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Adirondack Sports & Fitness is an outdoor recreation and fitness magazine covering the Adirondack Park and greater Capital-Saratoga region of New York State. We are the authoritative source for information regarding individual, aerobic, life-long sports and fitness in the area. The magazine is published 12-times per year at the beginning of each month.

SEP 2015 - CANOEING, KAYAKING & SUP

The author paddles swimmer Mike Cavanaugh to safety. Note his head is to the side of the pointy bow.

A good life jacket will float you, even with hands in the air. Demoed by instructor Mike Cavanaugh of North River Kayaks. Alan Mapes

Fall Paddling
is the Best!

Tips to Keep It Safe and Enjoyable

By Alan Mapes

The fall brings us cooler weather, no biting bugs, beautiful colors, fewer motor boats, easier parking at launches, and better fishing. Many power boaters are putting their craft away for the season now, but I think the best part of the paddling season is just starting!

Also remember that fall brings us chillier waters, wind and rain, fewer people on the water to help in an emergency, and an increased risk of cold shock and hypothermia. Let’s look at few tips for safe and enjoyable fall paddling.

The life jacket on the right is comfortable enough to wear – always. Alan Mapes

Clothing – An old saying for paddlers states “dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.” I only take this so far. In the spring, you have a dangerous situation when air temperatures are sometimes very warm and the water is still very cold. In the fall, the air may be cold and the waters still warm. In that case, it’s a no-brainer to instead dress for the air temperature.

On chilly fall days, I trade my summer nylon shorts for lightweight long johns covered by rain pants. Or better yet, my “surf skin” shorts or long pants. These are fleece garments with a thin neoprene outer coating and they are very comfortable. On top, I’ll have a long-sleeved, lightweight underwear top, covered when needed by a waterproof paddling jacket. My top and bottom garments are polyester, never cotton.

I often find it hard to regulate my temperature when paddling. I’m often too warm or too cold. To adjust, I make three small wardrobe changes. First, I pull the sleeves up or down on my poly top as needed. I find bare forearms are a great way for me to cool down. If I’m really warm, I can lean forward and dip my forearms in the water – great for cooling! Likewise, pulling the sleeves down over my forearms will really warm me up. On cooler days when I’m wearing the paddling jacket, I can still pull the poly top sleeves up or down by pinching the material right through the jacket.

Another adjustment involves what I wear on my head. Changing a brimmed hat for a knit ski cap or a neoprene/fleece paddling hood will really conserve body heat. Gloves are the other change I make, putting them on or taking them off as needed. My boat has a day hatch, so having items close at hand is easy. A small dry bag in the cockpit will accomplish the same thing.

Safety Pack Additions – As fall comes on, I add some items to my small “safety pack,” a dry bag that I have in my kayak hatch on every paddle. The usual summer items are a first aid kit, headlamp, granola bars, and a small repair/survival kit. As cooler weather comes on, I add a long-sleeved polyester top and some hand warmer packs, in case extra warmth is needed. My rain jacket is in the boat as always, but I also add a thermos of hot tea – a quaint nod to British kayakers, but it works wonders if you or someone else needs a warm-up.

As the weather and waters get cooler yet, I carry a separate small dry bag of spare warm clothes. These are as much for loan to others in need as they are for me. The bag holds a fleece top, fleece pants, warm gloves, wool socks, knit cap, and an old rain jacket.

Save a Life – As responsible paddlers, we should be ready to help a fellow paddler in trouble. I have an easy way for you to rescue someone in the water, but first let’s remember the life you save may be your own. How you ask? It could not be simpler, but it escapes many paddlers: wear a life jacket!

In our region this year, I have seen three reports of people dying while paddling. In every case, a life jacket would probably have saved the person. Here are some thoughts about life jackets (PFDs): a life jacket will float you, and float you well. This seems painfully obvious, but we see people panic when they flip their boat and find themselves swimming unexpectedly. They are wearing a life jacket, but will thrash and grab at anything nearby, threatening to capsize paddlers coming to their rescue. Trust the life jacket to float you! Try swimming with it – it works!

A good quality, properly-fitted life jacket will be comfortable to wear, and will stay on when you are in the water. A cheap one, or one that is not adjusted properly, may float off over your head.

What does a good life jacket cost? How much is your life worth? For the cost of a nice dinner out for two people, you can have a comfortable PFD that will last you a decade or more. Our local paddle shops have racks of nice life jackets and people who can help you find one that fits perfectly. Go see them!

The Easiest Rescue – So your friend flips their boat in a moment of inattention. What do you do to help them? Here is the easiest rescue and the first one I teach in classes: simply paddle the swimmer to shore.

The first step is to protect yourself. Don’t paddle close to someone in the water until you talk with them, and you’re sure they’re calm, and will not panic and pull you over. You will be no help to the swimmer if you are swimming, too.

To get a swimmer to safety, simply have them hold on to your boat as you paddle. I recommend they hold on to the bow rather than the stern. You can keep an eye on the swimmer if they are in front of you, making sure they are all right and holding on. Your progress toward shore will be slow – when we ran a test, we got about one mile-per-hour on the GPS. I figured that a stern hold would be more streamlined through the water, but we found a bow hold gave the best speed.

Two cautions: have the swimmer hold their head off to the side of your bow, rather than right in front of the pointy end. It would be messy if you ran them into something with the bow straight on to their head. Likewise, stop a little before you get them to shore. Running them into hidden rocks would not be good. Your first priority is to get the person to safety. You can deal with their boat and gear later.

Enjoy some fall paddling. For me, it’s the best time of year!


Alan Mapes (alanmapes@gmail.com) is a sea kayak instructor and guide, certified by the American Canoe Association and the British Canoe Union. He lives near Delmar and offers kayak instruction through the Capital District Kayakers Meetup Group.