How to Stay Safe During Winter Water Sports

Written by Ashley Mann, Deputy County Commander – Cornwall & Isles of Scilly South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust.

Forget sunbathing and ice cream headaches, water sports are something that can be enjoyed whatever the time of year and have become more increasingly popular through the winter months thanks to advancements in technology that help keep you safe and warm.

Using my experience in the ambulance service, as a RNLI Helmsman and coach of the GBR Lifesaving Team – plus a water sports enthusiast myself – I’ve pulled together some top tips to allow you to enjoy winter water sports and say safe:

  • Suitable locations: check that conditions aren’t beyond your capability and experience and, where possible, somewhere that is lifeguarded or has someone close by that can help in a moment of need.
  • Keep in touch: always let someone know where you’re going and a rough time you will be back – or take a friend. Invest in an Aquapac Waterproof Phone Case to keep your phone on your person (simply wear it around your neck and tuck it into your wetsuit). It could save your life!
  • Keep protected: the elements can be relentless so make sure you have the most appropriate gear including a high-quality wetsuit, boots, gloves and hat. Wetsuits can be purchased from many water sport outlets or online just be sure to check the length, fit, thickness and quality – not just the look! These will all help you enjoy your sessions when the water drops as cold as 5°C. Check out the wetsuit buying guide at the bottom of this blog for more info.
  • Fit for purpose: make sure your wetsuit is fit for purpose and in a good state of repair. A damaged wetsuit is an ineffective suit. Small neoprene rips can be pulled together with Black Witch neoprene repair glue or the larger rips should be repaired by a seamstress.
  • Be prepared: in order to withstand the elements, make sure you keep hydrated and eat plenty of carbohydrates and proteins before your activity. It will help protect you against the cold.
  • Never drink and dive: Never consume alcohol prior to entering any water sport activities.
  • Balm up: a drop in air temperature and cold saltwater will cause your skin and lips to dry up quickly. You may be unaware at the time, but it’ll lead to discomfort and pain afterwards so apply a good layer of moisturiser, Vaseline or lip balm before and after your activity.
  • Warm up: in both summer and winter, make sure you stretch before hitting the water. A simple jog across the beach will circulate your blood or a full arm and leg stretch will prevent any injury in the water.
  • Keep moving: when in the water, keep moving to ensure your body gets good blood circulation. The more static you are, the more heat you lose. Winter water sports are more strenuous and combined with adverse weather will sap your energy fast, so be aware!
  • Plug up: Wear earplugs or beware of the danger of ‘surfer’s ear’ from repeated exposure to cold water.
  • Prep your exit: as well as prepping for getting in the water, it’s also important to prep for getting out. Invest in a good towel or robe (such as Dryrobe), some warm clothing and a hat. Fill a big flask, such as a Hydro Flask, with a hot drink to warm your insides.

Ashley’s winter wetsuit buying guide:

There are several brands off-the-shelf such as Rip Curl, Billabong, O’Neill, Patagonia, Xcell, C-Skins or made-to-measure brand, SNUGG.

Length: invest in a full-length wetsuit that will provide full body coverage ideal for winter temperatures. It’s key to keep your arms and legs covered. Keep shorty wetsuits for the summer.

Fit: the fit of a wetsuit is as important as any other element; wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit. This layer of water is warmed up by your body temperature and prevents you from losing too much hear. A loose-fitting suit will flush with cold water and not allow for natural warming.

Thickness: in colder months, opt for a 4/5 mm and full-length wetsuit whereas you’ll be able to go for a thinner 3 mm wetsuit in the summer. The thicker the suit, the better it’ll maintain your body heat as it won’t expel so quickly.

Boots: feet are an area constantly exposed to the water – just like your hands – so are one of the areas to first have reduced blood flow as your body will re-direct the warm blood to your core. Get some boots to help prevent this happening as extensively. They come in various thickness and shapes (round toe or split toe) and it’s up to you to decide what your preference is with regard to comfort and fit.

Gloves: another must in cold water as they’ll begin feeling cold first. They’ll also help you grip your craft easier.

Wetsuit hood/hat: the head will lose a considerable amount of heat due to the large surface area, and through the air temperature as well as the water temperature. A good hood/hat will prevent this happening ultimately keeping your whole body warmer.