The 3 Season Paddler: Safety Tips for Extending Your Boating Season

The tang of a slightly warm breeze rattled the yellow leaves of the cottonwoods under a dome of grey clouds welcoming an intrepid group of fall paddlers chasing the last vestiges of summer at Schodack Island State Park on the Hudson River near Albany.

“We weren’t planning to go out on to the Hudson River for this trip, but were headed to the kayak launch at Schodack Creek on the eastern side of the island,” Ro Woodard recalled. “It has tidal waters like the Hudson and snakes through the phragmites reeds and cattails swamp under the mighty bridges of the CSX Railroad and NYS Thruway.  It was exciting to think, as I drove over the Thruway bridge and looked down to the creek, that I would be soon seeing the secrets of the marsh from a water’s eye view rather than a bird’s eye view.”

Warm fall and winter days might tease paddlers into heading for their favorite open water, but the warm air temperatures can deceptively mask the dangers of the cold water surrounding our boats as we paddle. NYS OPRHP would like to remind paddlers and sportsmen who venture out on the water between November 1 and May 1 that everyone in boats less than 21 feet in length  (this includes motor boats, too) MUST WEAR a US Coast Guard approved life jacket while underway.  OPRHP also recommends that everyone wear a life jacket if the water temperature is less than 70o F.

All boaters (and, yes, paddlers are boaters) should be aware of the possibility of a sudden unexpected swamping, capsize, or a fall overboard into the cold water. At the onset of a sudden cold water immersion there is an initial uncontrollable gasp reflex leading to hyperventilation and increased heart rate and blood pressure which can result in immediate drowning. Go to Cold Water Boot Camp to see what this reaction looks like.  A life jacket may save your life by keeping your head above water and your body floating you while you get your breathing in control.  Next you should attempt self-rescue by getting back in or on your boat.  You have about 10 -20 minutes depending on the temperature of the water before your muscles and nerves cool down and stop functioning;   even good swimmers can’t control their movements and ultimately experience swimming failure.   Again, the life jacket can make all the difference because it will float you.   This is a sobering message for those going out for what they hope to be a fine day on the water.  Remember to wear your life jacket, because it can make all the difference.

Late season paddlers should dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature with either a wet suit or dry suit under your life jacket.  Bring along safety equipment to help with rescue in case of a capsize: pump, rescue bag, sling, paddle float, whistle, visual distress signals, and a VHF radio or cell phone is a waterproof bag.  Also take a course to learn how to use the equipment and how to rescue a paddler who is in the water, empty the water from their boat and get them back inside before you head out for your cold season paddling trip. It is important to have essential skills and equipment, which we hope we never have to use, with you when you kayak and canoe.  The American Canoe Association has a variety of courses for all level of paddlers.

Always paddle with a group if possible and be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you are expected to return.  Take a boating safety course and refrain from the use of alcohol when paddling.  Boating safety courses can be found at http://nysparks.com/recreation/boating/boating-safety-class.aspx  and a free online paddle sport safety course at www.paddlecourse.com.

Click on an image above to enlarge it and read the caption.

The properly dressed and equipped group enjoyed a pleasant afternoon sweeping upstream on the incoming tide, sharing summer paddling stories and watching the sky hoping for a glimpse of one of the many eagles which inhabit the shores of the Park.  They passed under the bridges to the sound of a honking horn.  The honking must have come from a sharp-eye paddler who was crossing the bridge in his or her car and spotted us paddling. After encountering a tree across the narrowing creek, they turned around to head south just as the tide was turning and the current carried them back to the launch ramp. No eagles on this trip, but a flock of crows soared over head as we finished our day.

The fabulous fall padding season has wound down. The air temperatures are dropping and so is the water temperature.  Though lots of us summer paddlers put away our kayaks and canoes until spring, many hearty paddlers continue to enjoy the late fall paddling until ice forces them off the water. If that paddler is you, remember to wear your life jacket, let someone know when and where you are paddling, dress to stay warm, bring your safety equipment, don’t drink alcohol while out on the water, and paddle with a group if possible.   The rest of you, we’ll see you in the spring!

Post and photos by Ro Woodard, Marine Services Bureau, OPRHP.

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