Prolonged exposure to cold water can cause a dangerous drop in body temperature, resulting in hypothermia. Even exposure to cold air temperatures while boating can lead to hypothermia, so it is prudent to take precautions to avoid life-threatening problems.
Hypothermia results when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees. Symptoms start with feelings of cold, shivering and loss of coordination, then progress to violent shivering, increased heart rate and impaired judgment. Finally, in advanced stages of hypothermia, symptoms include the cessation of shivering, loss of consciousness, cold skin and blue lips, and the inability to speak or swim—which can result in death.
With that in mind, here are nine tips for avoiding hypothermia while boating:
- Always wear a life jacket. If you fall in, it will keep your head above water, allowing you to get your breathing under control. By covering part of your body, it also helps to preserve heat. Smaller adults and children cool off faster and a life jacket can greatly aid in their survival in cold water.
- Practice rescue and self-rescue techniques for cold-water boating in advance. Many accidents involve smaller boats that can be righted and re-boarded after capsizing. If your boat has flipped over and cannot be righted, get on top of it and out of the water, if possible. Even boats filled with water still can support people.
- Proper preparation is crucial for cold-weather boating. Ensure the boat is shipshape and check the weather forecast. Always file a float plan and tell someone when you expect to return.
- Dress in several layers of light clothing, topped off by a PFD. Wool clothing is practical and offers good protection.
- Stay out of the wind if possible. The effect of wind chill rapidly can cause heat loss.
- Exercise vigorously to counter the early stages of hypothermia. Generating body heat and limiting further exposure to cold can help you ward off hypothermia, as will eating high-energy foods and warm liquids.
- Should you find yourself in the water, avoid panic. Conservation of heat is imperative, so keep movement to a minimum, and don’t try to swim unless it’s to a boat or other floating object, or the shore is within reach. Swimming can lower your body temperature and can shorten survival time by more than 50 percent.
- The major body heat loss areas are the head, neck, armpits, chest and groin. If you are not alone, huddle together or in a group facing each other to maintain body heat
- Never give alcohol to a hypothermia victim. The old tales of St. Bernard dogs carrying brandy barrels on their collars to avalanche victims are fictional. Although alcohol may make the victim feel warm, it actually increases blood flow to the extremities of the body, further increasing heat loss.
If you are in any doubt about going boating on a particular day this winter due to wind, weather and water conditions, why not stay home and plan a spring boating adventure instead.