Just yesterday I was at the marina behind two young men paying their launch ramp fee. It was a cold and breezy day, but January is trophy catfish season on the James River! I asked them if they were going fishing; they said they were going duck hunting instead. As they left, I began to think about their clothing – camouflage coveralls to fool wary waterfowl eyes, cotton sweatshirts for warmth and orange PFDs tucked away out of sight. I wish I had mentioned their clothing before they headed out, because if they wound up in the near-freezing water somehow, it likely would end badly.
A Texas newspaper published a story recently of a young man who fell from his boat and nearly died from hypothermia in water shallow enough to stand in. If he had been better prepared for the cold water, he would have had a much better chance of staying alive. So, how should we dress for cold weather boating?
First, WEAR that PFD. PFDs are really hard to put on when they are on the boat and you are in the water! They even come in your favorite camo patterns for hunters! Next, dress like you expect to get wet in cold water. Spray, rain or a fall overboard – all can soak you and result in hypothermia, a critical loss of core body temperature. In cold water, your survival time may be measured in minutes. Even with a good PFD, hypothermia could result in recovering your floating, but frozen, body! Keep in mind how long it may take to get back to the launch ramp or marina after getting out of the water!
For starters, leave the cotton at home. Go with synthetic fabrics like polypropylene or even wool – these will keep you warm even if soaked. Cotton retains water next to your skin. Alaska guides call it “killer cotton” for good reason! Don’t forget your feet and your head – you can lose as much as 20% of your body heat if they are not protected. A dry change of clothes and a wool blanket from the local surplus store could be lifesavers!
Next, consider a “float coat” – a Coast Guard-approved PFD in jacket form. These are comfortable, easy to wear, very warm in and out of the water and keep you afloat. Several firms make these in various colors, even camouflage. My personal favorite is one made by Mustang Survival; it is cut a little longer and has a neoprene flap inside that snaps around your legs if you go in the drink, turning your jacket into a short wetsuit! The best is an anti-exposure coverall, providing insulation and flotation just short of the “Gumby” survival suits used by commercial fishermen. The coveralls are much better suited for active use like fishing or working around the water. They also are Coast Guard-approved PFDs and comfortable to wear all day over regular clothing.
For more information on cold weather fishing, check out the James River Catfishing website www.jamesrivercats.com and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries www.dgif.virgina.gov . Don’t forget that supporting local businesses helps employ folks at home and keeps those businesses open to serve you! Keep dry, keep warm and wear that PFD!