clothing for inflatable kayak in california ocean waters

I’m new to kayaking and recently acquired an inflatable (innova seawave). I’m little puzzled about what to wear when water temps are 60-65F and air temp is 70+ with strong sun (e.g. CA central coast & south). I have semi-dry pants, which work great so far, but I’m unsure about the top. Except when going through the surf, the chance of going for a swim feel very slim, and getting back on is almost as easy as a sit-on-top. So I’m looking for something that keeps me comfy in wind, splash and sun, but doesn’t become a liability in the off-chance of getting dunked. I’m hesitating between 1.5mm hydroskin or equiv and a merino wool sweater plus paddling jacket. What I don’t have a feel for is how the wool + jacket combination feels after a swim (and at the moment I don’t really feel like trying it out just for the sake of it). Does anyone have experience with wool?

How do you know it is easy to get back into an inflatable? Have you tried it while great whites are circling?

My thought is for the ocean, a wet suit, or a dry suit unless you are talking about a protected bay.

Assuming you are talking coastal locations, here are estimated and recorded water temperatures:
Santa Barbara and south:
SLO and north:

Match that with this handy chart on useful time, hypothermia, and recommended clothing from University of Sea Kayaking:

  • Loss of dexterity column is saying how long before your body starts shunting all its blood to just your core, to protect the vital organs if you are wearing street clothes. Downside to when this happens is you lose the ability to effectively use your arms and legs, so you can;t get back on your kayak nor swim when this occurs.
  • The next columns say how long you will be conscious, and survive, assuming you are wearing your PFD (if not, you will drown before this time is reached)
  • The last column is recommended clothing, personally, I find it a little conservative, so I could see bumping most up a category (e.g. wearing the thin or shorty wetsuit in the 60-70 range). But you should learn how your body deals with cold to see what works for you.

Most areas north of LA are going to have water temperatures below 60 until next summer. I would be wearing wet suit until then. 3 mm Farmer john style is the norm for kayakers. When water is in 60s, you likely could do fine with your pants and hydroskin top. Wool and paddle jacket would be much better than nothing, but not nearly as much as a wet suit or hydroskin, which are made to keep you warm when wet.

Having been saved from what could have been very bad hypothermia by wool once, can say this. It was before I knew better, in my younger days. I got caught out in rain and was simply lucky.

Wool will, if you are out of wind, perform surprisingly well at saving heat. But once you add wind, pretty much a given anywhere on the ocean, all bets are off. Same problem with typical paddling wet suits. So once you get really wet, whether from surprise waves or actually taking a swim, wearing layers without a good wind blocking layer increases your risks hugely. Put a good paddle jacket over a wet suit and it is a different story. Spend more money for something like a wet suit intended for surfing, you also get some useful layers.

Wet wool is heavy. If you do end up swimming it could increase the effort of getting back into the boat.

You can lose a tremendous portion of head thru your head. So a cap or hood. Hands that are freezing can’t help you get back into a boat or use a paddle to get to safety. So maybe gloves depending.

Granted, at the temperatures you name it would seem that this is all a little dire. But I have had to dash to the car in full shiver from loss of heat in lower 60’s air temps. It was a sudden drop in temperature, a squall came thru on an otherwise warmer day, and I was in a wet paddling wet suit from working on rolling in a pond. My body could not adapt fast enough.

I disagree that you can skip trying out your idea. You need to know about your personal tolerance for cold. The temperatures you name can be a problem for some people, finding out whether you are one of them is not trivial stuff.

Celia, thanks for the thoughtful comments. The point about wet wool being heavy is a good one I had not considered. The wind factor is clear. Gloves and cap is probably something I need to think about more than I’m currently.

Peter, thanks for the links. Having swum quite a bit in 60-65F water with a 2-3mm wet suit (full length but no booties or gloves and just a swim cap) I do have some sense of what 60F means. It sure is no fun if there is no warmth that kicks in like in a wet suit after the first flush!

Up here in N. Cal. the ocean waters are only a few degrees cooler, but it matters quite a bit. Many of us have adjusted to the 55F water and will swim in it on hot days. Surfers and kayakers pretty much always wear a wetsuit covered with a dry top. Lakes and rivers are just slightly cooler and most paddlers don’t take immersion verry seriously, but when paddling from Redding to Red Bluff (3 days on cold water), I still dress in the same outfit, despite the heat - and it pays off. When paddling with others, rescues may become routine events and the ability to get wet and not be compromised by cold is of great value.

For day trips on Monterey, I also wear a wetsuit (full farmer john). If the wind is calm, I carry the spray jacket, should wind arise, and wear a capilene, poly, or other synthetic shirt just under. This not only protects from the cold and wind better than a farmer john alone, it also protect chafing from the arm cutouts in the neoprene. (Note: in winter, the water in Monterey is a few degrees warmer than in summer due to upwelling). Synthetics are lighter and carry less water than wool and I’ve had wool sweaters stretch and tear over time due to the weight of the water they hold.

SF Bay is prone to cold, strong, afternoon winds, so paddling there usually requried carring/wearing a spray jacket or other wind proof upper layer, but the neoprene doesn’t go away.

Here is the thing. No matter what the water temperature, you need to dress for immersion for several hours. Anything can (and evenutally will) occur if you give nature sufficient tests of your preparedness. Crap happens and nature does not care if you survive or not. Rescue in the ocean is uncertain and electronic devices often fail in (salt) water. Waterproof gear bags fail and probably will not be completely dry after your paddles.

I had a friend who dressed apporpriately for same and her boat was bitten and flooded by a shark. She was sitting in 55F water in a wallowing boat that needed frequent bailing until we got her to shore (making an investment in a sump pump a decent idea for her next boat). I’ve seen folk exit through surf and not be able to re-enter safely when conditions change. I’ve seen kayaks rammed (after being harrassed by drunks in PWC’s) and sunk. I’ve seen folks take no longer sea worthy craft into the ocean and heard them blame other factors like weather and wind as the cause for a capsize.

Don’t assume you can get back into a boat once you are in the water. I don’t care what type of craft you are in. Prepare for immersion and if you need to cool off, practice re-entries, rolls, surf bracing or whatever it takes to shed some heat. It is much easier to lose heat in cold water than it is to regain heat that is lost.

thanks for your comment, rjd9999

Peter and RJDs advice is pretty much spot on. I wear a full wetsuit between November and April in Southern California, but I am mostly surfing. The farmer john is OK but it depends on your tolerance for cold water. A farmer john tends to have cold water flush through your core through the neck and open arms, a semi dry paddling top, or a hydroskin top can keep you more comfortable. In California in the winter we have a lot of breezy days, and foggy days, everytime I have been to Monterrey it’s been foggy and chilly (that includes summer). so don’t worry so much about bright sun, you can splash water onyourself or go for a swim. You can rent a wetsuit at a surf shop no issue in CA, also you can rent farmer johns at several paddling shops on the water in CA. I would do that first before you head out to buy your first wetsuit. You can find out what works best for your area a 3mm farmer john or a full suit… You sound like you don’t have much ocean experience, keep in mind in an inflatable a strong offshore wind can be dangerous. This year we have had very strong offshores very late in the season, so pay attention, the ocean may look nice and calm but you don’t want to be blown out to sea in an inflatable.