Our First Cold Water Wetsuit Dive of Fall 2009

Anyone who has watched me enter the water swimming would never believe I cold water scuba dive.  I am fine entering the water until my mid-section touches the water line and that is where it gets tough.  The chill jumps up my spine and tells my brain there is no way you want to get into that water. It must be a medical condition with a fancy name because I am too much of a manly man to be a cold water wimp.  Still I cold water dive either that or I would only dive in the hottest months.

Elinee Bay - Paw Paw Lake - Coloma, MI

Elinee Bay - Paw Paw Lake - Coloma, MI

Last Saturday I did my first cold weather dive of the fall 2009 season.  My quick verdict is that it wasn’t too bad. We couldn’t have asked for a better fall day. It was a sunny 51 degrees. The water temp was a balmy 49 degrees.  My diving buddies were Jim, Mac and Josh.

As promised I tried out most of the cold water tips and tricks.

  • I had prepared a warm thermos of coffee
  • I filled a cooler with sports water bottles containing hot water
  •  I had eaten a breakfast
  • I had my dry, warm wet suit and a box of rubber gloves
  • I had my 100% polyester long johns and socks on
The Pro

The Pro

I was ready. I made it to Jim’s house about 9:15 and we did the gear transfer to his truck and hit the road. We arrived at our destination about 30 minutes later. We were back to Paw Paw Lake in Coloma, Michigan at a spot off a fire lane called Elinee Bay.  Mac a.k.a. Donald M. had his gear nicely organized on a yellow tarp. You can tell he has done this a few times before. Jim, Josh and I start prepping our gear. Before too long we are ready to suit up for the dive.

Mac has gone the water jug route for “priming” his wetsuit. In the jug he has warmish (just above room temperature water) and he uses a cup to pour the water into his suit.  He says if his water is too warm he just cuts it back with lake water.  As I start to prep I can see my first rookie mistake of the day. My water is way too hot. I would say it was about 190 when I put it in the cooler. I honestly thought it would have cooled down more. It definitely can be too warm.   I filled my boots and gloves up completely with the warm water in hope that when I dump it out it wouldn’t be too hot. I left my socks on for this dive and was wearing black thermal long johns. I pulled my wetsuit up to my waste and primed about 10oz of hot water. Ouch!  Hot, hot!! And hot places you don’t want that hot.  I poured some of the hot water into my 3mm hood and then dumped the extra out. The water is still a little too warm but bearable.  I put on my boots and poured the water from my gloves down my wet suit sleeves.  I put another 6 oz down each sleeve and called it good. We finished gearing up and head into the water.

Normally I am so hot in a wet suit I can’t wait to cool down in the water. This time I am bracing myself for the expected cold. I could feel the first bit of the water seeping between my boots and the bottom of the legs of my wetsuit.  My feet were fine, but I could feel the chill on my calves where the primed warm water didn’t make it. I gave myself a few seconds and it started to warm up. Next stop the bottom of the zipper on my back. Oh yeah!!! Not enough priming!! I could feel the cold water seep in through the zipper. I didn’t try the rubber gloves trick on my hands this time but I can tell that it would have helped. Every time you touch something wet and then expose yourself to the air you hands really feel the cold. It would not take too much wind and a few degrees colder temperature and your hands would start to lose feeling.  We are ready to go below.

Jim, Josh and I have our dive planned out.  We start out decent. Every bit of exposed skin around your mask screams as it is submerged. Amazingly after the initial shock it is not that bad. Overall I don’t feel cold. The areas that were unprimed have warmed up and the primed areas I didn’t even notice the water. I am feeling comfortable. November is still fine for diving and makes for another month available on my dive calendar.  Visibility is about 3 feet before we start stirring up the silt. I quickly lose sight of Jim and Josh and decide to surface for a quick check. Josh has decided he is too cold. He has gotten a headache and decided to call off his dive. That is a great decision on his part. There are too many things to worry about when you dive and when you start off cold that can lead to worse things happening quickly. Jim and I float on the surface until we see Josh exit the water. We continue on with our dive plan.

We head to the bottom which is at about 25’ and work our way towards the shore line. Vis is less than 36 inches.  We start off in the sea weed and on our path head out of it. The bottom here is covered in about 8” of muck and silt. At one time this was a public dock so we are expecting to find some “junk” out here. As we did with our last ecology dive we are mucking on the bottom.  We set a steady pace that keeps us just ahead of the zero visibility we are kicking up.  A compass is invaluable in these conditions. Without it we would be doing circles. Even with it we do cross one of our own tracks. It looks like a giant mud colored worm as we pass through it. Visibility doesn’t extend past the inside of your dive mask. This is when it is important to not lose your dive buddy. Jim is on my left and we bump just to make sure we are close. He is ahead of me just a bit and I take a couple of extra kicks to line back up with him.  Somehow at this point I take a heal of a fin to my face and my regulator pops out of my mouth. Damn!

This is another instance where the dive training in open water really comes into play. Remain calm… breath out… sweep my arm out for my reg… grab it…. clear it and breath in wonderful air. Ahhhh! Just as it is supposed to be.  Jim and I regroup on the surface. As a diver you need to be prepared for this. You never know when it is going to happen and in the conditions we dive in it seems to happen more often than you think. I blame it a lot on the low vis we dive. Other factors such as having gear flopping around can also contribute to it too.

So far I had found nothing. Jim has found a beer can. If it is new and with a deposit we will have found $.10. Back down we go. We head along the shore heading out of the bay. By this point I was hoping to find just about anything. Last time I was here along the other shore we found tons of trash in a small area. My hand had touched buried sticks and other natural refuge but nothing man made. Ah a can! That got slipped into the bag. Jim and I tried clumsily trading hand signals. I saw he want to change course. He wanted me to lead, but I missed that part of the message. I slowed down to pace him and he slowed down some more since I slowed down.  Vis was getting really bad here. I found something with my right hand.  It was metal and has lots of edges to it. At first I thought it could be an i-beam or part of a dock. It moved fairly easily, but was still stuck in the muck. I tried to signal Jim and he was signaling me. I tried to move his hand so he touches the object and can give me a hand. At this point he is concerned I was in trouble or snagged. He started pulling on my arm for us to surface. This is just as the object started to pull free from the lake bed. Damn it was heavy. Jim’s pulling on me knocks out my reg again. Damn! lol That was twice in a dive. My right hand was occupied with the object so I can’t do my normal reg sweep. I grabbed my backup reg attached to my chest…. Clear it and breathed in wonderful air again.  I added some more air to my BC to compensate for my extra ballast.  On the surface we regroupped and investigated our find.

Anchor

Anchor

We had found a small boat anchor. I had grabbed it at the bottom where it hinges. We still both had half a tank of air left. We didn’t have any lift bags and the anchor was much too heavy for our dive flag float to support.  We decided a short surface swim was required to get this back to shore. We would continue to dive from there. This was my second rookie mistake of the day. In cold water a surface swim is not the most comfortable thing to do. The extra motion cools you down and what little breeze there is just makes it worse. Every time I did a long stroke it drew more water into my wet suit and the water my body has dutifully warmed up was diluted. Brrrr. As we made it to shore we decided to call the dive for the day. We weren’t cold yet but we would be soon.

Lessons learned from the dive.

  • Your priming water can be too warm.
  • Prime, prime, prime
  • Don’t swim on the surface
  • Be ready for anything and always proactively practice what you have learned. You can’t be too prepared.
  • The warm coffee felt good after the dive

Here is what I am going to do for next cold water dive. Like my more experienced colleague Mac I am going to use a jug to contain some warm but not hot water. I will put that jug in a cooler with some water bottles containing hot water. The jug will be for first dive priming. If I need more water I can cut the hot water with lake water. Also for a second dive the hot water could be used to warm up the chilly bits.  I will also make sure I have a cup. I am going to prime until I am completely primed. No dry spots. Those are where the cold water found a way to get to.  The long johns and socks worked well. It effectively made my 7mm wetsuit warmer.  My gloves were OK. I think next time I will try the latex gloves under my dive gloves. I am surprised my head wasn’t colder. My hood is only 3mm. I am thinking about picking up a 7mm hood that I could put over my 3mm. I also wonder if a shower cap would be good under the dive hood. Hmmmm.  We are going to fit an inner tube with a basket for our dive flag to be able to lift and store our trash.  We will suspend more lines from it and have a few lift bags ready.  This dive we could go to the surface easily, but on deeper dives that doesn’t always work.

Over all I think this cold water diving was a success. We have been in colder water in July, still it is only going to get colder until we get to the time of hard water. We are going to have a few more dives to try out this cold water stuff. This weekend we have scouted out a location for a river dive. On Thanksgiving weekend we will do the dive clubs “turkey dive” and on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day we will do the ice dive…. Yes! All in wet suits! It should be fun.

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Cold Water Wetsuit Scuba Diving Tips

If you live in Michigan and you scuba dive local you are going to run into some cold water. When my non-diving friends ask if it is cold I tell them even in the summer 60 feet down in a quarry is going to be around 40 degrees. Yep cold…. not cold enough to keep me from diving. The real difference now is as the snow starts to fly all the water is cold, the air is cold and that just makes for cold. No moving above the thermocline to warm up.

So until the time I spring for a dry suit I need to do all I can to keep warm diving this time of the year.  The old… errr… more experienced Mudder divers in my dive club have offered up the following tips for cold water wet suit diving. (My dive buddy Jim actually gets credit for extracting these nuggets of wisdom)

  1. wear a good fitting 7mm full wet suit with hood, gloves and boots. (this seems obvious, but still needs to be said)
  2. wear a T-shirt under your wetsuit to help hold a bit more water/insulation between your skin and wetsuit (I don’t believe the water actually insulates. You want to limit water movement so you don’t lose heat as quick)
  3. wear latex gloves under your regular thick gloves to minimize water contact on your skin
  4. bring a thermos of hot water to prime your gloves and wetsuit prior to entry

Jim did #1, #2 and #4 two weeks ago and said he was very comfortable through his entire dive a couple of weeks ago.

Now there has to be more good tips than these. I searched the internet and didn’t find a lot new. I did find a few pointers from a variety of sources.

Before the dive

  • avoid drinking alcohol and drinks containing caffeine.
  • get plenty of rest and that you are adequately hydrated.
  • stay warm before the dive, heat loss can start to occur many hours before the actual dive.
  • wear a hat during the hours running up to the dive.
  • when possible stay indoors for the hours running up to the dive.
  • drink plenty of hot drinks before diving.
  • keep as dry as possible.

During the dive

  •  if you consider adding a “core warmer”, try both layers together to make sure you have a good fit
  • neoprene socks greatly reduce water flow
  • avoid unnecessary movements (don’t flail your arms)
  • fin slowly
  • don’t pee… it might feel warmer but, just like sweating, it’ll cool your body temperature
  • 5mm lobster claw mitts are warmer than 5mm gloves
  • neoprene compresses at depth…deeper will not only be colder but will feel colder

After the dive

  • Keep moving.
  • Stay out of the wind.
  • wear gloves and a hat as soon as you come out of the water.
  • Dry yourself off and put on some warm clothing.
  • Drink plenty of warm drinks.

Even more important than comfort is safety. Make sure you have a regulator that is designed for cold water use. If you regulator is not up to the task it can freeze up and free flow. One tip I have heard of is sliding down the hose stress relievers away from your first stage. These stress relievers stop the critical water movement around the regulator that will reduce the chance it will freeze up.

I am going to try all these steps in my next dive and will report back how they worked. I am diving in a location I did a couple of months ago so I am familiar with the site and the water temps we had back then.  I am hoping these tips work. Brrrrr..

If you have some tips please tweet me or leave a comment here! I would love to hear them. Has anyone tried Sodium Acetate Heat Packs?

Cold water / Ice diving references

Here is a book on ice diving. This could be what my January diving is going to be. http://bit.ly/1S6yPc

Diving in icy water and the equipment necessary http://bit.ly/420Nv2

Diving wet when it is cold http://bit.ly/22geFi This is a very good article!

Scuba Board cold water wet suit diving thread – http://bit.ly/VaF0U

An exert from the US Navy Dive Manual – Ice and Cold Water Diving – http://bit.ly/3XC2rs

Cold water images by Kawika Cheltron – http://www.coldwaterimages.com/Nothing to do with my topic other than name and they are very cool photos

A sad story of a cold water dive with a dry suit gone bad – http://bit.ly/2xKytH