Water and Cold Water Safety Guide


 We at OutdoorsNB believe that a sound safety culture is the most important thing we can give to our friends. That is why we ask so many questions when you call looking for a kayak. The Bay of Fundy can be a very dangerous place for someone learning to kayak. This page is meant to educate the paddler of the risks and mitigation of the risks associated with cold water paddling. PLAY SAFE!!!!

How can a paddler be safe in cold water?

Lets look at cold water paddling with the lens of a game of pick up sticks, only with a twist.
The twist is that when we get in trouble, if we win we are rescued. If we lose, we succumb
 to hypothermia. Lets say we capsize, are alone even though we shouldn't paddle alone, 
and we lose our boat (because like most inexperienced kayakers we are so preoccupied 
with getting out of our boat that when we do, we've let go of it and now the wind 
has taken it out of reach. We are now trying to get to our rescuers using the stack of sticks above. 
Our rescuers can also hook onto the stack and pull us up, provided there aren't any empty sticks 
providing barriers to them. Each tier in the stack is arguably equal in importance 
but each tier is effective at different stages in the emergency's timeline. 
One thing is certain, as you start removing sticks, the chances of the Rescuer and the victim making 
contact become exponentially less. It doesn't take much for the stack to fall. 



If we have an EPIRB, PLB or a VHF, rescue (in theory) will get to us rather quickly. An EPIRB or PLB (we'll talk about these below) will give the (Canadian Coast Guard/Military/Department of Fisheries and Oceans) Joint Rescue Coordination Center (J.R.C.C.), in either Halifax Nova Scotia or Victoria British Columbia, our exact position (within a few meters) and a distress alert.

A VHF (we'll talk about this in detail below as well) will allow you to contact the Canadian Coast Guard directly through repeater stations along the Coast (provided you are within range of one). Knowing your exact position will greatly cut down on Search time by sea or air resources as they can extrapolate where you should be when they get to you. You can also get in direct contact with the resource when it arrives on scene to help vector it to your exact location.

What is an E.P.I.R.B? - An Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB (pronounced E - perb) is a device that, when activated, sends an electronic signal (406 Mhz) via satellite and ground stations to the nearest Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). Satellites provide coverage for most of the globe through the COSPAS-SARSAT Global Satellite system. EPIRB's are registered to a specific vessel and must have a battery life of 48 hours or more. When an EPIRB is activated it sends a distress signal at 406 Mhz showing your location, your vessel size and identifying information (pre-registered). This signal is strong enough to reach overhead satellites in the COSPAS-SARSAT system and any nearby land based towers in range. This signal is sent to the nearest RCC where SAR resources are tasked to find and rescue you. The neat part is that EPIRBs also send out a homing signal (121.5 Mhz) which most of the SAR resources themselves are able to track . Once they are on location (within range to pick up the signal) they can pinpoint your location fairly quickly.

What is a PLB? - A Personal Locating Beacon or PLB works practically the same as an EPIRB except it is registered to an individual and not a vessel and many do not have a 121.5 Mhz signal (homing signal ONLY, no longer used by satellites), also PLB must have a battery life of 24 hours or more where as an EPIRB must have 48 hours battery life. If you plan on purchasing a PLB ensure it is equipped with 406 Mhz and 121.5 Mhz homing signal capability (as not all PLBs are equipped with 121.5 Mhz).

What is a V.H.F.? - A Marine band Very High Frequency Radio transmitter/receiver is a device that allows 2-way voice communication via electronic signal (~ 156.050 - 162.475 Mhz) to other vessels or to shore based receivers.

Why not a cell phone? - Cell phones work great when they are dry and have reception. Think it through a second....you aren't going to call for help before you fall in. If you do fall in and are separated from your boat is the phone on your person? Is it in a water tight bag on your person? How are you going to use both hands to get the phone out of your pocket, out of the bag, number dialed and ringing? Your PFD (personal floatation device) isn't designed to keep your head above water!!! Think you can do it?? Try it some time! Oh you don't want to risk ruining your phone by getting it wet? Then why would you rely on it in that situation to save your life? It doesn't sound smart when you think about it does it?



The second tier in the stack holds two purposes. Flares and flashlights can be used to signal distress to vessels or paddlers in your location and it can be used to vector (or direct) Search and Rescue (SAR) resources to your exact location when they arrive on scene. The Float plan gives rescuers a starting point from which to search. It will also give them a start and end point so they have a search area.


Flares: Flares come in 3 major types - Parachute flares that are propelled from hand held canisters to many hundred feet into the air where they float back down under parachute, increasing their time aloft. This type greatly increases the distance they can be seen by increasing their height in relation to the curvature of the earth. Star shells or Rocket flares shoot up into the air and fall with gravity (less time aloft and thus less likelihood of being noticed than Parachute flares). The last type of flare is a hand held or floating flare used at the water's surface. This type of flare is excellent to assist aircraft in pinpointing your location as it is at your location.


Flashlight: Flashlights are good for pinpointing your location and sending an S.O.S. signal to nearby craft.

Float Plan: A float plan is a document that is left with a competent trust worthy person that includes (at a minimum):

  • The name of all persons on the trip and emergency contacts
  • Descriptions of each boat
  • Departure location and time
  • Stop over locations and expected times
  • End of trip location and expected time
  • Float plan holders name and number
  • JRCC contact information

If you don't have a VHF or EPIRB (or have no other means of direct contact with rescue) the chances of someone else knowing you are in trouble rests on your flare or flashlight being seen, the person that notices the signal needs to interpret it as a serious emergency (remember not everyone knows what a flare means and what to do when they see it. The Titanic's flares were mistaken for fireworks in celebration not flares for distress). Relying on flares or flashlight alone means the signal must be seen. If the recipient of the signal can't get to you (they don't have a boat), you must rely on them to contact the JRCC (if they call 911 first it adds time to the rescue) and give your proper location.

Without Tier 1 your Stack is farther away from rescue and there is now an obstacle (we could depict it as an empty tier of sticks at the top of the stack) that rescuers must get around to find you: They dont know where you are!!! Remember, even a flare is limited in visually by the curvature of the earth (the lower the flare and the person looking for it, the less distance it will be seen. If you add rough water to this(in the case of hand held flares), your flare will only be visible to vessels and rescuers on shore about 1/3 of the time (when you are on the crest of the wave).


Remember how I said "each tier is arguably equal in importance" well, arguably, this one is most important as it extends the time for rescue to occur from minutes to possibly days!!! It is also where we begin to swing from equipment to help rescuers to equipment to help you rescue yourself!!

If you capsize your kayak on the Bay of Fundy in the Summer time you could (depending on how your body reacts) go into Cardiac Arrest within minutes!!!! Without a PFD and a wetsuit or drysuit the tiers above and below will mean nothing, let's look at how that can occur:

Temperature differential:

The Bay of Fundy is under half the temperature of your body's core!!! Temperatures in the Bay of Fundy range from a high of 15 Degrees Celsius (59 F) in the Summer to a low of -1 Degrees Celsius (31 F) in the winter (www.collectionscanada.gc.ca). The Canadian Safe Boating Council defines cold water as anything below 15 Degrees C, bear in mind that our bodies are regulated at ~37 Degrees C (98.6 Degrees F).

According to Dr. Gordon Geisbrecht PH.D., Professor of Thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, on average, we can survive for about an hour in 0 degree C water wearing winter clothes. Provided we can survive the first few stages of cold water Immersion (which we will discuss in greater detail below).

Image provided by Cold Water Boot Camp
Welcome to Beyond Cold Water Boot Camp

How does cold water rob heat? Types of heat transfer: We lose or shed heat in three ways: Conduction, Convection, Radiation and Evaporation.

 Conduction: Conduction occurs when a body transfers heat from itself (a warm object) to a colder object. When in water, the body transfers heat energy into the water around the body. Water is a very good conductor, so much so that it can transfer heat "about 25 times faster than air" (beyond cold water bootcamp). It is for this reason that being in cold water is very dangerous and will lead to hypothermia very rapidly.

Convection: When you sit in static (non moving) air or water your body heats up a boundary layer close to the body. Convection occurs when the air or water becomes dynamic (moving), such as when you are in current, that small layer of warmer air or water is constantly taken away by the moving air or water which leaves your body constantly heating a new layer of water. As a result your body is constantly transferring and thus losing heat energy to the moving water.

Radiation: Radiation is the transfer of energy from the source (in our context, your body) into the surrounding environment and objects via infra-red rays. We emit heat via infra-red rays into the water and the air.

Evaporation: Evaporation is the change of state of a liquid to a gas (when we are wet or when we sweat, evaporation occurs when our sweat or water laying on our skin evaporates into water vapor). This change of state from liquid to solid is an endothermic reaction. That is, it needs energy, the reaction absorbs energy to occur instead of giving off heat (like a combustion reaction does). The majority of the energy used when liquid evaporates off our skin comes from our body, heat energy is pulled from the skin (transported through the blood from our core and our Muscles). This endothermic reaction strips heat from our body.

Stages of Cold Water Immersion

A PFD alone can make all the difference when immersed in cold water! But a wet or drysuit will prevent or greatly prolong the onset of the following:

Cold Shock: Upon immersion in cold water most paddlers reaction is a deep gasp. This is due in part as a reaction to the overload of the nervous system as the nerves in the skin come in contact with water half the temp of the body's core. This is followed by 1-7 minutes of hyperventilation which if not controlled can lead to rapid energy exhaustion and in some cases cardiac arrest. If a PFD is not already on, it can be very difficult to put one on and if you inhale water during that first gasp, a PFD will help you stay afloat as you try and regain proper breathing and clear the lungs of any inhaled water. The cold shock and hyperventilation reaction can last up to 6-7 minutes after initial contact with the water.

Loss of Dexterity: As the hypothalamus portion of the brain begins to receive information from the pre-frontal coretex as to the nature of the stress (cold water), it begins to send signals throughout the body to adapt to this sudden change in the environment around the body. One of the first changes to occur is peripheral vasoconstriction. The vascular system (veins and arteries) is constricted in the arms and legs to lessen the amount of blood sent to the appendages of the body. This occurs for two reasons: #1 it prevents warm blood from the core going out into the arms and legs to be cooled and returning to the core thus dropping the core temperature. #2 it increases the volume of blood in the core (where most of the heat energy is produced by the mitochondria portion of our cells). A larger volume reacts as a larger heat sync with a larger heat capacity thus slowing down heat loss around the vital organs that keep us alive. The detrimental effect of this limited flow of blood to the arms and legs is it shuts down the function of our type 1 motor muscles (used for dexterity functions like gripping, they get their energy from a mix of fat (longer lasting supply) and carbohydrates) switches over to type II muscles (they require less oxygenated blood but use up our limited carbohydrate stores resulting in rapid exhaustion). The loss of dexterity will occur within 10 minutes of initial immersion. 

Hypothermia: "Even in ice water it could take up 1 hour to become hypothermic" (Dr. Gordon Geisbrecht PH.D University of Manitoba 1-10-1 Principle). Provided you can get your breathing under control and don't drown when you lose sensation in your hands and feet you can last up to an hour in O degree Celsius water wearing only winter clothes and a PFD. If, however you try to swim to shore, you will decrease the time to hypothermia down considerably as moving your body will increase cold water flow over your body (increases convective heat loss), swimming will also expose major arteries in the groin and armpits to the cold water allowing conduction to cool the blood and thus the core more rapidly. 

Major heat loss areas
Hypothermia - Transport Canada

If you are still in contact with your kayak, your best course of action is to get back in it and out of the cold water. If you've made back to your kayak it's time to get in and start paddling, paddle hard and your body will generate heat energy. If you are wearing the proper clothing as prescribed in our clothing guide then you shouldn't be in any danger of hypothermia. If however your kayak is moving away (via wind or current) faster than you can get to it do not attempt to swim after it. Staying stationary in the H.E.L.P. (Heat Escape Lessening Position) will lessen convective and conductive heat losses. If your kayak is gone and you are alone it's time to use your EPIRB, VHF or flares which you have if you've been paying attention.

H.E.L.P. Position
Hypothermia - Transport Canada

Without a Wetsuit/drysuit you will likely go into cardiac arrest after about an hour in cold water and you will be very difficult to revive even if rescued near the one hour point as we will discuss below. Your chances of survival and your overall survival time can be vastly improved by wearing a wet suit or dry suit, a wet suit can add many hours survival time and a dry suit with proper layers can add well over a day. 

Post Rescue Collapse: Post Rescue or "circum-rescue" collapse is a complex physical phenomenon that can occur immediately, before, during or shortly after rescue from cold water. Its symptoms can range from fainting to death due to cardiac arrest." Circum-rescue Collapse (beyond cold water boot camp). In short, your heart, endocrine (hormones like epinephrine and nor-epinephrine) system, brain (Hypothalamus, Hippocampus, Pre-frontal cortex, adrenal gland etc), muscular system (type 1 and type 2 muscles), circulatory system (changes in fuel delivered by the blood), respiratory system and many others are receiving commands to make acute changes due to the cold water stress that the body is under. Additional stress added to the mix will put our body's systems over the edge and may result in Cardiac Arrest. For more information on how to lessen the effects of Post Rescue or Circum-rescue collapse check out Beyond Cold Water boot camp.


The items in Tier 4 are there to lessen the need for a S.A.R. response but if you do need S.A.R., your safety kit includes some items that may assist in the search for you. The whole point of a paddling partner is to constantly be in contact with you, by doing so they can constantly assess you condition while paddling, they should be able to tell if you feel off and can assist you in getting back to shore if you suddenly become ill or weak. They can use the tow rope in the safety kit to tow an injured paddler or if a paddler has taken water into his or her cockpit the paddling partner can steady the boat while the paddler in the affected cockpit uses the bailing device in the safety kit to bail out the water. If a paddler falls into the water or capsizes their kayak, a paddling partner can assist with Assisted eskimo roll/t-rescue, kayak over kayak rescue, the new dump rescue (see Body Boat Blades video) or variations of any of these rescues. When you have a paddling partner or group and the minimum (Transport Canada Regulations) safety equipment required you greatly lessen your need for S.A.R. intervention.


Ultimately how you react in times of stress and crisis will determine the final outcome. 

Experience: Experience increases your skill level, your confidence, exposes you to different situations for which you learn through doing or through correcting mistakes. The best way to learn is to make a mistake. The best place to make your first mistake is in sheltered water not dynamic and energetic water like the Bay of Fundy. When customers call and we ask "do you have any experience in a kayak"? We don't mean have you rented a kayak at your summer campground. We mean have you been in a touring kayak and have you pushed your limits. Have you ever been upside down in your kayak? Believe it or not, I would much rather go kayaking with someone that has been upside down a time or two than someone who hasn't. WHY?

A person who has capsized their kayak probably did so because they were pushing their limits. The benefit of this push is they now know where the end of their kayak's secondary stability is and as a by-product, they've build muscle memory for a wet exit. Someone that doesn't practice exits, rolls and bracing; better yet, someone with the attitude that "i'll just never capsize my kayak" is setting themselves up for a literal shocking experience. Capsizing in a pool isn't as stressful psychologically as doing it in open water as well. It is best to learn your skills in manageable flat water or in open water with trained and skilled paddling partners; rather than getting out on an outing in open water, dumping your kayak and realizing, oh wow...I cant get back in my boat!

Education: There are many schools of thought on education vs experience, there are the folks that think education means nothing and experience means everything and there are those that think experience means everything and education is pointless. Education teaches you the most efficient methods and skills. You may not be paddling the wrong way but you may also not be paddling the most effective way either. Education (practical on water) exposes you to your limits and pushes you beyond them. It increases your confidence and gives you a heightened awareness not only of your surroundings but how to be proactive when responding to changes in our surroundings. Education mixed with experience (especially doing drills after being educated on a specific skill) is one of the best ways to build efficient and effective muscle memory.

By taking your education from an internationally recognized institution like ACA, Paddle Canada or BCU, not only are you learning from the highest caliber coaches and instructors you are also guaranteeing that you are learning the most up to date and efficient techniques and skills. With Paddle Canada you are also ensuring that you are being taught navigation and safety information that is in alignment with current Transport Canada regulations. 

Having strong experience and education will prepare you for more issues as you encounter them on open water!

Proper cold water layering in conjunction with the proper emergency gear (like a VHF and small flares + flashlight) will save your life. If you fall in while separated from your paddling group or if you are alone you can contact the Joint Rescue Coordination Center through an EPIRB/PLB or VHF (Fundy Coast Guard Radio on Channel 16 VHF Marine). When rescuers get close, you can vector them in with flares or they can pinpoint your location when you flash your light.

Without proper layering you could have a heart attack within minutes, without proper safety gear (stated above) no one will know you are in trouble and will have a very difficult time spotting you regardless of what color your gear is (I know this from experience) and if you haven't filed a float plan no one will know where to look for you when you don't return.