Okay, it’s cold out. Buffalo is currently buried under snow taller than me (or local Jody Swanson Starck), and even here in southern New England the wind chill is down to the single digits. There’s a threat of snow in tonight’s forecast, and out on the harbor, the whitecaps have—seemingly overnight—become unwelcoming. So what’s a watersports-loving girl to do, now that winter weather has arrived—five weeks early, again?
Fortunately, there is a solution (besides the one we call “Florida”). It’s called SUP (stand up paddling). I was able to paddle right through last year’s brutal winter—which kept away the usual cabin fever. Unlike frostbite sailing, SUP is surprisingly dry—assuming I pick my days carefully and stay on the board. Winter is not the time to start paddling, but it’s a great time to keep paddling.
SUP is also warmer than other winter watersports because its ideal conditions are flat calm. The wind and its chill are limited to my forward speed, which never gets above five knots even when I sprint hard. In fact, on days when the air temperature is lower than the water temp, I often find it warmer once I get on the water. The coldest part is getting down to the beach.
The key to staying warm, of course, is wearing the right gear. Clothing choices are extremely personal, but since so many people have asked me “what to wear” I figured I’d pass along what works for me. Much of what I use is no longer made, because my paddling wardrobe is made up of leftover sailing gear. So I’ve tried to include general description as well as specifics.
First, to deal with the cold walk to the beach, I throw on a “pitcher’s jacket,” an extra layer over everything I plan to wear paddling. That keeps me warm at the beginning, which helps me stay warm right to the end.
Note: The temperatures listed here are for the air, but water temps affect paddling comfort too. If they are drastically different from the air, I adapt up or down (always keeping in mind the potential for an unplanned swim).
Default layers below 65 degrees
Lifejacket (I use an inflatable during the summer, but switch back to the Zhik as soon as the temps dip below 65).
Silkweight style long sleeve shirt.
Zhik wetsuit shorts. Unlike the current deckbeater models, these are all neoprene and very stretchy.
Gill neoprene boots. State of the art, circa 2002… but still going strong.
Capilene 1 leggings under wetsuit shorts
Beanie, which I’ll remove and tuck into my lifejacket once warmed up
Zhik hydrophobic fleece top (Note: This is the only piece of gear I wear both paddling and sailing, because it is simply the best baselayer I’ve ever worn.)
Medium weight socks
Zhik hydrophobic top, plus a lightweight windbreaker
Zhik hydrophobic top, Patagonia R1 top, Kokatat spray top
Fleece leggings, windproof pants
Neck gaiter (remove once warmed up)
Heaviest socks I can fit inside boots
Zhik gloves (thin, but just enough warmth to keep my hands working)
All of the above, replacing Patagonia R1 top with R4
under 30 degrees
You’ll note that there’s very little neoprene included here, except for those wetsuit shorts. I’ve found that paddling in a wetsuit is clammy, since there’s nowhere for the sweat to go. But it would definitely be safer for that unexpected swim.
Lastly, a piece of advice: If you don’t already have a closet full of old sailing gear and you are going to buy something special for winter SUP, don’t skimp. The good stuff from Zhik and Patagonia will last a long time and be comfortable over a huge range of temperatures, so you don’t have to buy as many different pieces of gear (and will more frequently be wearing the right thing).
Enjoy, and I’ll see you on the water.