Paddling On the Winter Water

Chris Dowling of One Love Beach ventures off onto the chilly waters of the North Fork. Madison Fender photos

The creeks and harbors on the North Fork can be likened to hiking trails. Unrestricted by season, they connect explorers to the bays and Long Island Sound, offering a different perspective of the natural world by way of water. While for some paddle boarding may be reserved for the fair-weather days of summer, the active paddler feels a pull to the water of winter’s sometimes bleak days in search of an experience only this season can offer. Considering the utmost importance of safety, paddler Chris Dowling finds peace and serenity on his board even on the most frigid days.

It’s all about the gear. On the usual cold day inside his shop, One Love Beach in Greenport, Dowling talks about the common debate — wet suit or dry suit? It can be a question of tight versus loose or restriction versus mobility. Ultimately, it’s about being warm, probably the most important thing anyone cares about in the winter.

“Wet suits are designed for being in the water,” Dowling says, explaining water permeates the neoprene suit and creates a warm water boundary against the skin. “When you’re not in the water, it can be pretty cold. There are different thicknesses but that can limit your movement. I prefer a dry suit in the winter.”

On New Year’s Day, Dowling and a fellow paddler decided they would take a dip in Greenport’s Gull Pond in their dry suits. Point taken. Seals around the wrists, ankles, and neck keep the water out, while the fit allows the paddler to wear whatever they like beneath to keep warm. With feet in constant contact with the water and hands exposed while gripping the paddle, the right booties and gloves are essential.

An important consideration for dressing in the winter is to figure out how far you plan to go on your paddleboard. A round trip paddle to Long Beach Bar “Bug” Lighthouse in Orient can be four to six miles depending where you launch from. Dress for the scenario that should you fall in, you’re wearing what you need to keep warm so you’re not hypothermic when you get back to your car, says Dowling.

“On the coldest day with the gear I have, I’m good for about an hour and a half, tops,” Dowling says. “That’s being active while paddling. I’m generating body heat but at a certain point your booties and gloves can only do so much before your hands and feet start getting cold.”

When air and water temps are frigid, it’s best to paddle in groups, like the one above off Bug Light in Gardiner’s Bay.

Like most of the crew he ventures out with during winter meetups, Dowling is an avid and experienced paddler. Even the most experienced paddler knows to try and avoid going on the water alone. If you do decide to navigate on your own, Dowling says filing a float plan is a must. Tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. If they don’t hear from you by the time you plan to return, they’ll know it is time to send out the troops.

The US Coast Guard treats paddleboards like any other vessel. A Coast Guard-approved sound signaling device, also known as a whistle, and a life jacket must be on hand at all times. While in the summer life jackets can be tucked under a bungee on the board, New York State law requires the life jacket be worn from the end of November to the end of May. A popular style here is one that can be clipped around the waist with a pull tab to inflate, similar to what’s found used on airplanes. Not required but perhaps the most important piece of gear is a leash.

“Most of us who paddle agree a leash is the one piece of equipment that can save lives,” Dowling says. “Most deaths that occur from paddle boarding are from someone that doesn’t have a leash. They were out, fell off, and the board blew away with the life jacket tucked into the bungee on the front. It’s terrible.”

There are two types of excursions to take in the winter. Launch and return from the same place or a “downwinder,” also called a destination paddle, where a group will start in one place, like Goose Creek in Southold, and paddle through the Peconic River to Greenport. Locations are chosen by the day’s weather, factoring in wind direction and strength to get the whole picture. Weather has always been important to Dowling, who was a sailor first before getting into paddling.

Always having to play it by ear, polar paddle meetups are on Dowling’s list for winter. He’s paddled with ice on his board, enjoyed a calming snowfall, and navigated around floating sheets of ice. Asked where the best place to paddle is, there’s no right answer. “It’s the North Fork,” he shares. “We’re littered with places to paddle. So many great creeks between the bay and the sound, tons of places to go. Just make sure you have a Southold Town beach sticker.”