Cold water survival
Preparation and quick action can save the day
Many fatal boating accidents occur in the off-season when the water is cold. Education and preparation can make the difference between life and death during a cold-water immersion.
A sudden plunge into cold water can induce panic and shock, which could lead to cardiac arrest. The initial impact with the water can force air out of your lungs. If your face is under water during the first involuntary gasp for air, you could inhale water as well. Disorientation may occur, causing you to trash around for 30 seconds or more until you get your bearings.
Cold-water immersion can quickly numb the extremities to the point of uselessness. Cold hands cannot fasten life jacket straps, grasp a thrown rescue line or hold onto an over-turned boat.
Within minutes, severe pain clouds rational thought. Finally, hypothermia sets in, and without rescue and proper first-aid treatment, unconsciousness and death will follow.
What to do
If you fall into cold water, get out by the fastest means possible. Become skilled in rescue and self-rescue techniques. Many accidents involve small boats, which you can learn to right and re-enter with practice. Even filled with water, most boats will support the weight of its occupants. If you cannot right a capsized boat, climb onto it.
Physical exertion such as treading water or swimming greatly increase heat loss and can shorten survival time by more than 50 percent as blood pumped to the extremities is quickly cooled. If you can’t get out of the water, you face a critical choice: Adopt a defensive posture to conserve heat and wait for rescue, or attempt to swim to safety.
Don’t panic. Air trapped in clothing can provide buoyancy as long as you remain still. If you’re with others, huddle together to conserve body heat.
How to treat a victim
If a cold-water immersion victim can speak rationally, replace the victim’s clothing with dry clothes or blankets. If the person is semi-conscious, do this only if it’s possible with a minimum of body movement. Do not massage the arms and legs. Lay the semi-conscious person face-up with the head slightly lowered unless vomiting occurs. Warm the body core, but not the arms and legs; cooler blood returning to the body core can be fatal. Never give the victim alcohol or stimulants such as coffee or tea. Seek medical help.
Victims with blue skin, dilated eyes, no detectable pulse or breathing may not be dead. These are symptoms of the mammalian diving reflex, a protective mechanism used to maximize the body’s chances of survival. This reflex is more active in children than adults. Start resuscitative efforts immediately. Children rescued from freezing water after 30 minutes have been successfully resuscitated.
Proper preparation is critical to boating safely in cold water. Make sure your boat and equipment are shipshape. Check the weather forecast before leaving. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll return. Dress in several layers of light clothing; wool offers some of the best protection. Know how to administer first aid for hypothermia, and always wear a personal flotation device when boating.