The cold facts
When to wear thermal protection while paddling
The boat may be put away for the season, but the occasional warm day still brings plenty of paddlers out on the water. Knowing when to wear the thermal protection offered by a dry- or wetsuit is key, but a long-assumed guideline meant to help paddlers make the right decision, the “120-degree rule,” may instead put paddlers in danger.
The 120-degree rule is a formula that adds together the air and water temperatures to determine when thermal protection is required. If the air and water temperatures added together are above 120 degrees Fahrenheit, no dry- or wetsuit is needed.
“Using this simple formula, a paddler could mistakenly believe that if air temperature is the low 70s and water temperature is hovering around the low 50s, that thermal protection is not necessary,” said BoatUS Foundation Assistant Director of Boating Safety Ted Sensenbrenner. This is incorrect. Sensenbrenner said that warm winter or spring days give paddlers a false sense of security. “Water temperatures have plunged, but the warm sun on your face hides the reality that accidentally going overboard at this time of year could quickly lead to trouble.”
According to research, sudden cold-water immersion can kill in several ways: involuntary gasp reflex and hyperventilation, cold incapacitation and immersion hypothermia. Not wearing a life jacket compounds the drowning risk.
“Always wear a life jacket when in an open boat or on deck, and consider the water temperature when dressing for your next boating adventure,” Sensenbrenner said. For more on cold-water boating, go to boatus.org/cold-water-boating.