Reflections from the Cockpit February 2008
"The Dressing Game"

After reading an excellent article in my latest issue (February 2008) of Sea Kayaker Magazine, I felt obligated to revisit the subject of dressing for immersion. In April 2005 I wrote a reflection entitled, “Dressing For Immersion”. In that article I made many of the same points discussed by Chris Brooks in his recent article entitled, “Cold Shock And Swimming Failure.” Not only did Chris do a great job with respect to the sudden physical affects of immersion in cold water, he addressed the psychological aspects and decision-making.

The issues and recommendations mentioned in Chris’ article are topics I have been writing about and presenting for many years at symposia. The reason I am revisiting these issues is because paddlers keep making the same mistakes. Last month I wrote about learning from our past mistakes. I think it is time to re-address the critical points of surviving a cold water capsize.

I strongly suggest you read Chris’ entire article in Sea Kayaker Magazine since I will only be focusing on a few points. When I ask the audience (when I present at symposia) the number one cause of death in sea kayaking the answer given by most is hypothermia.  That is when I go into the facts about cold shock. The immediate physiological reactions to cold-water immersion need to be addressed first, before you even think about hypothermia. Since dressing for hypothermia and cold shock often go hand in hand, both issues get addressed at the same time.  The reason I said often is because you can dress for cold shock and still get hypothermic depending upon the temperature of the water and the insulating qualities of your clothing choices.

I entitled this article, “The Dressing Game”, because it many ways you are playing a game when you dress for your outing on the water. My dictionary has many definitions for the word “game.” I am not referring to the definition relating to amusement.  The game I am suggesting is defined as, “A physical and mental competition conducted according to the rules of the event.”  The event is capsizing in cold water.  Your opponent is the cold water.  Winning the game is surviving the cold water capsize. Losing the game is dying. In reality there are no rules. However, there are known and well-documented facts about your opponent and how your body reacts to that opponent (cold water).

“What should I wear?” is probably the question I am most often asked from paddlers.  It is not a simple answer. My usual reply is, “It is a game of dressing for the conditions in which you find yourself. You want to have adequate clothing to minimize cold shock and allow you to have the time to get back into your kayak without becoming hypothermic.”  My answer is concise, but is open to many possibilities of what to wear. Please read USK article, "My Immersion Ensemble" for some clothing tips. I will say, the faster you can perform a capsize recovery, the less clothing you have to wear. That is why I call it a game.  You are making a decision as to how much to wear.  How long do you plan to be in the water? The longer the anticipated immersion time and the colder the water, the more you will need to wear.  Again, your first concern is minimizing cold shock.  The more skin that is exposed to the cold water, the greater the cold shock symptoms.  A well fitting wet suit (even a thin one) or a dry suit with little insulation underneath will minimize the cold shock effects.  However, these thermal solutions will NOT be suitable for long immersion time.  That is why I constantly recommend that paddlers regularly practice the capsize recovery techniques.  The faster you can get out of the water the less you have to wear.  However, what if your anticipated immersion time is incorrect, because of unexpected circumstances?  If you dress for extreme exposure time, will you be too hot for the air temperature?  Finding that balance between being too hot and surviving the cold is the game we play every time we dress for our day on the water.  I do know that having quick and reliable capsize recovery techniques provides you with more versatility with respect to your clothing options.

Another great point made by Chris in his article, is the effect the cold water has on ones decision-making skills.  Cold shock can also affect you performance. This is another reason why regular practice is needed. Not only should you be practicing in good conditions, but also practicing in cold rough water (in a controlled and supervised situation) is recommended. Chris goes into detail as to how the brain functions in an emergency.  A key factor is what your brain can draw upon in an emergency. According to Chris, if you have practiced a skill often enough it gets stored in your long-term memory.  When faced with an emergency, your brain is going to be searching for solutions. The more you practice the better your chances are that your brain will utilize a previously practiced solution.  If you do not have stored alternatives from which to choose, your brain tries to create a solution during the emergency.  The problem is your brain’s processing time during an emergency is much longer as compared to problem solving during non-stress times.  Suffering from cold shock further challenges the processing centers during an emergency.

My primary motivation in this month’s reflection is to try to convince those who ignore the dangers of cold-water immersion that they are playing a fatal game.  Whether you consciously play the dressing game or not, the consequences are there. The repeated accident reports are filled with paddlers who thought, “This won’t happen to me.”  They were wrong.

How to win the dressing game and be alive to paddle another day:
            1) Dress for cold shock
            2) Frequent capsize recovery practice to establish long term memory solutions
            3) Dress for your anticipated immersion time

How to lose the dressing game and become another paddling fatality:
            1) Dress for the air temperature NOT the water temperature
            2) Don’t practice your recovery skills. One time should be enough, right?

How many times do you have to read about the dangers of cold-water immersion before you take it seriously?  Do you think this is a game?


Wayne Horodowich


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