Cold is a relative term, of course, and what we mean by it in this case is temperatures below freezing or close to that.
Sometimes you can find open water on a frozen river or lake, and since it’s possible to launch your Wavewalk kayak from ice as well as to beach it on ice the question is ‘why not go paddling or fishing?’
The simple answer is ‘because cold water and/or cold weather are very dangerous‘. Falling into cold water can cause hypothermia in as little as seconds, and a person paralyzed by hypothermia cannot get out of the cold water by themselves.
In other words, the combination of ice and cold can turn out to be deadly.
Some of the factors that contribute to making such activities more dangerous are:
Air temperature: When it’s below freezing your paddle can get covered with a layer of ice and become heavy. The water dripping from it on your kayak can freeze and form a heavy layer that might destabilize it. If the water freezes inside the cockpit you might slip on it, lose your balance and fall overboard.
Alcohol: Absolutely not. Drinking while you’re paddling or fishing in cold water or weather is taking the first active step towards an accident. There is a strong correlation between drinking and paddle fishing accidents. If you need to boost your energy while you’re kayaking or kayak fishing do it with hot coffee from a thermos bottle, chocolate or energy bars.
BTW, cellphones are an absolute necessity in order to call 911, but a wet cellphone is useless…
Children – Too dangerous: Being smaller, children have a bigger surface area by relatively to their volume, which means that if they fall in the water their body temperature will drop faster than that of an adult in the same condition. Children also have a tendency to be careless (at least those that I know…) and panic easily – two potential hazards that you don’t want to have to face.
Clothing: Boots, heavy shoes, waders and heavy clothing are an absolute no. A good wetsuit or dry suit and watertight booties are a must.
Distance from shore: Don’t paddle or fish where people on shore can’t see you. Preferably, they should also be able to hear you. Carry a whistle with you.
Number of people on board: Paddling or fishing in cold water all by yourself is really careless. If you feel you must do it you should go with a group, preferably with people who know what they’re doing and could advise you on what to do and not to do, as well as help you in case something happens. It’s also a good idea to have a bigger boat, preferably a motorboat as part of your expedition – stuff happens.
Saltwater – Ocean water with typical salinity freezes at about 28.9°F (-1.8°C), which is a colder than the freezing temperature for fresh water. This means that sea water that’s partly covered with ice is likely to be colder than fresh water in a similar condition. This means it would be even more dangerous if you fell overboard.
Time of day: Winter days are shorter, which means that you might find yourself trying to paddle your way back in the dark, which is dangerous both because it increases the risk of an accident as well as reduces the chances of you succeeding in rescuing yourself or getting rescued by others.
Type of boat: Reducing your degree of exposure to the elements is a good idea when kayaking or fishing in cold water and weather.
The worst are sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks that put you close to the water, with very little free board, and no other protection. Sit-in kayaks (SIK) can be a little better since they offer you the opportunity to protect yourself with a spray skirt, but using such an accessory is hazardous if you don’t have a fool proof Eskimo Roll (very few people do), and it’s highly inconvenient for fishing. Canoes offer good protection from spray but paddling them can become too difficult because of windage problems. Finally, Wavewalk kayaks offer you the best protection from both spray and wind, and they also perform better than the other boats under wind. Wavewalk kayaks are also more stable, a factor that reduces the risk of flipping them, but no vessel is capsize proof.
Water depth: Getting out of deep water is far more difficult than it is from shallow water. Falling in deep water can cause hypothermia faster than it would take you to rescue yourself, which means that your chances of survival might be slim.
Wind: The combination of wind and sub freezing temperatures can lead to the formation of surface ice where you had open water before. This means that on your way back to shore you might find yourself tired and shivering in your boat without being able to paddle through the newly formed ice.
Your physical condition: Some people are in great shape and can resist cold, but are you one of them? Remember – water is about 700 times denser than air, which means that it can cool your body instantly and lead to heart failure even before hypothermia settles in.
Statistics are numbers, but for those who are included in them, they are a reality. So, if you still feel you must get out on a cold winter day, it’s better if you keep your kayak at home and find something else to do that’s not as dangerous as paddling and kayak fishing…