COLD WATER SURVIVAL – ALL IT TAKES IS SOME PREPARATION AND KNOWLEDGE
After spending the winter months pining for spring, we can hardly wait for the first opportunity to pull the cover off the boat and get back onto the water. Making it even more tempting are warm temps and gentle breezes that prompt us to break out the shorts, t-shirts and sandals. While the air temperatures can soar into the 20’s, the water temperature may not yet have even reached the teens.
Spring is a shoulder season and, weather patterns can be iffy with fronts causing the wind to pick up, temperatures to plummet and large waves to form. In smaller boats the possibility of being tossed into the frigid water cannot be ignored. It’s important that we dress for the water temperature rather than the air so that we have some thermal protection to avoid, or at least delay the onset of hypothermia.
Plenty of options exist from wetsuits, to extended wear paddling drysuits that will provide increased thermal protection. Layering of clothing is strongly suggested. Layering is the wearing of different clothing over each other so that you can either add or remove items as your body temperature increases or cools. The main objective is to keep dry and to avoid sweating as when the moisture from sweating cools, it will cause a chill.
Layering traditionally consists of a base layer next to your skin, a mid-layer and an outer layer. The base layer should be either wool or a synthetic fabric that can wick away moisture from your skin. The mid-layer should provide warmth without holding in water. (Avoid cotton as it tends to hold in moisture and loses its insulating quality if it gets wet.) The synthetic material (Thinsulate) works well. The outer layer keeps wind and water from reaching the mid and base layers. Waterproof shells that contain breathable membranes work well. Elastic cuffs work well to keep the water out and vents allow excess heat to escape.
Another extremely important thing to remember should you find yourself in very cold water is DON’T PANIC! It’s a popular misconception that hypothermia sets in almost immediately and death is almost a certainty in these circumstances. Even in ice cold water, it takes at least 30 minutes before you become even mildly hypothermic. When it comes to cold water, remember three very important things:
1. You’re going to experience a Cold Shock which will cause you to hyperventilate. It’s this response that most often generates a panic response and you drown. Know that your breathing will return to normal in about a minute and you’ll be able concentrate on rescue.
2. Even in ice cold water, you’ll have approximately 10 minutes of movement in your arms and legs to self-rescue before your nerves and muscles cool to the point where you will lose your ability to keep yourself afloat and, if you’re not wearing some form of flotation like a lifejacket or PFD, you’ll drown. (If you can climb onto the overturned hull of your boat or at least get most of your body out of the water, you’ll cool much more slowly.)
3. It will take approximately and hour before you lose consciousness due to hypothermia and up to 3 hours before your heart will stop.
(Based on research conducted by Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht - Professor of Thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba A.K.A. Professor Popsicle) ......................... So don’t be afraid to get back out on the water this spring. Just check the weather forecast, dress for the water temperature rather than the air and know that, should you find yourself in the water, DON’T PANIC! By wearing your lifejacket or PFD, your chances of survival until rescue are much better than you think!