Reflections from the Cockpit October 2007
"Using Nose Clips For Kayaking"

Given what the human race has done to all water supplies and oceans around the world, I would classify the term “Water Quality” as a huge oxymoron. There is no longer “Quality” of water in any place you paddle. Therefore you should consider the consequences of immersing yourself in the water. I bring this up because this last spring I was another victim to bacteria in the water.

Rather than dwell on how sick I was and how quickly my symptoms occurred, I want to discuss the use of nose clips for kayaking.  I am not suggesting that you wear nose clips during your normal paddle. I have yet to meet a paddler that is comfortable wearing nose clips for long periods of time. In addition, it is not practical to say, “put them on before you suddenly capsize.”  I am suggesting that nose clips be used for any and all planned immersions. I also suggest that nose clips be used if you are planning to go into a situation where there is a greater chance of capsize. These situations may be: surf, rock gardens, tidal races, whitewater rapids, etc. 

I think it is important to understand the different ways bacteria get into the areas that normally get infected. The sinuses are hollow spaces in the bones of the skull.  It is easy for water to get into those spaces and sit, which allows the bacteria to do its work.  Due to the position of the sinus openings, not all water drains out when we are upright. If you have ever leaned forward after a long time in the water, you may have experienced a sudden release of water from your nose.  After rolling practice, without nose clips, I would intentionally put my head down by my knees and let the water drain from my sinuses.  My goal is to get as much water out of my sinuses as possible.  I also try holding my nose and gently blowing pressure toward my nose, with my mouth shut, which seems to help open my sinuses when they are filled with water.

Another place that gets infected is the middle ear.  When water goes up your nose and heads down the back of our throat, it can go up the Eustachian tube, which leads to the middle ear.  The outer ear gets water directly from the outside source, but the eardrum keeps it from getting into the middle ear.  You can get outer ear infections or inner ear infections.  The inner ear infections affect our balance mechanism.

Another aspect to consider is the Olfactory nerve, which goes into the nose and provides us with our sense of smell.  That nerve is a cranial nerve coming directly from the brain.  Therefore it is also a direct path to the brain. I don’t know enough about the process of how bacteria, amoebae and infections can travel, but I would err on the side of caution as to what I allow up my nose. See Naegleria Fowleri article about this amoeba that travels the pathway mentioned to the brain and is unfortunately fatal.

Let us also consider the problems that can occur from ingesting contaminated water.  Even if you don’t open your mouth, water going up your nose can end up going down the back of your throat. This goes down to your digestive system and can play havoc depending on the contamination.

How about our lungs? I am glad you asked. I think every kayaker, one time or another has gotten that little bit of water up the nose and has come to the surface gagging and coughing. Here is what happened. You inhaled when your head found fresh air. However, the water that was dripping down the back of your throat got mixed with the inhaled air and some of that water got passed the epiglottis (whose job is to keep liquid and solids out of the trachea, which is our windpipe). Once that water gets to the glottis and hits the vocal cords you get that nasty coughing spasm. Aside from the nasty cough you have contaminated water heading to your lungs.

I am not going to discuss contaminated water and open cuts on our body, because this article is about nose plugs. I am not trying to make anyone paranoid by explaining how we can get infected.  If you understand the mechanism, you can see that a set of nose clips can eliminate and minimize your risk of infection.  The human body has a great built in defense mechanism that usually takes care of those microscopic nasties that try to enter our body.  However, why let them in, in the first place. Help your body by wearing nose clips.

What about that unplanned capsize? My best recommendation is to learn how to do a gentle exhale through your nose when you do not have your nose clips on. The next thing is to remember about that water going down the back of your throat.  I prefer NOT to take that first inhale through my nose. I actually try a little cough (with the remaining air from my controlled exhale) from my mouth, before I take that first breath. Then, that first breath is through my mouth. Not to complicate matters, but what about that uncontrollable gasp when you hit cold water? Cold shock is minimized when you dress appropriately. In addition, one can learn to control that gasp with practice, but it takes lots of concentration.

Keeping you nose clips very accessible means you are more likely to use them.  I use nose clips that are on a lanyard.  I have that lanyard attached to the shoulder strap of my PFD.  The nose clips then get put on the inside of my PFD in front of my chest.  When I need to use them, I follow the lanyard and gently pull them out from the inside of my PFD.  I prefer keeping them between my PFD and body because it keeps the lanyard taught and it doesn’t allow the lanyard to get caught when trying to climb on to the deck of my kayak during re-entries.

Aside from the water quality issues, there is another excellent reason for using nose clips. If you do not like climbing back onto your kayak as a re-entry method, then your nose clips will help you with the discomfort usually experienced when doing wet re-entry techniques. Why climb onto your kayak and fight gravity when you can do a wet re-entry and right yourself with a paddle float on your blade or use the bow of your partners kayak? See USK articles, “Wet Re-entry with a Paddle Float Roll” and “Wet Re-entry and Eskimo Recovery.” I have found that breath-holding capacity increases significantly when a paddler uses nose clips.

There are many different kinds of nose clips out there. I recommend you find the ones that work best for you. My favorite nose clips are the Tweaker's; because of the wide disk the keeps my nostrils closed and the spring that maintains the tension.  Of all of the ones I have tried over the years I really like them best. Of course they end up being the most expensive.  Smiley's are another favorite of some boaters.  You can find either of these at many kayak shops or at the USK Store on-line.

Regardless of which kind you use or where you get your nose clips, you can see the advantages of using them.  After my spring season bout with a sinus infection, fever and loss of balance, I am a fanatic about using my nose clips. As my dad always told me when I learned the hard way, “Experience is the best teacher.”


Wayne Horodowich


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