You row in the ocean in the winter? Aren’t you cold? Isn’t that dangerous? Since these are common questions I field, I figured I’d put a few thoughts out there on rowing safely in the winter.
There is one assumption you should make to prepare yourself mentally and equipment-wise for winter rowing: assume you will go in the water. Assume that even in a flat calm your expert rowing skills don’t matter if you break a rigger mid-stroke, an unseen dagger of ice pierces your hull, or some other surprising calamity finds you suddenly swimming. If you aren’t prepared for this, you will have a very bad day, be unceremoniously hauled away in an ambulance, or even find yourself dead. If you are prepared, winter rowing can be quite safe. It’s also a lovely time of year to be on the water. Here are your major clothing considerations:
If your winter rowing is in near-shore calm conditions, you can get away with your typical outdoor performance clothes. Fleece and other wicking garb in plenty of layers. The critical way to actually be safe with this clothing choice is the following: in an easily accessible dry-bag strapped to your boat make sure you have a change of clothes! Nice warm fleece sweatpants and sweatshirt, spare hat, gloves, wool socks. Yes, a change of clothes. If you hit the water and get immediately out and into dry clothes, you have done a fine job in mitigating hypothermia. I see almost no one doing this. It's very easy, and totally changes the outcome of an accidental winter submersion.
For more rugged adventures, offshore journeys or quests for giant winter waves, the debate turns to wetsuit –vs- drysuit.
A drysuit is perfect for longer rows, like expedition stuff, when you’re cruising at an easy pace. It's good gear for winter rows that bring you offshore or into rough conditions. Drysuits are comfortable and warm when paired with appropriate (wicking) layers underneath. When shopping for a drysuit, don't go bargain hunting – buy super high quality.
The major downside to drysuits is that they become pretty useless if they get wet inside. If you are going to be playing in the surf with multiple capsizes, a drysuit may not be the best choice. They are also liable to fail catastrophically if you get a tear. And if you are going for a shorter row that is very intense, all the built-up sweat may pose problems, because being soaked underneath your drysuit isn’t particularly effective.
The wetsuit is my gear of choice for the safest possible short winter forays. Get a nice thick suit (5 mil is good) with hood, booties and gloves. It doesn’t matter if you are getting soaked or not, the wetsuit actually works better once you are wet (that’s why its called a wet-suit – it’s designed to let a small layer of water in which then gets trapped and heated by your body). If you are going to work hard, the sweat will not compromise the wetsuit’s insulating qualities – it will just build up more heat. If you are going offshore and looking for whitecaps or playing in the surf, wear a wetsuit. You can capsize and re-board however many times you want, the wetsuit will keep functioning. In fact, winter swimming is rather fun too! Unlike a drysuit, a wetsuit can even be torn and continue to work (with outriggers, and all those other sticking-up-pointy-things in a rowing shell, this is a definite concern, should rolling be on your day's agenda).
The downsides of the wetsuit come into play on longer rows, because it's really not reasonable to wear a wetsuit all day. You’ll also get pretty cold in a wetsuit if you aren’t moving around enough to kick up the body heat to actualize the wetsuit's strengths.
Of course, this gear needs to be paired with good judgment, and you are assessing the conditions in regards to your skill.
Winter is an amazing time to be on the water. The versatility to be able to launch right off a beach into the unfrozen sea is one of the great joys of coastal rowing. So if you aren’t winter rowing yet, consider getting into the right gear and giving it a go!