cannot properly grip a paddle. The main reason you'll want gloves in all weather, though, is to avoid blisters. A blister can make every paddle stroke torture, and can ruin your day. I recommend a couple pair - one for cold water, and an open/half fingers model for when it gets warmer (bring the cold water pair as a back up in case you need them).  

One additional item you might want to consider, although not a garment, that could increase your comfort level, is a seat pad. If you paddle for hours, and your backside has gotten a little bony with age like mine has, a seat pad can make a world of difference. I have a thin gel pad that I use. Just that half inch of gel between me and the kayak seat quite literally saves my ass 😅. 

Dressing appropriately for your paddle adventure is simply another act of preparation - like planning your trip (see my post Where Should I Paddle?) and maintaining your gear (see my post Kayak Repairs That Last). If you do it right, you'll be comfortable, confident, and prepared for the unexpected. Don't forget to wear a bathing suit underneath on a hot summer paddle - just in case your own private sandbar beach invites you for a swim. Just keep an eye on the 'yaks, or it will be a longer swim then you planned 😉.

- TB on the Water     


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Travel: Plum Island Sound - A Natural Beauty

I have the good fortune of living in close proximity to a truly beautiful and protected body of water and adjacent lands defined by Plum Island to the east, and the Great Marsh to to the west. The body of water between the two is Plum Island Sound, which is the outlet of the Parker River, the Rowley River, and the Plum Island River (which also connects, via Plumbush Creek, under the Plum Island Turnpike Bridge, to the Merrimack River). Most of Plum Island, and a large portion of the marsh west of the sound is encompassed within the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. According to their website, the refuge contains some 4,700 total acres, with 3000 of these comprised of marshland. This area is abundant with paddling opportunities (read my post Paddle Trip: The Plumb Island River from Plumb Island), and with some pretty amazing wildlife.

On a recent trip, Tim (see my post An Unexpected Adventure) and I spotted a roosting raptor that appeared to be a bald eagle, several seals hauled out on a dry patch of marsh (and with shiny, curious heads bobbing in the water to keep an eye on us 😉), multiple species of waterfowl, and possibly the strangest thing I've seen in salt water - a beaver. If you told me before this trip that beaver use marsh saltwater creeks to travel, I wouldn't have believed you - and yet, it swam nonchalantly right past the two of us. I've also seen deer, horseshoe crabs (ancient, alien looking creatures), and, until the beaver sighting, my most unusual salt water discovery: a snapping turtle. Keep in mind this is also an area known for arctic snowy owls and is a nationally recognized area to view migrating birds - especially at the nearby Joppa Flats.Then, there's the fishing. Striped bass are abundant in the sound when they're running, and bluefish and groundfish species (flounder, sole, etc) are available - primarily on the eastern side of Plum Island, which is open to the Atlantic.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

There are several kayak put-ins in the area, on the Parker and Rowley Rivers, on Water Street near Joppa Flats on the Merrimack River, and, for a fee, near the gate entrance to the Plum Island section of the wildlife refuge. The refuge itself has a gravel road that runs its' full length, and there's a state park at the southern tip with beach access. There are also boarded walkways off the road that provide access to views of the sound, or that meander through the dunes to the open ocean side.The refuge charges a per day fee, or you can buy an annual pass. You can also use your National Park pass should you have one. 

You can rent kayaks at Newbury Kayak and Canoe on the Parker River in Newbury, and also at Plum Island Kayak in Newburyport. Ask them about local conditions, though. Currents on the Merrimack River can be treacherous, and the mouth of the river is considered one of the most dangerous on the east coast. There's a Coast Guard station located near the mouth of that river because of the dangerous conditions (Newburyport is the birthplace of the USCG). Even the lesser rivers like the Parker and Rowley can have challenging currents depending on the tide. Explain your experience and comfort level and they should direct you where to go. Or, consider a group tour if it's available. 

With proper planning, the waters of Plum Island Sound offer a fantastic opportunity to paddle through protected coastal lands and waterways - and to view abundant wildlife. Birds of all kinds, seals, deer, fish, and possibly odd visitors like beavers or snapping turtles all make their home here. Wear bug protection, especially during the vicious "greenhead" fly season (see my post Essex Bay - A Northeast Massachusetts Gem), and bring a map - the various creeks can be visually confusing, especially at lower tides. 

Parking can get a little tricky midsummer, and for good reason. Folks recognize a good thing when they see it. But, don't be discouraged. With some persistence, the natural beauty of Plum Island Sound and its environs are there for your enjoyment. Afterward, you can explore Newburyport or Amesbury (farther upriver on the Merrimack) for a bite to eat and one of the many locally brewed beers (like the offerings at Silvaticus Brewery & Taproom)..

- TB on the Water   



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Video: Extreme Sea Kayaking - incredible footage!

Have you ever seen someone doing something that you do - with such expertise and daring that you just have to shake your head in wonder? - like playing an instrument you can only noodle around with, with expert virtuosity...or elevating a dish you can cook competently to a mouthwatering masterpiece. It's fun to watch people performing at a level to which you can only aspire (and let's face it - you'll probably never approach). Kayaking falls in that category for me. I enjoy seeing kayakers expertly performing in conditions that send a chill down my spine just looking at them.

With that in mind, take a look at this footage I recently found on The Inertia showing Samuel Debiesse navigating his sea kayak through the Raz de Sein in Brittany, France. I've seen video of sea kayakers in this stretch before, but this point of view footage from his helmet mounted camera puts you right there in the action:


You might also note in the opening credits a kayaker and waveski surfer named Hugues Termeau. There's an incredible video of him waveski surfing Mundaka in northern Spain featured in my post What's That Thing Called? .

If you'd like to read the full story on The Inertia, you can find it here...


Let me know in the comments what your favorite kayaking videos are.

- TB on the Water  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Advice: 5 Tips for Touring a River in a Kayak

If you own a touring style kayak like I do, you are "restricted" to bodies of water large enough to accommodate 14-17' length boats. I put "restricted" in quotes because large bodies of water (lakes, the ocean, bays, etc.) are often anything but restricting in terms of area (conditions may be a different matter). You have plenty of room to turn, plenty of choices in direction, and plenty of depth beneath you. When it comes to rivers, however, those factors can be absent for some or all of the trip. That is why you should carefully choose where to put your touring kayak into a river. 

Rivers come in many forms - wide, narrow, fast flowing, slow meandering, fresh water, salt water...the list goes on. Dams may be present, tides may influence conditions far upriver (read my post Paddle Trip: The Merrimack River - from Rocks Village to Merrimacport), and even the cleanliness of the water can be an issue. How steep are the banks? Do you have anywhere you can get out of the water, or out of the way of boat traffic or the path of a floating log? For instance, kayakers sometimes brave the locks that grant access from Boston Harbor to the Charles Rivers, providing a unique urban kayaking experience. I have to admit, though, the thought of being in a lock, waiting for the water to rise, next to a 25' yacht gives me a sense of trepidation. I'd sure hate to get squeezed against the lock wall by a larger boat drifting in my direction (that doesn't mean I won't try it someday, though 😏).

There's a lot to consider if a river is on your wish list for paddle trips. That being said, a river can offer unique experiences that other venues cannot. You can follow a meandering river upstream into forest or farmland, and get a completely different perspective on areas you drove by or hiked through dozens of times before. Animals are often plentiful at river banks or in the water - deer, birds, turtles, fish...even alligators, manatees, and wild pigs in Florida. If the river is flooded beyond its' typical banks, you might get access to areas you otherwise could not paddle. A few years ago, Tim (see my post An Unexpected Adventure) and I paddled the stretch of the Concord River that flows past the Minuteman Statue and the Old Concord Battle Ground (map here). Paddling around that monument on still, flooded river water was an experience I won't soon forget. Later on the trip, we were able to paddle among flooded hardwood tree trunks - something more usual in cyprus swamps down south. It was a fantastic trip, and an example of the surprises that await you around each bend of a river.

A kayak trip on the flooded Concord River in Massachusetts
Paddling the Concord River

Here's a few tips to help plan your river adventure:

1. Select a river or tributary wide enough for your kayak. If your kayak is of a touring style, choose a river wide enough to comfortably accommodate your boat sideways from bank to bank with enough clearance to turn fully in the opposite direction. Otherwise, you might have to get out on the bank, and lift/muscle your 'yak to turn it around before getting back in.

2. Choose a stretch of the river with calm waters. If you want to run rapids, then get a creek boat and a whitewater paddle and take the time to learn properly. Whitewater kayaking is a discipline unto itself, and is not to be taken lightly. There are serious safety concerns that require proper training and planning (read my post on Riptides and Currents). If you're not prepared for that, then scout a nice flat section, do your research to avoid rocks, dams, and choke points - and enjoy a leisurely exploration.

3. Be prepared to portage. "Portage" means, basically, to carry your boat. If you're paddling a shallow river, and hit a spot without enough water to keep from bottoming, then you'll have to get out and lead your kayak, or even carry it, to a deeper section. If you're not capable of doing that, then it's best to turn around and head back.

4. Paddle upriver first. Starting your trip by paddling upriver first will get the hardest effort done when you're at your freshest. Then, in the worst case, you can drift back downstream with the flow. I haven't always followed this advice myself, but trust me, on a long trip, it's sure nice to have the option to float back.

5. Go where the river leads you. Sounds simple, right? But what I mean is that rivers were the highways of this country before we had paved roads, and eventually paved highways. There's a really good chance the river you paddle was navigated in canoes by native peoples long before Europeans showed up. Even after we did, rivers were used as sources of industrial power, trade routes, water for agriculture...they were the lifeblood of our land. When you paddle a river, you are re-tracing history. You can travel them for a unique perspective on a city (like this tour in Chicago), or an exploration of a quiet, dark woods under overhanging branches, or to hear the wind shimmering through marsh grass on a brackish marsh river. 

Rivers can provide a great alternative to ocean paddling in the bumper seasons (see my post 5 Tips for Paddling in the Bumper Seasons) when ocean winds can get uncomfortably cold, or in the heart of summer when access to ocean side parking can be difficult. They offer another facet to your kayaking experiences, and a way for you to see the world you thought you knew with fresh eyes. I can remember slowly drifting around an oxbow bend on a wooded section of the Exeter River in New Hampshire (map here) to see a young buck deer with his nose in the water for a few seconds before he knew I was there, then watching him bound off through the trees on impossibly light hooves. I'll look at the world through those eyes anytime.

- TB on the Water