If you are going to paddle in cold water, but are resisting buying a dry suit, you need to read this. Do not think you are being smart in passing up a dry suit just because you’re going to do day paddles close to shore. Here’s a rule of thumb – if you have to do a wet exit and you’re 50 yards from shore in 50° water, you have a 50% chance of making it. So if you don’t have a 100% eskimo roll or a 100% rescue capable paddle partner, you need a dry suit.
Here’s a little story for all you “close to shore day paddlers.” A new paddler goes into Northwest Kayaks in Redmond and reluctantly gets talked into buying a dry suit. He resists because he was only intending to paddle “close to shore” and in bays and other “protected” [from currents and waves, I suppose] waters. A couple of weeks later he returns to tell the owner that he was in his new dry suit, paddling in Bowman Bay about 100 yards from shore, capsized, did a wet exit and couldn’t get back in his kayak. So he starts swimming for shore. One hour later he was picked up by a sport fisherman a mile out in the sound. The currents through Deception Pass are nothing to fool with, even in a power boat.
I would have thought that Reservation Head, to the south of Bowman Bay, would have deflected the currents away from the mouth of the bay, and I surmise he did, too. But the Northwest Pass runs closer to Bowman than the red line on the map, as you can see from the nautical chart. Surprise! That was a completely unexpected very bad day, which was survived only because he was wearing a dry suit.
The take on dry suits (ok, my uniformed take) was that they are expensive (correct), hot when paddling and exerting yourself (not really-you can splash water on yourself, which is surprisingly effective), uncomfortable (only to put on and take off-wearing them is ok), and they’re miserable to have to wear for hours (no, the relief zippers seem effective).
Another good feature is that you can wear street clothes under a dry suit. If you’re at a festival and are in and out of your kayak, a farmer john and a paddle jacket, for doing local paddling, confines you to walking around the festival in what I’ll call an accepted but dorkish costume.
The bottom line is, a paddle jacket is fine for a warm day on cold water, if you’re paddling with known, highly skilled rescuers and the conditions pretty much guarantee you won’t capsize. But remember, when the probability of a risk is very low, but the consequences are unacceptable (death by exposure), then the reasonable person guards against that risk.
What can you do to make a dry suit better? Not much. If you’ve got long hair a pair of panty hose will help you get the neck ring over your head. Also, if you live away from where kayaks are common, get a can of 303 protectant when you get the suit. Otherwise, it will be hard to find and [more] expensive.
Happy [worry free] Paddling!