Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Wear a Wetsuit or Drysuit if the Water is Cold

The second of Tillerman's Top Five Tips For Making Sure I Don't Die On My Laser is wear a wetsuit or drysuit if the water is cold.

Yeah right. Like tip #1: Wear a Life Jacket this is not exactly controversial advice. Laser sailing is a wet sport. You will get wet from spray if it's windy. You will probably fall in the water sooner or later.

Cold water is not just annoying.
Cold water will kill you.
Faster than you might think.

Forget hypothermia (for now). Sudden entry into cold water can cause cardiac arrest, even for people in good health. And the initial shock of the cold water can also cause an involuntary gasp reflex that can cause victims to inhale water and drown. That's why it's so important to Wear a Life Jacket... because it's probably a good thing if your head isn't underwater when you experience that "
involuntary gasp reflex". If you don't believe me, ask the Coast Guard.

So let's assume you don't die immediately of a heart attack or of drowning when you fall off your Laser into the icy waters. Your next potential problem is hypothermia. An adult dressed in average clothing may remain conscious for an hour in water at 40 degrees F and perhaps 2-3 hours at 50 degrees F. But actually things are more serious than these numbers suggest because any movement in the water accelerates heat loss, and survival time can be reduced to minutes. And the numbing effect of the cold water will prevent you from swimming. If you don't think cold water is all that dangerous, just read some of the tragic stories at the bottom of this page about off-season boating. Nine elite marines trained as water survival instructors unable to swim 100 yards to safety! Another guy drowned 25 yards from shore!

So wear a wetsuit or a drysuit if the water is cold. How cold? Some people go by the "100 degree rule" and think you should wear thermal protection if the air temperature plus water temperature is less than 100 degrees F.

The Laser frostbite fleet that I used to sail with in Connecticut had a rule that sailors had to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit at all times. Their season was from mid-October to mid-May (with a break in the middle of winter). Not a bad guideline for southern New England. Remember those warm spring days in early May can be very deceptive; the air may feel warm but the water is still very cold.

Personally, I'm a total wimp about feeling cold on the water. Irrespective of any personal survival issues, I hate to be shivering when I'm sailing. So I put on a wetsuit in marginal conditions, and quickly switch to a drysuit when it becomes at all wintry. Keeping head and hands and feet warm is important for my comfort too. I've reviewed sailing gloves and socks here before, and I have another pair of cold weather gloves to review as soon as the weather is chilly enough.

I know some Laser sailors are not too fond of drysuits. Something about interfering with their "oneness" with the boat. So they tough it out in a wetsuit all winter. I'm not really into "oneness". I'm generally in the "twoness with the boat" zone. Probably partly explains why I sail so slow.

I could go on a lot more about wetsuits and drysuits. Shortie or longie? Bootee or not bootee? Hiking pads inside or outside? Is bare skin faster than neoprene? (Seriously.) But this post is too long already. Less is more.

How about you? What do you wear for cold weather sailing?

Pause for laughter while my blogging friends in New Mexico and Florida work out the most sarcastic way to answer that question...


EscapeVelocity said...

Cold water is why they make J29s.

Tillerman said...

I thought that's why they made Florida.

Carol Anne said...

Had a guy in a Laser and another guy on a Hobie for the Sunrise Regatta at Elephant Butte this past weekend. They both wore wetsuits.

Believe it or not, even in New Mexico it gets cold this time of year.

Sam Chapin said...

Even the Florida folks have cold weather in January. Our first cold front came through last week and daytime high went down to 84. Tomorrow predicted, back up to 92. (A little hot.)
In Key West I used a "C skin" thing which is thin rubber stuff with some kind of aluminium coating inside to reflect the heat. It is nice a flexible. Now that I am in the middle of the state (Eustis, Fl) things get colder and I have a regular divers wet suit to wear in January. (That thing wants to squeeze me out straight when I want to bend.) Still looking for better solution.

Tim Coleman said...

Many, many moons ago, when I was a bright young thing, fit and agile, I crewed for a friend in a 470 at the annual Queen Mary winter persuit race. That year it was particualrly windy and whilst screaming along with the spinnaker up we bore away to avoid some slower boats and yours truly found himself 'skiing' on the trapez wire. I was wearing a wetsuit, a thermal suit and coveralls but within a few seconds of entering the water the cold saped all my strength. Both of us struggled to get the boat upright but we lost so much energy that it wasn't until we had drifted to the shore that we could get the boat upright. My advice is that you should not sail in the winter in anything but a drysuit.

Pandabonium said...

Having spent most of my adult life in the tropics, I switch to other activities when it's that cold (December thru March here).

O Docker said...

I like a solution halfway between Tim's and Panda's.

My advice is that you should not sail in the winter in anything but tropical water.

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