Farmer John Fallacy by Jay
When you buy your first kayak, you’re usually overwhelmed with the extras they don’t tell you about: automobile rack, paddle, paddle float, pump, spray skirt, and ...clothing? Unless you have loads of surplus money, your first piece of cold-water apparel is the Farmer John. It’s affordable and divers use them to keep warm ...so they’ll certainly work for us.
Neoprene diving apparel has been around since the early days of Jacques Cousteau. Neoprene material is waterproof with tiny impregnated air bubbles that provide a thermal insulation barrier. Water (moisture) enters the suit and is heated up by the body and remains there to insulate you from the cold. The ideal suit is slightly on the tight side to prevent almost all the interchange of water. A good fitting suit allows only an initial wetness to occur. The water (moisture) slowly seeps in through the wrists, ankles and around the face. Since liquids are non-compressible, the thin layer of moisture under the suit does not compress and allow any more cold water in. The diver’s movements are slow and reserved, using mostly the legs and since he is underwater, overheating is never a problem. Divers often use 1/4” wetsuits even to dive under the ice.
Divers who do winter diving with
wet suits will often wet themselves down with hot water prior to donning the
suit. Nobody wants a rush of ice water running down their suit - your
body may not be able to heat it. Many divers also use long johns under the
suit to further slow down the entering or exchange of water, especially when
the water is very cold.
The two important missing pieces.
The diver wears a hood and never enters New England waters without it. The diver also wears the wetsuit jacket. The jacket squeezes the top of the Farmer John sealing the open chest and also protects the underarms - two very vulnerable areas. The hood has a bib, which tucks into the jacket, protecting the head and neck and sealing water from entering the neck area of the jacket. Two more crucial areas that demand thermal protection are covered - the head and neck. Areas like the head; neck, underarms and groin don’t have large layers of muscle or fat for protection and the major arteries run close to the surface making them critical areas in thermal protection. Additional face protection is also added by the dive mask.
The diver's wetsuit is an excellent system for cold water, based on the fact that all the ingredients are meant to compliment each other to form the complete "suit." Take the jacket and hood away and you have decreased the thermal protection by more than two thirds.
In kayaking we have a unique set of problems. We want to protect ourselves in case of an immersion, but we can’t get too warm since we’re involved in an aerobic sport, and we need the freedom of movement on our arms and shoulders. The Farmer John would seem ideal since, unlike divers, we only go in the water on a capsize and we don’t stay in long if we should go in.
This philosophy would be fine if winter paddlers wearing Farmer Johns and paddling jackets or dry tops paddled along shore or on quiet water only. The problem is that many paddlers are under the false sense of security with the Farmer John, assuming that they are fully protected from hypothermia and take some very uncalculated risks. The first of these risks is the belief that you’ll never have to come out of your boat. This means never failing with a roll or a brace in whatever conditions you encounter. The second is that if you do wet exit, you can get back out of the water fast enough and in to shore in time to put on dry clothes and warm up. Most kayakers just can't even imagine that they would be swimming next to their kayak, yet everyone knows someone who has gone in. If you do have to wet exit, the Farmer John is only going to buy you some time.
I conducted a few tests. With my full Farmer John, dry top (with Latex neck and wrist seals) and a fairly tight neoprene spray skirt, I performed a wet exit. In a real situation, I might find myself capsized and trying to set up for a reentry and roll. My head is now submerged in ice water. I may fail with the roll and tumble back in re-submerging my head for a second attempt. After a bit of confusion in trying to reorient my paddle for the roll, I may run out of air and wet exit. As I exited the boat, water started entering the dry top from between the spray skirt flap of the jacket and the Farmer John. (This sealing arrangement leaks in a wet exit situation.) In my test, I would estimate it took about three minutes and the top was flooded. I could feel the cold water running down the hollow of my back and down the front of the Farmer John and into the pockets under the arms. My upper chest and arms are now flooded and I’m just starting to fasten the paddle float. Even with the best paddler in the world near by, I would never be rescued before a good dose of cold water on my head and a total flooding of the jacket. Once rescued, the jacket acts like a refrigerator holding in all the cold water especially in the arms where it has nowhere to drain. If the day is windy and cold, you could be in real trouble in a matter of 10 minutes. If you’re alone and your self-rescue gets sloppy, hypothermia may set in before you’re able to get back into your boat.
Are these realities?
Two years ago, two friends dressed the exact same way capsized in 55-degree water in the spring. Both knew how to roll but because or overwhelming conditions, they were forced to wet exit. It was a cool day with an extremely strong wind gusting over 35 mph. One got hypothermic and unable to paddle and the other was really cold but was rescued faster and possibly had more natural body tolerance to the cold. Both paddlers bought dry suits the following week! One of the rescuers bought a VHF radio!
The undergarments of Polypropylene and Polartec are going to do very little for you when they're soaking wet with ice-cold water and the wind is causing evaporation across the skin of the jacket. Don't forget, your head is now totally soaked and your boots are also filled with cold water. Polartec advertises that it will insulate when wet, however in a circumstance like this it's going to have very little value whatsoever. Once you're wet and cold, the best thing you can do is get into dry clothes as quickly as possible. You may choose to leave the Farmer John on and put on a dry hat and clothing on your arms and upper body until you can remove the Farmer John in a warm car or building, or at least shielded from the wind.
This is not an advertisement for dry suits. The Farmer John can protect you from the cold water but a total understanding of its limitations is necessary. Most Kayak oriented Farmer Johns are 3/16” thick rather than the full 1/4" the divers use ...further diminishing the thermal protection. You can carry a diver's hood, which is a great piece of inexpensive apparel that will keep your head warm after an immersion or while paddling during a very cold wind. This should be just part of an arsenal of extra clothes, towel and warming devices like hot soup and heat packs that are carried in the boat.
Most of my paddling companions can't resist trying a few rolls even in late winter. With our diver's hoods and a dive mask to further protect our eyes and sinuses we take the plunge. Once the first person does a roll and is asked, "How is it?" ... the standard reply is always "refreshing." Nothing will sober you up to the realities of the water temperature quicker than a few rolls or a test wet exit, as you're ready to go to your car. None of us would even think of trying a wet exit in anything but a drysuit with lots of layers under it. If the paddling conditions are a little rough or start to deteriorate, you will usually see the hoods make their appearance and be put on ...just in case.
Winter paddling should be treated with the utmost respect and the apparel we use should never be taken for granted. If the Farmer John is your only piece of cold-water apparel, pick days when you're not in danger, paddle with friends, carry extra dry clothes and stay within easy reach of shore. The Farmer John will protect you from the initial shock of cold water immersion ...but unfortunately, not for very long!