Monday, November 21, 2011

Paddling precautions for colder weather

Lake Michigan waves colliding with Promontory Point.
As the air and water get cooler and the days get shorter, we get more comments of the "you're so brave" and "be careful" sort as we unload our boats and prepare to paddle on Lake Michigan.

Sharon dressed for the day.
Is it actually riskier, or does it just feel that way? In one way, it's objectively safer: there isn't any boat traffic. We have the lake to ourselves. Sure, there's nobody on the lake to help if we need assistance, but we're happy to see empty harbors and nothing but water all the way to the horizon. In some ways, we're safer knowing that we're relying only on ourselves and assessing the risks accordingly.

Before setting out on a recent morning, we deliberately assessed the potential risks and our preparedness. There are many good tools for doing this. Our favorite was developed by Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme of Body Boat Blade, and is helpfully posted by Keith Wikle at GoKayakNow.

Here is how we employed this framework on a cold, somewhat windy day in late November.

Big picture: Stable.
Wind: 15 to 25 knots, and not predicted to increase. Out of the northwest and predicted to shift to the north. Along shore, not off-shore, and shifting on-shore.
Rain/sun: Overcast with possible rain.
Visibility: Good.
Other hazards: Cooler temperatures (high in the mid-40s).
Verdict: Green

Landscape: Mostly hard shoreline causing reflected waves (clapotis).
Outs: Several beaches and harbors along the way.
Landings: Small spilling surf at beaches or easy harbor take-outs.
Wildlife and other hazards: None.
Verdict: Green

Waves: 3 to 5 feet from the north.
Boat traffic: None.
Verdict: Green

Physical strength: Good, but Sharon just had oral surgery and was feeling low energy.
Mental strength: Good, with the same qualification.
Skills: Strong.
Equipment: Both of our sea kayaks were in good condition, as were our paddles and spare paddles. We carried boat repair and first aid kits, rescue equipment, spare clothing, communication and signaling devices, food and water, and hot beverages. Visibility was good.
Health concerns: Only as noted above.
Suitability of group to conditions: Well within our comfort zone.
Verdict: Green with a tinge of Yellow

It can appear time-consuming, but after a while the process of assessing, deciding and packing becomes efficient. We began the assessment at home, where we checked the weather and chose where to paddle partly on the basis of it. When we arrived, we looked at the lake and determined that it did not alter our plans. We decided who was bringing what as we packed our boats. And then on the water, we reassessed how we felt that day. This kind of dynamic assessment helps ensure that your assessment keeps up with changes in information and conditions.

Sharon is out there somewhere.

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