Cold Weather Boating

Cold Weather Boating Tips

by Conrad & Judy Kreuter

Q: Dear Boat Talk: I would like to extend my boating season well into December this year. Are there cold weather tips you could pass along? CMG, Babylon NY

A: Dear CMG: In the off season, the waters are less crowded with boaters and fishermen work their favorite coves nearly undisturbed. However, the water is cold (less than 60 degrees) and because there are fewer boaters on the waters, the likelihood of a prompt rescue is greatly reduced. Off-season boaters must be as self sufficient as possible.

Protective clothing such as wet suits or dry suits can greatly improve safety on the water. Cold water removes heat from the body 25 times faster than cold air. A large percentage of that heat loss occurs through the head. Physical activity such as swimming or struggling in the water increases heat loss. Survival time is reduced to minutes.

The cold shock from these extreme cold water temperatures can result in the following:

  1. Without a life jacket, a victim may inhale while under water and drown without coming back to the surface. This can only be prevented by wearing a life jacket at all times while in cold water. There is no second chance.
  2. Exposure of the head and chest to cold water causes sudden increases in heart rate and blood pressure that may result in cardiac arrest.
  3. Other responses to cold water immersion result in immediate loss of consciousness and drowning.

Hypothermia, which is decreased body temperature, develops more slowly than the immediate effects of cold shock. Survival curves show that an adult dressed in average clothing may remain conscious for an hour at 40 degrees and perhaps two to three hours at 50 degrees water temperature. Any movement in the water accelerates heat loss. Hands become numb and useless. Swimming is not possible without thermal protection. The victim, although conscious, is soon helpless. Without the support of a life jacket drowning is inevitable. Shivering occurs as body temperature drops from 97 degrees to about 90 degrees. Uncontrolled rapid breathing follows the initial gasping response and may cause loss of consciousness. Muscle rigidity and loss of manual dexterity occurs at about 93 degrees. Mental capacity also begins to deteriorate at this point. When the body’s core temperature reaches 86 degrees, unconsciousness will occur. Death will occur at a core temperature of about 80 degrees if drowning doesn’t occur first.

If you should fall into the water try to get back in or on your boat immediately. Do not leave the boat. If you are not wearing thermal protection and cannot get out of the water, stay as still as possible. Fold arms, cross legs, and float calmly on the buoyancy of your personal floation device until help arrives. If two or more people are in the water, put your arms around one another and stay still and close together.

When rescuing a submerged person, the cold-water treatment of hypothermia should be begin immediately.

Mild hypothermia is when the victim is shivering but coherent. Move the victim to a place of warmth. Remove wet clothes, give warm, sweet drinks: no alcohol or caffeine. Keep the victim warm for several hours.

Moderate hypothermia is when shivering may decrease or stop. The victim may seem irrational with deteriorating coordination. Treat the same as above but give no drinks. The victim should be kept lying down with torso, thighs, head, and neck covered with dry clothes, coats, or blankets to stop further heat loss. Seek medical attention immediately.

In severe hypothermia, shivering may have stopped and the victim may resist help or be semi-conscious or unconscious. After removing the victim from water, keep the victim prone, on his back and immobile. The victim must be handled gently. Cover torso, thighs, head and neck with dry covers to stop further heat loss. Arms and legs must not stimulated in any manner. Cold blood in the extremities that suddenly returns to the core may induce cardiac arrest. Seek medical attention immediately.

The victim appears dead with little or no breathing or pulse and the body is rigid. Assume the victim can be revived. Look for faint pulse or breathing for two minutes. If any trace is found, do not give CPR. It can cause cardiac arrest. Medical help is imperative. If pulse and breathing are totally absent, trained medical personnel should start CPR.

If you are planning on going boating during the cold weather, make sure to do the following:

  • Wear clothing that permits safe cold water immersion and a life jacket. The common advice to wear layers of wool, nylon, or polypropylene is misleading. These fabrics do not effectively retard heat loss in cold water. They are warm when damp after being rung out due to air trapped in the fibers. They must be worn inside a waterproof barrier having neoprene or latex gaskets at ankles, waist, wrists, and neck. Fleece lined wet suit grade polartec clothing is rated equal to 2.5 mm of neoprene and is comfortable under outer clothes.
  • Carry dry clothing in a waterproof bag.
  • Tie a bailer and paddle to your boat.
  • Evaluate the floation in your boat.
  • Tie a short sling to the transom with a footrest in a loop to assist boat reentry.
  • Attach a whistle or horn to your life vest.
  • Tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Don’t forget to inform them when you return.
  • Check the weather forecast for the day.
  • Watch the boats around you. You should be depending on one another for prompt rescue in case of an accident.