Prepare ye for the coming of spring
Inspect, repair and replace your paddling gear
You're probably still looking out the window at patches of snow. Your canoe or kayak is a little dusty, having been in hibernation since last fall. And your paddle clothing is wadded up in a duffel bag. Hopefully was dry before you put it away in that manner.
It's winter, but not for long. It's not too early to think about some preparation, maintenance and repairs so you're not surprised when you pull out your equipment for an early season paddle.
You did put your kayak away with a cockpit cover on it, right? If not, you may be surprised by the contents. I stored a whitewater boat by hanging it in my garage many years ago. When I went to take it down it almost crushed me. The 30-pound kayak was considerably more that that because a pair of industrious squirrels had filled it with five gallons worth of black walnuts. All because I didn't use a cockpit cover.
Even if the squirrels didn't get to your kayak, rest assured that something did. It's a little creepy to go out for your first paddle and realize there's a spider crawling up your leg. Stick your kayak upside down on sawhorses and get the hose out and blast out the creepy crawlies.
You'll also want to clean off your hull, as the dirt under your straps will act like sandpaper and will leave marks on your boat. After cleaning, wipe the hull down with a good UV protectant like UV Tech or 303. Don't use Armor All or other petroleum-based products.
This is also a good time to inspect for any loose fasteners and frayed or worn deck bungies or lines. UV degrades bungees until they might snap just when you need them. If they're normally black but look grey, replace them. Make sure your seat hardware is in good shape, too, as a broken buckle can render your seat back useless, which can make for a long uncomfortable paddle.
All the things that apply to kayaks also apply to canoes. Check under the end caps of your canoe for things that like to nest there.
Check your seat hardware. If you have hanging seats and your nuts and bolts are loose, then your seat will move around, enlarging the holes in the seat and gunwales. Not only will this make your boat less stable, it can cause significant damage. If you have a sliding seat, make sure that hardware is snug and that the mechanism to hold the seat in place works.
If you have a Royalex canoe, you'll want to check for cold cracks. This usually is only a problem with Royalex canoes with wood gunwales. Plastic expands and contracts more than wood with temperature fluctuations, and everywhere a screw passes through the gunwale and the Royalex it creates a stress point. If the canoe was assembled at room temperature and it's 10 degrees in your garage, that's a huge temperature differential. If the stress reaches a certain point, a crack will develop and run down the side of the canoe. While they're usually only a few inches long, I've seen them run 10 to 12 inches down an older boat.
You can mitigate this problem by backing off the first six or seven screws on each side, but that's in October. If you have cracks, now you can repair them. Cosmetics may not be perfect, but that's okay, she'll still float. You can use any number of products to repair the cracks. Call a local shop for advice on how to do this, it's a more complicated process than can be addressed here.
If you have a fiberglass or another composite boat, you might have gelcoat chips or gouges. Again, that's a subject for another day as it's a fairly complex process to repair. You'll want some advice from friends or a local shop that does repair work and can get you the proper color gelcoat.
If the stems of your canoe are looking a little worse for the wear, this is also a good time to think about skid plates. Made of a Kevlar felt and attached to your canoe with resin, they can breathe new life into a canoe that is starting to wear through the outside layers of fabric or Royalex.
Other gear and clothing
Paddles need love too. Wooden paddles might need a coat of varnish. You'll want to inspect the ferrules of your kayak paddles to see if they're in good shape. If you put them to bed dirty, they might be stuck together. Get them apart, but don't lubricate them. They should work properly without any lubricants; just keep them clean.
Any paddle clothing should be inspected for holes or tears. Small pinholes can be repaired with a dab of Aquaseal; larger holes or tears will need some patching material as well. I prefer to put a large patch on the inside of a garment and keep the outside patch a little smaller and more discreet.
Neoprene should be repaired using Aquaseal or an other adhesive such as Neoprene Queen. If a seam is split, it's possible to use adhesives to butt the ends together. But if it split once, it may split again. A little patch of neoprene on the side that doesn't go against your skin may be warranted.
UV also affects clothing (including your PFD), so check for fading or peeling of the coating on the inside of the cloth. If neoprene is light grey instead of black, that may indicate a need for replacement before it just blows apart while you're putting it on. UV Tech is also good for fabric, including dry suit gaskets. Speaking of which, check those now so you can get replacement gaskets and repair your dry top or suit before your cold-water trip in April.
Check your throw bags and tow rigs for signs of wear as well. Inflate your paddle float and let it sit for a while; same with float bags. Broken safety gear is worse than no gear at all, as you will depend on it and it won't be there to help.
A little early preparation makes for a drama-free early season paddling. Now's the time. Besides, it'll make you itch to get out on the water.
Darren Bush is owner and chief paddling evangelist of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin. When not eating, sleeping or working, he paddles and makes things with his hands.