I recently had the occasion to share a pool deck with some gentlemen from an allied nation who I am pretty sure were members of a unit that is one of the few in history to ever bill itself as “Combat Canoeists.” (Admittedly the Polynesians, Algonquians, and a few other warrior cultures had that locked up for a couple of centuries prior.) currently I believe they call the military specialty Swimmer Canoeists.
Either the winged boat on my hat or my slowly swimming laps above them as they sat on the bottom on re-breathers eventually led to a conversation about survival on the open sea as we later lounged about baking in a desert sun.
Let me say right now that I guess that the majority of the people that read this website closely are not neophytes on the ocean, so they can appreciate that the following take aways from this conversation were gleaned from professionals who take great pains not to be seen or heard when they are in the water. There is no doubt that the bright life vests, cell phones, flares, and whistles that are espoused as the bare minimum safety equipment to recreational paddlers are a good idea, but these boys had some interesting insight on what the real basic equipment list is for those that can't just make a cell phone call for rescue when things get tuff.
#1 Insulation: No shock here, the underlying theme: it makes NO DIFFERENCE how strong you are or how much flotation you are wearing, most of the time the first thing that will get you in the water is exposure. The US Navy beats this into aircrew trainees from the very start, 10 pages of the 3710 (aircrew bible) are dedicated to computing just how long one can survive in various conditions and equipment configurations. For open water paddling I have to come to value a high end wet suit I purchased a few years ago as the most important piece of safety equipment I own. If the air is warm we might run with the backs of our wetsuits open, a brief dismount to flush through water is all it takes to cool down an overheat, but the ability to zip up and minimize heat loss for a extended period in the drink is probably THE paramount safety step that can be taken to improve survivability at sea. Have you ever noticed that the go to headwear for naval commandos on film is a watch cap? Its for good reason, and a wool lined 5mm neoprene beanie is always stuffed in the back of my suit in case things go bad. Even when water temps come up and it is way too hot for a full suit, a neoprene vest somehow attached to your person could literally be a lifesaver if you find your leash parted or hull breached and a long swim in your future. Which brings us to. . .
#2 Drown Proofing: No, not the hog-tied-thrown-in-the-deep-end ordeal everyone has seen on discovery channel documentaries. What I am referring to here is the simple but often hard to realize personal knowledge that the human body is inherently buoyant when the lungs are filled with air. It is this ability to put aside panic and simply breath and float that will allow an individual not only to remain on the surface but actually transit large expanses of water as long as they proceed with calm and a deliberate survival swim stroke. For some, this is not easy to develop, but if big water transiting is the goal of a paddler, it is a must! Pool time, and surf time are the key. On and off the boat, comfort in the conditions takes time, enthusiastic drive, and is best developed incrementally as confidence grows. There is an underlying truth to training for performance in high stress life and death situations, whether manipulating a firearm, flying a plane, or remounting your Surfski in a gale: you will never “rise to the occasion,” instead you will descend to the competency level that you have trained to consistently. This is to say, when you’re scared, cold, and tired, do not expect you are going to perform the way you did on your best day on the water; instead count on operating the way you did on your worst day of deliberate training. The goal is to raise this level up consistently.
#3 Fuel:Now here is one I have not heard emphasized in any article or course on water safety. CALORIES! Concerns of exposure or a long swim are going to be very short lived if you have not consumed enough fuel prior to hitting the high seas to insure your body can keep operating. I can personally attest to this as a buddy and I ransacked another friend’s kitchen after an impromptu 17 mile crossing that we didn't really plan. No swim, warm water, just a straight downwind paddle, and we were inconsolable until we consumed every cookie, nut, and broken pretzel that her bachelorette pantry had to offer. Now imagine that feeling after hitting a submerged log six miles out in the late fall. Fuel up and hydrate: it is a matter of life and death.
Takeaways:I am sure the attentive reader may have noted that the sacrosanct personal flotation device did not make the top three topics of this discourse. Again, it is important to stress that if the individuals I spoke with were indeed associated with the organization I suspect, it was a unit that pretty much raised the armed storming of North Sea oil rigs to high art in the 80's and 90's. These are people who professionally risk their lives at sea and have the conditioning and skill sets to mitigate hazards. But the reasoning and mindset is valuable to consider as well as an affirmation of my own experience.
The concern for augmented flotation (other then the inherent buoyancy added by a wetsuit) is that it makes an individual susceptible to the whims of current, wind, and wave action. All surfers and long distance swimmers know that you want to be as streamlined as possible when going up current, up wind, or through surf. For this reason, the consensus is that flotation should be small, deployable, and most importantly, collapsible! The idea being that it can be used to rest, cruise down current or wind if that is desired or needed, but then collapsed and stowed to navigate surf, climb up on rocks, or manage boat or board etc. One individual went so far as to say that if a full load-out of gear was not a concern, he would take a mask and snorkel over flotation, the reasoning being that it makes him drown proof and mobile (as long as he is conscious and not cramped). Imagine showing up to a big race with a snorkel and fins on your ski rather then a life vest. Here-in is the fundamental difference of mindset between the cautious and the competent. Wear a bright orange foam life vest with a cell phone stowed in it so the rescue services can find you easily after you call them when you can't remount your boat. Or have the gear, skill, and conditioning to take your best shot at making it back on your own no matter what happens.
I don't offer this as an alternative to any of the recommendations or requirements of the entities that educate, regulate, or certify recreational paddling. However, just as there are subtle differences in the way each of us applies the fundamentals of the foreword stroke, those that choose to take their water time to a higher level, making the commitments of training and conditioning that develop confidence and independence, should consider all the angles when venturing out onto a huge sea on a very small craft.