On Black Friday during my #OptOutside paddle I faced a dilemma. The air temperature in my part of North Carolina was a balmy 75 degrees or so. But, after several seasonally cold days and nights prior, the water temperature was already about 55. While I might be able to manage warming up fairly quickly after an unintentional dip in the frigid water, I opted to wear my Starboard semi dry suit anyway.  I was the only one out there with that level of thermal protection: everyone else was in shorts and cotton t-shirts.  I felt silly, especially in my full kayaking PFD.

Until the rangers stopped me and told me I was smart.

Stuff can happen, no matter how prepared you are, no matter how seasoned you are, no matter how safe you are. No matter how much gear you have with you.

It can happen to all of us.


And in the winter, the margin of error between a safe return after a near miss is even narrower.

Winter produces unique and potentially dangerous scenarios no matter where you live. In North Carolina, for instance, we have the whacky temperature disparities like I just described that can trick you into thinking you can get away with board shorts instead of neoprene.  In other parts of the country, it’s just flat out cold and icy. And even in places like Perfect Hawaii, winter can bring bigger, more dangerous water.

Early on in this transition from Summer into Winter, we are hearing reports of near misses and worse- so without pointing fingers or judging, we here at Mullet Central thought a refresher on winter water realities as well as paddle safety precautions beyond leash and pfd might just be a good thing. Because even the most experienced of us can always use a reminder.

Cold Water Shock

This is a real thing.  And it doesn’t take much to cause it.

Moulton Avery, director of the non-profit National Center for Cold Water Safety  says that:

“With very few exceptions, immersion in cold water is immediately life-threatening for anyone not wearing thermal protection like a wetsuit or drysuit.

When cold water makes contact with your skin, cold shock causes an immediate loss of breathing control. The result is a very high risk of suddenly drowning – even if the water is calm and you know how to swim. The danger is even greater if the water is rough. Inability to coordinate your breathing with wave splash greatly increases the danger of inhaling water.”

Avery explains that part of the problem is that the initial shock of water colder than air temperature is that GASP! response which can cause you to aspirate water into your lungs.  If your head is submerged when this involuntary response occurs, you can almost count on getting water down the wrong tube. If you are not wearing a full pfd, this can happen.

I have aspirated water into my lungs – during a diving incident.  It is not fun.  It is quickly debilitating.

NCCWS Water Temperature Safety Guide

Below 77F (25C)
Breathing begins to be affected.

This is why the official water temperature required for Olympic swimming competition is 77-82F (25-28C).

70-60F (21-15C) Dangerous
Controlling your breathing and holding your breath becomes progressively more difficult as water temperature falls as water temperature falls from 70°F to 60°F (21°C to 15°C). You should certainly be wearing a wetsuit or drysuit below 60F, however, 60F (15C) is not the temperature at which most people should start wearing thermal protection.

60-50F (15-10C) Very Dangerous/Immediately Life-threatening
Total loss of breathing control. Maximum intensity cold shock. Unable to control gasping and hyperventilation.


Below 40F (5C) Very Dangerous/Immediately Life-threatening
Total loss of breathing control. Unable to control gasping and hyperventilation. Water feels painfully cold.

Fact: Cold shock is as extreme between 50-60F (10-15C) as it is at 35F (2C).

Most people who are unaccustomed to cold water will experience a maximum cold shock response somewhere between 50-60F (10-15C). For some individuals, this happens at 57F (14C), for others, the peak occurs at 52F (11C) and so on.

This means that an unprotected immersion in this temperature range will cause most people to completely lose control of their breathing – they will be gasping and hyperventilating as hard and fast as they can.

All of this can happen within five minutes time.  But you can lose the use of your hands and arms within 60 seconds.

Simply put – cold water is more than likely going to impede your ability to get back on your board or boat and self-rescue as easily as you would normally in warmer temperatures.

After cold water shock, there are four other stages of  immersion and they include:

Stage 2:Physical Incapacitation

Stage 3:Hypothermia

Stage 4:Circumrescue Collapse

How do you avoid these situations?

  1. ALWAYS Wear a PFD – consider a FULL PFD when water temperatures are below 70 degrees
  2. ALWAYS wear a leash that is in good working order
  3. ALWAYS dress for the water temperature, not the air temp
  4. Field test your gear to make sure it works
  5. Swim Test your gear to make sure you can use it when you need it
  6. Imagine the worst that can happen then plan for that

More info on cold water here.

Bright Colors Save Lives

Not many of us are fans of neon  – I know I went through that phase in the ’80s  (Think WHAM!) but darks and earth tones are just not easy to easy to spot in the open ocean or the backcountry or really anywhere.  There is a reason hunters wear something called BLAZE ORANGE.

I am so guilty of not wearing bright enough colors when I paddle. I have recently purchased more oranges, bright reds and neon greens because I want to be seen.  Even if I am not incapacitated. Recently on Facebook, a friend recounted an instance that turned fatal because rescuers could not see the paddler in the water – even after he’d called in for help via a working cell phone.

Fashion follows function in this case.  To heck with what I look like in orange.

Other ways to increase visability:

  • Use reflective tape or paint on paddles, bottoms of boards and boats, pfds and other gear.
  • Consider buying boards and boats in bright colors.
  • Carry glow sticks, flags, and a whistle.

Check it Out

It’s not just enough to just grab the leash, the pdf, the cell phone, the radio. It has to be in good working order.  It is so easy to get complacent about the gear.  But things wear out over time.  A very accomplished Maui downwind paddler recently was rescued in the big winter swells on the Maliko Run because his leash snapped.  It was old and need of replacing but he said on Facebook that at a casual glance, it looked just fine.  He is okay but the board that went on its solo run without him is in three pieces. He was with friends, but in a downwind situation, things can go south very, very fast.

  • Check your gear regularly
  • Replace things like leashes at the first sign of wear or after a year or two of use
  • In big conditions, consider wearing TWO leashes, like Suzie Cooney often does on big Maui days
  • Do not paddle alone if possible.  Make sure someone knows your paddle plan for the day
  • Make sure batteries are fresh and charged
  • Make sure dry bags are leak-free
  • Have a plan for what you’ll do should you become separated from your board

Beyond the Cell Phone


Cell phones are great.  I never paddle without mine.  But signals can be iffy. And it is not necessarily going make it easy for rescuers to find you.  Yes, there are tracking apps but what if the cell battery dies? A likely scenario since those same apps can really drain a cell battery. And, cell phones don’t float very well. Here’s how to increase your communication safety in winter or in any situation:

  • Always bring a cell phone and place it in a secure dry bag with flotation.
  • Where applicable carry a Marine Band radio.  Most of these are waterproof, float on their own and can be set to the emergency channel without much fuss or muss
  • Carry a Personal Locator Beacon – these devices transmit an SOS signal on frequencies monitored by rescue agencies. GPS enabled PLBs can dramatically reduce the amount of time it would take for rescuers to find you.  You can read more about how they work here.  NOTE: A downside here – like with any battery-operated device – cold temps can reduce the amount of time these devices can operate.
  • ALWAYS let someone know where you are going, how long you will paddle and when you expect to be home.  Call and confirm when you are off the water. Consider using a tracking app just to add another layer of communication to your paddle.


We’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions for how to safe WHENEVER you paddle.  Share them in the comments!