Throughout the winter just past I spent a fair bit of time sitting out bobbing around - or sailing across - the ocean. And for most of that time I was cold. Some of that time I was damned cold. That above all else is what inspired me to experiment with the higher & drier skipper seat. As it turns out, it's also what inspired me to rethink my kayak fishing wardrobe.
Having paid close attention to the cold I felt and when and what was attributing to it, I started to realise that some of the apparel I was wearing was defeating it's own purpose and as such, started looking into alternatives. This turned out to be especially true of the gear I was wearing on my legs and feet, both body and outer layers.
Shark skin socks and leggings, for example, while very warm when dry, and suitably insulating when completely dry or completely submerged in water, will eventually get cold if wet in open air... especially if the wind is blowing. Basic logic would suggest this to be contrary to advertized properties of Shark Skin (and similar prducts like Lavacore), primary among them being wind-proof. Whilst it's true that there is a windproof membrane preventing wind from penetrating the fabric freely, this has the converse effect of trapping water in as well. This means that it can't really evaporate and as such, just gets more and more water-logged as a day on the water wears on. Once saturated, the nap of the inner fleece liling simply loses its insulation qualities and if windy, eventually the sheer wind chill will permeate the outer fabric and core membrane. Thats when cold turns to fricken freezing. In these situations body-tight garments with a wind proof membrane do more harm than good, as they trap the moisture against the skin.
The Immersion research pants weren't really helping here and in fact were perpetuating the problem, partly for similar reasons. The main problem I started to notice with these pants is that soon enough they lost their durable water repellancy and before long started doing a better job of keeping water in than out. Ocean launches of Hobie trimaran kayaks typically mean getting your legs wet, up to knees at least. And with pants like Immersion Research Zephyrs, this inevitably meant that they would fill up like bags of water that would basically spill backwards and drench my entire legs as soon as I sat down. So at that point any waterproof quality becomes a moot point, because you're already wet. And now the Shark Skin body layer underneath is drenched to, so as far as staying warm goes, it's not a great start.
Waders seem like an obvious option for this, but they simply don't appeal to me mainly because I imagine they'd be uncomfortable for extended periods of paddling, and feel the same way about neoprene leggings. The more I thought about it, the more I figured that if I was determined to use an AI in the ocean, I simply had to resign myself to getting wet, even if only just a little bit. That being the case, I became more and more interested in what would be comfortable while wet. Genuine moisture wicking fabrics seems like the best solution for a body layer, with a wind and waterproof outer layer. In cooler conditions one might wear an insulating mid-layer and in cold conditions, nancy-boys like myself would probably even add a 2nd mid-layer for the upper body.
From towards the end of last winter up till now I have tried out several wicking body layers, as I've reached the conclusion that this is one of the most important parts of open ocean kayak fishing, especially wet and wild trips (as often presented in Adventure and Tandem Islands). After having tried the windproof shark skin style garments extensively, I then compared them to polypropolene, Polar-tec 4-way stretch, merino wool and Thermolite. All of the latter mentioned fabrics performed better than the wind-proof layered ones simply because water drained faster and moisture wicked or evaporated away. A good quality merino wool is probably the nicest to wear against the skin (especially so for extended expeditions due to it's anti-bacterial properties) but polypropolene - which is typically fairly in-expensive - will dray out faster, but the least anti-bacterial fabric of the lot.
Polar tec 4-way stretch fabric performs really well, wicking admirably and like merino and polypropolene, staying relatively warm when wet. This stuff is harder to find (Simms Fishing use it in some of their body-layer garments) however, and even harder to find in a thermal body garment is Thermolite, which seems to be at least as thermally effective as merino, but with much better wicking and drying qualities. I discovered this after trying out a pair of Outdoor Designs Thermolite half-stretch on gloves, which are highly effective. These stood up to the test of time nicely and inspired me to seek out a pair of long-john style leggins and long-sleeve top made out of the same stuff.
I turned to ebay in my search ultimately digging up some Rjays themral underwear, made out of thermolite (specifically for motorcycling) and placed an order. I've since tried these out on a couple of trips and am suitably impressed. Just like the Advansa (creator of Thermolite) blurb says, it's lightweight and warm, even when it's wet.
Thermolite® provides warmth and comfort without weight, even when wet. It’s the lightweight fabric that provides heavy-duty performance… because it’s fabric made with ADVANSA engineered hollow-core fibres that trap air for greater insulation. Plus, wearers stay drier because it dries 20% faster than other insulating fabrics,and 50% faster than cotton. Thermolite® is the perfect layering fabric because it’s comfortable and lightweight, allowing more freedom of movement.
I have 2 shell layer garment sets - one from Simms - Paclite Pants and Paclite jacket and one from Solution - Access cag and paddling pants. The former is made of Gore-Tex Paclite fabric and is slightly heavier and the latter from Barrel GP fabric, being slightly lighter. Both are wind and waterproof, both breath well, and both would be a good single alternative, though only the Simms jacket has a hood. The Solution garments are made specifically for paddling and are less expensive, while the Simms garments are built for flyfishing, and happen to work nicely for kayak fishing to. I tend to reach for the Simms stuff if rain looks likely, and go for the Solution stuff is rough water and sailing is likely (it's cuffs seal better and do a better job of keeping spray and splashing water out. For extreme wet and cold conditions I can actually wear both, and have done so, and would do it again. I'll be packing both on my upcoming expedition, and will also be packing body layer garments made from Thermolite and merino wool, swapping these daily or doubling up if need be. Like any waterproof and breathable shell layer fabrics, these have to be retreated to reactivate their durable water repellency from time to time... like the start of each winter... ie, now!