Thursday, 7 April 2011

Kayak Angling Clothing: a three part review

Part 1: How to stay dry while kayak fishing

Well this is a decision that has been a long time coming.  For my first three years of sea kayak fishing, I relied on a semi-dry, two-piece combination suit from Palm.  The dry top was composed of a Palm Aleutian LS Paddle Top (reviewed here), now no longer made but similar in spec to the Palm Alaska Touring Jacket:

Before moving on to the lower half, I'd just like to mention that this Palm jacket has the best hood of any waterproof garment I have ever owned.  I so wish that manufacturers of expensive walking jackets would take a look at how to make a really comfortable, protective hood with fantastic visibility, it's a hood that fits to your head like velcro and can still be worn comfortably with (sun)glasses.  But I've tested dozens of expensive, hardcore Goretex mountaineering jackets and none of them have ever had a hood that came close to this one by Palm.  So full marks to Palm for that piece of design.  As for the rest of the jacket, it's OK and breathability is acceptable, but the pockets are not as useful as Palm would have you think.  They're neither fully waterproof, nor particularly accessible when wearing a PFD and the arm pockets in particular with their splash-proof zips have a tendency to jam.  Now if they could make a phone-sized, snap-shut type arm pocket like a fully waterproof Aquapac - I'd really be interested!  The hand-warmer fleece tunnel is also fiddly to use once your hands are wet with salt water.  Even if they're dry, what's the point in taking off a PFD to warm your hands, and so getting a cold back into the bargain?  I think this type of lower, across-the-front pocket is only really accessible if you're wearing the very thin, self-inflating type of life jacket - not generally the PFD of choice for sea kayakers.  But other than these quibbles, the jacket is still going strong after several years and I still like it. 

The lower part of the combination was a pair of Sidewinder dry pants (the picture below is of the Viper model, as the new Sidewinders have sown-in feet).

This combination was never deemed a "dry" suit, and after a day spent practising getting back on the kayak after capsizing, and helping with rescue drills by the lifeboat in Runswick Bay, I truly understood what semi-dry means: pretty wet!  It was fine if you fell in and got back on your yak quickly.  The first couple of goes I had I remained relatively dry.  But the final one, where we had to wait in the water for 10 minutes until the rescue boat picked me up, I could feel water pouring in down my back and legs as it gained access by what are in effect, just a couple of tight belts layered over one another.

So that was a chastening experience.  I resolved not to fall off in future (and I haven't yet).  But at the start of last year, my dry pants started to leak.  It was first just a few drops, caused by pin-prick punctures from flailing treble hooks on flapping fish and from the needle sharp spines on the fish themselves.  These pin-pricks weren't a concern to me - a few damp patches are normal on a day's fishing!  But over the course of about a month, they started to let in a lot more water.  Part of the problem is that sit-on-top kayaks can be quite a wet ride, particularly if you don't use scupper plugs.  But even if you do, you'll generally be sitting in a pool of saltwater, which is a testing environment for any waterproof clothing.  And so it proved with my no-longer dry pants, I noticed that the interior coating was coming off in patches and that they were started to delaminate.  This is something that has been raised as an issue with Palm clothing in sea kayaking forums and blogs.  I've heard that Palm have had a pretty good replacement service for when this happens but in all honesty I doubt that my dry pants were fixable.  Let's face it, as they were stinking from hundreds of fish over several seasons (no matter how much I rinse them down), they were barely touchable, let alone fixable!

So that left me with a pair of old Orvis breathable chest waders from my fly fishing days

and my dry top.  This isn't a bad combination, and it's certainly no worse than what I had.  For one thing, the waders came with sown-in fabric feet, no horrible latex seals or socks which makes taking them on and off so much easier - no more struggling to undress with cold fingers at the end of the day!  I certainly can't ever see me getting latex seals or socks anywhere near my feet again.  And by adding a pair of felted and studded wading boots over the top of the socks (you need to go up a couple of sizes) then there's no more slipping about on seaweed covered rocks:
This combination is practical, robust and comfortable.  The waders are a heavy gauge, 4-ply material in places, so plenty more able to take stray hook points, and even better, they come with a patch kit!

But at the back of my mind was that day's training at Runswick Bay, when those who got wet (me in particular!) got very, very cold that April afternoon.  And the only people who stayed warm were either in wetsuits or full dry-suits.  Given I've seen friends take a dunking wearing waders and a dry top, I don't particularly fancy practising self-rescues in my own waders and dry top combination, as I know what the result would be: one wet cold paddler!  Plus the waders don't give you the same freedom of movement as dry pants do, making self-rescue even more difficult.

But I kept fishing all through last year, trying to enjoy the ease and comfort which my waders gave me, coupled with sense of unease at what might happen if I were to be knocked off my kayak in rough conditions.  As this season approached, I started to think it might be time to dip deep into my savings and fork out for a full dry suit.  They are eye-wateringly expensive.  So expensive, at first I thought of taking up a fishing alternative, such as buying a top of the range shore rod and fishing from the shore instead of using my kayak! 

£500-£600 is not uncommon for top of the range dry suits.  To be honest, that's already beyond my pocket money and if you want an expedition quality, really breathable one in Goretex, get ready for four fat figures coming out of your bank balance!  That's just not on the cards for me, and I suspect most sea kayak fishermen.  But even if you have the money, would such a suit really be the right tool for the job?  After all, sea kayak fishermen have different requirements to sea kayakers, not least the need for better protection from flying treble hooks!  What about the much cheaper wetsuit alternative?  In part 2, I look at some of the issues with both alternatives and come to a conclusive decision to purchase.

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