Boating and Hypothermia: Prevention & Treatment
By Mike Williams, Director of Communications
Winter boating is increasingly popular. Even with colder temperatures, fishermen still work their favorite spots, waterfowl hunters take advantage of a less crowded lake, many yacht owners enjoy the serenity of winter boating, and pleasure boaters – especially those with outboard motors that do not require winterization – take advantage of the sporadic warm-weather winter days on Grand Lake.
Don’t be misled by warmer air temperatures on sunny days. Low water temperatures are far more dangerous than low air temperatures. Love of cold weather boating puts a winter boater in a real risk of being in a man-overboard situation that runs a very high risk of becoming a fatality. The dramatic reduction in boat traffic only adds to that risk, making an immediate rescue highly unlikely. The Grand River Dam Authority Police Department officials say nearly 50% of boating accidents that results in water exposure at low water temperatures are fatal.
Cold water can be immediately life threatening. Exposure to cold water can incapacitate a person in just 5-15 minutes unless proper actions are taken immediately. Falling into cold water produces a “gasp reflex.” If your head is under water, you will inhale water instead of air and it is unlikely that you will resurface if you’re not wearing a life jacket. Cold water immersion results in immediate involuntary panic and decreases your ability to swim or stay afloat. Your body tends to go more vertical in the water making any forward movement very difficult. Don’t try to swim to shore. Stay with your boat, obviously trying to get aboard.
Water removes heat from your body 25 times faster than cold air. Swimming increases the heat loss through your arms, legs, hands, and feet. Cold shock and hypothermia both come into play quickly. When your head and chest are exposed to cold water, there is often a sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure. You can also lose consciousness, which makes a proper lifejacket even more of a lifesaver – keeping your head above water, even if you lose consciousness.
To properly prepare, you have to first understand what happens to your body in cold water. Water removes heat from a body 25 times faster than cold air and most of the body heat is lost through the head. Swimming, thrashing about, and other physical activity increases the heat loss through the limbs and extremities. If you become a person in the water (PIW) you will sharply reduce your survival time though physical activity. Strong swimmers wearing a PFD have died before they covered 100 yards in cold water. Did you know that in water with a temperature of less than 40 a strong man can expire before he can swim 100 feet? Two factors come into play when you are suddenly immersed in cold water – cold shock and hypothermia.
It’s never a great idea to boat alone, but you should NEVER boat alone when water temperatures are cold. Always wear a life jacket, no matter the size of your vessel. Always leave details of your planned route and schedule with someone on shore. Pack dry clothing in a waterproof bag. Your life jacket should have a whistle or horn attached to help call for help. Never go out alone!
If you are going out into cold weather situations, whether on the water or on land, you may run into someone who is experiencing hypothermia. You might be able to save that person’s life by knowing the right way of providing first aid.
If the victim is shivering, but coherent, that indicates mild hypothermia symptoms. Move them to the warmest possible place, remove their wet clothes, and give them warm, sweet drinks – NO alcohol or caffeine. Keep them warm for several hours.
Moderate hypothermia symptoms include reduced body temperature with less shivering – or none at all. They may seem irrational and uncoordinated. Keep them in a warm place, replace their wet clothing – but do not give them drinks because they may have difficulty swallowing. Keep them lying down with torso, thighs, head and neck covered with dry clothes, coats, or blankets to stop further heat loss. Seek medical attention immediately.
Cold weather boating has its rewards for the prudent mariner. Here are a few simple rules to help keep you safe, or at least increase your chances of returning home:
- Wear warm waterproof clothing.
- File a float plan.
- Never go out alone.
- Check the weather before leaving home. While on the boat, keep an eye on the weather and know when to quit and head for home.
- Always wear a personal flotation device. Every year we hear about the ‘experienced boaters’ that die in cold weather boating accidents. Nearly every one of those missing mariners was not wearing a flotation device.
Enjoy the wonders of winter boating, but do it safely, so you’ll be around to enjoy the wonders of summer boating, as well.