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  Washington Kayak Club
Fun and safe kayaking through trips, education, skill development, and conservation

Sea Kayaking Discussion

Alternatives to Full Wet/Dry suits for Summer padd...
Richard Heintze
While I was initially pleased to have sunshine on the recent Hammersville-Hope Island and Tacoma Narrows SK trips, I was uncomfortably warm both times.

On the Tacoma Narrows trip, I experimented only to discover my full length wet suit was as uncomfortably warm as my dry suit had been. Shucks...

I was thinking about purchasing a short sleeve neoprene wet suit top and a short legged neoprene wet suit bottom (i.e. neoprene shorts).

Would this be acceptable for SK club trips where we venture more than 100 yds from shore in Puget sound in the summer time?

Siegfried Heintze
I took some self rescue exercises with WKC in Bowman Bay on Saturday. I also had a long wet exit (involuntary) the previous Saturday, which was my motivation. Both times I was in a 3 mil Farmer John wetsuit. Everybody else in the exercises was wearing a dry suit. I was in the water half a dozen times, and my ability to self rescue, or even cooperate in an assisted rescue exercise, degraded fast as I became cold.

I am older and a new beginner kayaker, so this only applies to me. But I am convinced that the only test is how well I personally function after a worst case scenario in cold water. It’s not that I felt cold: I didn’t feel cold until the adrenaline wore off the first time. But I probably had 50% of my strength left after 30 minutes in the water. After 40 minutes in pretty cold water I could just hang on to the kayak in my Farmer John wetsuit and wait. That is humbling and embarrassing. So for me the wet suit failed. I’m going to get the best damn dry suit I can afford.

Again, I am a new beginner, am not skilled, not young, not an athlete, and pushing my personal boundaries. I am sure you are not that. But I was really weakened after 30-40 minutes in cold water. Would rather be too hot.
Bill Hagstotz
Hi Siegfried,
I have not been Kayaking very long but here are my thoughts. I just bought a full 4/3 wet suit specifically for Puget Sound trips. Water temps of ~48-55 is seriously cold. Very high risk. A 4/3 shorty would be second choice. Cold water immersion is a serious concern. Seems best solution here. Understand they can be too warm. One must ask is it worth the risk. I plan on Kayaking Cape Flattery sometime, get in the Pacific, I would say a full 4/3 would be a absolute must there even in summer. Maybe someone else could add some advice here.

Jack Leiman

Unless you are a very strong cold water swimmer, you will not make it to shore without a wetsuit or drysuit in most of Puget Sound and areas nearby. That said, if you are too hot you will not paddle efficiently or enjoy your time. I think of a dry suit for single or multiple immersions and a wetsuit as a one time get wet. On club trips - up to the leader and probably should be required. The better dry suits help some and I use a neck gasket to help with ventilation. Forgetting to release it only adds a small amount of water.

So, on a recent coastal trip last summer, we were the only ones wearing dry suits. On the days we explored protected waters, some of us used less protection. Sometimes in good conditions on home waters I will wear a shortie wetsuit and short sleeve paddling jacket, knowing I'm making a trade off with safety. Solo, coastal, or long crossings - always wear a drysuit. Continuing conundrum.

Try to occasionally travel to warmer waters.
Michael Germani
I can't speak for other trip leaders but I will speak for myself. What you wear on a trip is very dependent on the situation. I generally expect people to wear "immersion gear" when on my trips, but I generally do not specify what they wear (although there are exceptions).

Here's the deal. If you go in the water, I am confident that we will have a safe outcome, even if you do not have on immersion gear. I know that we will not venture into a situations where that was not the case, because that is how I set up trips and manage groups. However, if you go in, the "fun" factor for you as well as the rest of the group is going to be greatly diminished if you do not have immersion gear on. It may be something that we can deal with on the water and after 20-30 minutes you'll be all warmed up and relatively dry. It may mean we need to stop, go ashore, and get warm. It may mean that we all need to cut the trip short and paddle home. It may mean that we need to go ashore and call a taxi.

But you're asking if a shorty wetsuit is appropriate for trips, not if immersion gear is needed. My answer is it depends on the trip and your abilities and experience. If you are able to self rescue, in the Puget Sound, without getting so cold that you're going to have a bad trip, it is totally appropriate (depending on weather, crossing distance, etc.). I would say, buy one and try out a self rescue, wetsuits are pretty cheap. That way you know your gear. If you don't like taking a swim in the Sound, use it for lakes instead, or trips that don't involve a long crossing. It will not be a waste of money. 

I personally would not hesitate to wear a shorty wetsuit over to Blake Island in the summer, but that's because I know I can handle a spill in that attire without being terribly uncomfortable on a warm day. That said, I also tend to wear a drysuit in the middle of the summer because I personally find wetsuits annoying and I can easily cool off if I get too hot (rescue practice!).

If in doubt on a specific trip, contact the trip leader.

Happy Paddling,
Heidi Bennett
great question Siegfried, thanks for asking.
I too struggle with what to get and how much to spend.
I have a 2mm shorty which I can use for hot summer rescue practice in a shallow lake but not for the sound.

Group -- I just do coastal paddling close to shore in the sound, but still should have protection for an unwanted dump and rescue.
For a wet suit, is 3/2 enough for a quick dunk into the sound? I'm concerned that a 3/4 would just be too thick to paddle in.

Can you all please share some additional thoughts?
Esther Andrews
Hi Siegfried,
I'm sorry I'm late to this discussion; I saw your original post and was very interested in what people would say, but for some reason the email digest only pushed it through to me today (end of the month?). You've gotten some very thoughtful replies here. I hope it's okay to add a few more thoughts.

Disclaimer: I haven't been doing a lot of sea kayaking lately-- typically one multi-day trip a year now, and not with the club. (I'm doing more whitewater paddling right now.) In the past, though, I paddled a bunch on the northern California coast and worked my way up through the 4 Star Sea award in the old BCU system with a lot of great chances to learn from very skilled paddlers. All in all, a couple hundred days of sea kayaking, including multi-day or multi-week trips on the open coast in SE Alaska, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and playing in tide races in California, BC, and Scotland.

My (limited) impression is that the local (club) norm pushes strongly toward dry suits on all trips, and it's a huge asset to safety that dry suits are so widely available around here (if very expensive). Other groups have different norms. I had a job as an instructor on a two-week trip with a very reputable organization in Prince William Sound where the trip leader paddled, camped, and slept in the same set of clothes the entire time, with just rain gear over top. He was very derisive of me for bringing a farmer john wetsuit so I could demonstrate and teach rescues and strokes in the water rather than on the beach. Let's just say it's a serious disincentive to practicing rescues (or actually doing any skills development whatsoever) if you know you'll be sleeping in those damp, salty clothes for the next several weeks. Appalling, but that was the norm in that organization (and I didn't stick around)! The same guy also had good stories of impressing his dermatologist with his very rare and interesting skin fungus! Weird that he didn't seem to make the connection.

Group norms aside, if you regularly practice rolls and rescues in the same conditions in which you will be paddling, you will find out experientially what you personally want to be wearing so you know you can absolutely reliably get yourself back upright and paddling again without hypothermia compromising your ability to think clearly, maintain fine motor skills, etc. In this context, different people may make different choices, based on skill level and tolerance for cold. If particular, if you have a bombproof roll, that is a game changer. During lunch breaks, at take-out, or from camp, consider taking a dip in the water wearing less than what you wear to paddle. See what it takes to control your breathing. Practice this. If you find you get cold while practicing rescues, that's useful info-- either wear more or work on those skills so you can get yourself back into your boat quickly every time.

When the air temperatures are hot in the summer, overheating does present a hazard as well. You can only roll so often to cool off while also trying to paddle and make headway. Personally, I lean toward wearing less if the group is larger and more skilled, if the paddling terrain is relatively sheltered, and if I'm trying to make miles in hot and calm conditions. There are times in the summer when I paddle in the San Juans in as little as a hydroskin top and shorts. I back that clothing choice up by knowing I can reliably roll my boat in pretty much any conditions and by having swum in cold water with those clothes enough to know how my body will react.

I wear more if paddling solo or with a smaller or less skilled group, if rough conditions are forecast or more exposed terrain or crossings are on the itinerary, or if I'm expecting to be sitting around a lot. Nothing like a drysuit for the ultimate in comfort and protection, although wetsuits are arguably safer because a gash won't render them useless. And seriously, on a multi-day trip, bring the gear so you are prepared if you wake up and the conditions have changed!

I just don't think there can be a blanket answer to this. Perhaps the solution is to discuss it with the leader for that particular trip and see what both of you are comfortable with?
Barry Walstead
This is a great answer. I I like how you clearly talked through all the relevant information and gave good suggestions on how to discover that information personally.
Thank you for taking the time to share.
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