Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Kayak Angling Clothing: a three part review

Part 2:  The Wet Suit / Dry Suit Debate

The second part of this article investigating cold water protection for sea kayak fishermen looks at dedicated solutions to the problem of staying warm and dry on the sea.  By dedicated, I mean clothing that is designed for kayaking, rather than shore fishing or hill-walking, and my requirements are particularly focused on sea fishing from sit-on-top kayaks.

As I mentioned in the first part of this article, you could save some money and choose to wear a pair of chest waders with a good belt and a dry top.  No, that won't protect you if you fall in and can't get back on your yak quickly!  Even if you do, some water will have got in, probably down your back and you'll start to get cold and wet.  If you do most of your kayaking in warm water during the summer months this may not be an issue for you.  But falling into cold water, typically early in the season when the sea temperatures are still below 10 degrees Celsius can be a problem.  If you have to stay submersed in low water temperatures for any length of time, you rapidly lose body heat from your limbs and so also lose the ability to do much about your situation.  The longer you're in the water, the more your waders will fill with water, the colder you'll get and the more difficult it'll be to get back on your yak, even assuming it's still within reach.

So let's say we rule out that combination in cold weather, and ask what would be a better way to dress for the risk of cold water immersion?

Probably the easiest way of dressing for sea kayaking is to go the (wind)surfer's route of donning a 5mm, 4mm or 3mm wetsuit.  While a 5mm wetsuit may not be the most comfortable option for all weathers, it is a cheap, easy and relatively safe way to dress for cold weather kayaking.  Just make sure it's fairly tight fitting.  Unfortunately there's always a trade-off between ease of getting the thing on and off, and getting the wet suit to function optimally.  A decade or so ago wetsuits got relatively poor reviews as the new generation dry suits came out with highly breathable membranes such as Goretex.  But kayaking opinions are changing with respect to wetsuits.  Just as dry suits have improved, so too has wetsuit design, and modern wetsuits are more comfortable, better fitting and given their price differential, a closer competitor than they used to be.  Some wetsuits now on offer are admittedly more expensive than your standard wetsuit, with some of the newest, fanciest cold water wetsuits on the market rivalling the cost of dry suits.  But even without the improvements in design and materials, some hardened dry suit enthusiasts are coming round to the idea that wetsuits perform well in cold conditions, they are cheap, and suffer none of the frailty of dry suits.  Their low cost in particular makes them a good option for beginners who might be unsure if they want to pursue the sport in the longer term.

Good dry suits are expensive, and not always particularly durable, even if you do manage not to tear or puncture them.   There are some dry suit manufacturers that seem to suffer the problems of delamination again and again, which makes an expensive item next to useless.  So how long will a dry suit last?  There are reports of the best lasting over ten years with the right care and attention, but some of the cheaper ones seem to start leaking from day one.  The other thing about breathable dry suits is that they are a little less grim in terms of your lovely body stink, as your clothes absorb a good deal and can be washed.  Of course, wetsuits end up reeking because you will sweat in them and if you are wearing nothing else for a week's kayaking, then you might not be too approachable!  And as your skin can't breathe, rashes can sometimes result from prolonged wear.  But you can replace several wetsuits for the price of a good dry suit, and wet suits are pretty much unaffected (and repairable) if you get one ripped on a barnacle covered reef or punctured by a knife or hook some distance from your destination. 

However, on sunny spring days when the air temperature is warm but the water is cold, you can overheat on long paddles in a heavy wetsuit with a PFD on top, and a cold wind can still cut through them after you've built a sweat up.  Most folk tend to add a dry top or waterproof/windproof top to prevent wind chill.  Wetsuits can also be a bit grim on your return, when there's the cold and windy car park undressing routine to look forward to...  ;-)

One thing to bear in mind as you read both sides of the wetsuit / dry suit debates is that most reviews and blogs offering advice are not written by sea kayak fishermen, they're written by sea kayakers.  Sea kayakers spend most of their time paddling, not sitting still for quite long periods while fishing (jerking a shad or casting a lure doesn't really warm you up).  It's worth bearing this in mind as the "stop / go" nature of sea kayak fishing means that you can pick up a wind chill surprisingly quickly during the drifts between paddles.  Buying an outfit for sea kayak fishing will mean that you have slightly different requirements compared to everybody else in the kayak shop and you need to explain that to them.  For example, one thing I didn't like about using neoprene boots for my feet is that they would eventually get cold if I had them dangling over the side for hours at a time.  Which is pretty much every session for me as it both adds stability and lets you fish in a more natural position. The sown-in dry socks of my waders let me wear a good pair of wool socks underneath my wading boots, and my feet never suffer any cold or discomfort.  You're not likely to get that sort of information from a kayak shop, unless they happen to be fishermen into the bargain.  But if they are, stop reading this and just go and talk to them!

If you take a look through the sea kayaking literature and online resources, many kayakers start with wetsuits and move onto dry suits simply because to paddle or fish safely in any kind of weather, you really need to stay dry if you fall in.  It may be the case that you only kayak in warm weather, on relatively safe waters, and for you semi-dry is sufficient.  As I mentioned in the first part of this article, two-piece semi-dry suits are just that.  Semi-dry.  If you stay in the sea for more than a few minutes, then expect to get wet as it's quite difficult to ensure you've made a good seal between the two garments.  Top of the range two-piece breathable suits are not cheap either (in fact they are not far off full dry suit prices), but they do offer reasonable water protection and more flexibility for warmer conditions.  That said, I would still urge a little caution, as you may find that wearing a t-shirt and your dry pants in the summer months isn't the ideal solution you were hoping for, as some sit-on-top kayaks are a pretty wet ride which can mean getting a wet back as waves or water in the seat well splashes up over the top of your dry pants.  If that sounds like your kayak, then wetsuit shorts for the summer months might be a better option.

However you make your choice, it's about dressing for the local sea conditions to ensure your safety and comfort, bearing in mind that unlike most kayakers, you may not be paddling for hours at a time.

I've not come down on either side of the fence until this point, other than to state that I don't really rate two piece semi-dry suits, and a waders plus dry top combination while convenient isn't going to give you proper protection if you fall in.  For my type of fishing, with the local sea and weather conditions, I came down in favour of getting a dry suit.  Please note that I'm not saying there aren't also good reasons for going with the wet suit option (particularly cost), but here are my reasons for choosing a dry suit specifically with sea kayak fishing in mind:
  • Dry suits offer excellent wind chill protection while fishing.
  • Relief zips, sown-in-feet and the dry clothing you came in underneath give high comfort levels.
  • Option of increasing / decreasing layers underneath to suit weather and sea conditions.
  • Reasonable protection if you do end up in the sea for an extended period of time.
  • Dressing / undressing at the car is a bit less hassle.
In some senses, choosing a wet suit is easy as there aren't a huge number of options, just make sure it's relatively close fitting and suitably thick for your conditions.  Dry suits are more complex, as factors such as zip placement, type of neck seal, choice of fabric breathability and protection, touring hoods, dry socks and so on make the choice less straightforward than it might be.

Unfortunately there are very few dedicated kayak fishermen's dry suits (in fact just one to my knowledge).  This seems incredible given the growth the sport has seen in recent years, but many kayak clothing manufacturers seem oblivious of this market opportunity.  This means that most of the dry suits on offer are either for for white-water / surf kayaking, expedition sea kayaking or dingy sailing.  Sea kayak fishing fits somewhere between the last two.  In part 3 of this article, I review the dedicated kayak angling dry suit I chose and discuss where improvements could be made were more manufacturers to take up the challenge of producing purpose-built dry suits for sea kayak fishermen.

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