This column was first published March 25, 2006

In case you were so enthralled with the tractors and ATVs at the Sportsmen’s Show at the University of Maine last Saturday that you missed our trained seal act, I’ll review it for you.

As part of an ongoing effort to get people to think at least once or twice before heading out on our waterways and to always wear a personal flotation device, a group of us has performed at this show for several years. Our core group also is instrumental in bringing you the annual Paddle Smart from the Start Paddle Safety Symposium on April 28 at the YMCA in Bangor.

This year’s message was pretty much the same – canoes and kayaks can overturn; you can drown. However, you can drastically increase your odds of surviving if you take the time to put on your lifejacket, zip it up, and cinch it securely before you are thrown from the boat. You can also improve your chances of survival if you take the time to learn how to right your boat and get back into it.

Canoes, being totally open, are tricky to right and remount, while kayaks, properly equipped and rigged, are much easier. We gave presentations on both types of crafts during two 45-minute pool sessions that were well attended. Another part of what we tried to pass along is boat choice. Some boats have little to no flotation, others have some while most good sea kayaks have bulkheads to keep water out of the bow and stern areas and allow the boat to float even if the cockpit is full of water.

The question to ask yourself when selecting a boat is: How far from shore will I be when I capsize? If it’s more than a few yards you better know how to re-enter and bail.

Paul Faria, a guide from Waterville, and I, managed to right, partially empty, remount, and bail out a canoe, while others in our group of presenters showed rescue difficulties with other types of canoe-type craft and how hopeless self-rescue is without PFDs, flotation, and bailers. And later Faria and Ryan Hammond, a student in the Skowhegan Outdoor Program, demonstrated how relatively easy it is to get back into a canoe equipped with float bags. It was a bit tricky bailing the boat with the large air bags in place, but the boat would never sink.

Ben Crowell, with the U.S. Coast Guard, Southwest Harbor, and a Paddle Smart Safety Symposium committee planner, and Elery Good, a pupil at Calvary Chapel Christian School, played father-and-son roles as they capsized a recreational kayak with an open cockpit. Their efforts at getting back to shore would have failed had they been more than 50 feet from shore.

We demonstrated how another canoe could come to their rescue by showing an X-rescue wherein the capsized boat is pulled up and over the other boat while the water inside is allowed to drain out. Then the emptied boat is put back into the water and the “victims” are coached into a newly drained boat.

Karen Francoeur of Castine Kayak Adventures provided the avenue for verbal interaction with the audience as we attempted to drive home the danger of cold water immersion and the importance of wearing your lifejacket. The colder the water, the shorter the time you have to rescue yourself or others. A lifejacket will buy you a little more time, keeping you afloat and helping to retain precious core heat.

What many people don’t realize is that your agility and dexterity, particularly in you hands, begins to go as your core calls for more heat and sucks it away from your extremities. After 10 minutes in cold water you may not be able to help yourself because your fingers might not be working. It is therefore imperative that you use your skills and abilities as soon as possible after capsizing. The sooner you are out of the cold water, the better your chances of survival.

From the NRS Web site comes this statistic: “Water is approximately 25 times more efficient than air at drawing heat away from your body. This means once you get wet, your body is more prone to excessive heat loss. This condition, known as hypothermia, causes more cold-water boating deaths each year than drowning.”

What you are wearing is important. Cotton jeans and flannel shirts don’t hack it while you are immersed in cold water. Once you get out of the water the material will continue to take heat from your body. You need synthetics that do not retain water next to your skin.

Over that you should have an insulating layer, again synthetic or neoprene or both. Personally, I find neoprene can be great if you’re in the water, but really clammy and cold once you work up a sweat above water – particularly when you stop moving around.

On top of these two layers, you should wear a windproof/waterproof and breathable layer. You will find many styles and makes ranging from splash wear that will keep splashes and rain at bay to full- gasket dry suits with latex gaskets at the wrists, ankles, and neck (some come with attached socks or booties) that keep you dry in a total immersion situation.

And don’t forget your head. That’s where we lose about 10 percent of our body heat. A wool or neoprene cap will actually help you keep your fingers warm as well as your head. But booties and neoprene gloves shouldn’t be ignored. Dressing for the water temperature is what many of the experts recommend, but each individual is different. Find the right combination for different weather, but if you err, go on the warm side. You can always remove a layer if you’re too hot.

During our second demonstration we used recreational kayaks and a sea kayak to show the differences in flotation and how a kayak without bow and stern flotation fills up with water and is hard to re-enter and nearly impossible to self-rescue.

While our demonstrations were not intended as lessons in self-rescue, they were intended to show what you should know before heading out, and hopefully impress it upon paddlers to practice self-rescue techniques. It would be a great idea if you tested your gear and clothing in the controlled environment of a pool or near a beach in warmer weather to see that it performs as it should. Discard those items that fail and replace them with new ones.

The following are questions you should consider before considering a launch on cold water. Credit again goes to the folks at NRS:

How cold will the water and air temperatures be? In the past, how comfortable have I been at those temperatures?

What’s the weather forecast?

How experienced are my boating companions?

How easily can I get to land to warm up and change to dry clothing if need be?

Read a book

If you’re new to paddle sports and are thinking about sea-kayak touring, I recommend you seek out as much information as you can before shelling out your first dollar on equipment. A canoe or kayak symposium is a great place to start -another is your favorite bookstore. There are numerous books out there catering to those of us in the paddling community.

I just received a copy of the second edition of “Complete Sea Kayak Touring” by Jonathan Hanson (Ragged Mountain Press, McGraw Hill). It’s an easy read that is written by an experienced paddler and illustrated with pictures, charts and drawings. Interspersed are anecdotes from various experiences and trips Hanson has taken. While not intended to be a substitute for hands-on instruction, this book will give you a good feel for the sport and the skills and equipment you’ll need if you’re just getting started. Even if you’re experienced, you’ll find lots of nuggets between the covers.

Hanson aims this book at those who would like to tour by kayak and divides the book into four parts: touring equipment, techniques for touring, camping equipment and techniques, and transport, maintenance, and repair.

You’ll find the chapter on planning, provisioning and packing to be helpful even if you’ve had some experience stuffing your kayak for an overnight or two. And the following chapter on camping has something for everyone, including hazards one might encounter. One was a chewed bow line, the handiwork of some rodent frustrated because it couldn’t get at food properly stored inside the boat. Of course there is the mandatory inclusion of warnings about venomous animals, marauding bears and stinging insects – more good reasons to live in Maine.

What I found most telling (and in which I can wholeheartedly agree) was at the end of his introduction. “Sea kayaking is the most rewarding and least invasive means of traveling through some of the best places left on earth. It’s not enough, any more, just to visit those places and store them away in your memory. We need to fight to preserve them. This fight isn’t a difference of political philosophy like taxes or welfare or gun control, issues that can reverse course with each election. Once our last miles of virgin coastline are gone, they re gone forever. The tree farm that’s replanted when an old-growth forest is logged bears no relation to the entity that preceded it.”

Jeff Strout’s column is published each Saturdays.