March 2009

Some Chilly Food For Thought

One of our most talked about club events is happening this month. The event is aimed at helping to introduce those new at paddling to the concepts and skills of sea kayaking. This year, one of planners of the event stumbled upon a video that simply screams for attention by those designing the event. This video is produced by a doctor and professor in Manitoba who specializes in exercise-related and environmental medicine, and thermo-physiology. Lots of big words I know, but to the uninitiated kayaker (if you have not seen it coming yet), it is all about cold water immersion.

If you are new to paddling let me tell you straight up now that the phrase cold water gets the same reaction to a sea kayaker as might the phrase hot tip would to an investment guru. When you start talking about it, you have got their attention. All sea kayakers have opinions about cold water; is it good to paddle in?, is it bad to paddle in?, what to wear when it’s cold, what to have with you, what are the results of exposure, and much more. And we are all correct about being so concerned about this subject. Cold water is a sea kayaker’s number one nemesis. The most number of accidents, and specifically the most number of fatalities in this sport are due to cold water. No question about that.

Enough now about that. I did not want to talk about all the details we could get into with regards to this subject. No, I wanted to mention this video. Not because it will tell you everything you need to know to prepare yourself for paddling in or the inevitable immersion in cold water. Actually it will tell you very little about this. What the study depicted here does, is approaches the topic with a new and fresh angle. And while they are at it, the people in this study do spend a lot of time looking at the effects of cold water, finally reaching a conclusion which, although not new, is presented in such a way as to drive home to me a completely new respect for what can happen to me when I am paddling in the winter.

Not long ago, if you came to me and said that reaction-getting phrase, I would start telling you about protecting your core temperature in cold water. When it drops too low, we call it hypothermia. Hypothermia this…hypothermia that. Loosing your core temperature is the reason we dread the cold water. A fictitious paddler goes out on a warm spring morning, paddling in summer gear when the water is still 45 degrees. He/she falls over while retrieving the water bottle that slipped off the deck and capsizes. It was too long since practicing those self-rescues and it takes too long to get back in the boat. Before long, their core body temperature drops, uncontrollable shivering starts, and hypothermia gets a solid grip on this paddler.

That would have been my warning story to one who asked about cold water. But what always puzzled me was how did this hypothermia get this paddler? How long does it take? Will it happen fast? Before I could find a way to get back into my boat? Before I could swim to shore? I have been out in the cold for a long time, and I have been cold, but have I ever been hypothermic?

There just seemed to me to be an unexplained part of the story that did not fit right. How exactly would I know if I was hypothermic? How could I know if I was in trouble? Why could I not explain it sufficiently?

The answer came in this study. We know that hypothermia has stages. And the most talked about stage is the one I mentioned already, the dropping of your core body temperature. And there is a lot we can do to prolong this when we are exposed to cold water, either accidentally or intentionally. We can wear better gear, we can use the “huddle” position, etc. This stage comes on at varying rates for various people. The researches in this video actually used volunteers to test to see how long it would take for their core body temps to drop low enough to be medically dangerous. Using the live volunteers for the study, by the way, was also one of the highlights of the way this video was done. Oh, the result? It took often over 30 minutes, and sometimes up to an hour to produce a drop in core temperature that would cause a disabling effect in 45 degree water. That is about the water temperatures out there now. It is spring time. Just like my fictitious paddler. Assuming that he/she was sensible enough to stay a hundred yards or so from shore, could they have simply swum to shore to get out of danger in that time?

This is where the twist comes in. The new revealing conclusion from this fast-paced exciting study of real people jumping into real cold water. The conclusion? The result of the study was not that body temperature drops were the culprit. No, there are other more subtle effects that lurk back in the description of hypothermia (i.e. cold exposure) that got their volunteers first. Any guesses?

Well, think back to your experiences of paddling in the cold with me? Have you been out on a chilly winter night paddling with some of your buddies. Everyone in dry-suits, gloves, hoods, booties, etc. You all kept asking each other, are you cold yet? Are you cold yet? Are we there yet? The answer was always; well, I am a little chilly but not bad enough to give up. In fact six months later it is that chilly sensation that you remember fondly of those winter paddles. But there was something else that you try not to remember that always happened too. Remember it yet? Yes. When you could not get your car keys out of your pocket to get in and warm up the car. When you fumbled with your dry-suit zipper enough that you finally asked someone to pull it for you. When your dexterity was shot due to the chilly-ness.

Well that is what this study found as its conclusion. If you call hyperthermia the core temp drop, then the quote that I remember from the video that sticks in my mind is this: “All they had (the immersion volunteers that is) was cold muscle tissue which didn’t work. They were not hypothermic!” Think about this when you watch this study. Notice the point where the “campers” are asked to perform some basic tasks related to kayaking like using a radio after bring in the water for 5 or 10 minutes. They had trouble. They failed!

In 5 or 10 minutes! Not being able to work a radio, or keep treading water, or to get back into the kayak! That could spell trouble. That is pretty specific. And I can associate with that not so fondly from my past experience with the car keys. That really makes sense to me. I can understand now. And I know exactly how to describe this to the next semi-interested new paddler who makes the mistake to ask about cold water. I have cold-hard experiences to draw on for this conclusion.

Well to wrap it up, now that we know what the real facts are about what happens to one in cold water that could be dangerous, what did this video study tell us afterwards to help us deal with the danger? Did they give answers? Yes, but it was everything that we know and practice already: prepare for the cold, wear the correct clothing, paddle with buddies, plan your trip, don’t push the experience, and wear your PFD. Oh, and watch some cool videos when you know it is too cold to be out. Maybe you will get some food for thought to feed your spring time paddling.

See you on the water, soon!

By the way, the video I have been talking about can be watched here…

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