Cold water boating fun, but safety paramount

Posted on: December 13, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

Cold water boating is fun, but can be dangerous, too.

There’s a lot to recommend cold water boating. But you’ve got to be smart about it.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There are a lot of good reasons to spend time on the water in winter.

One is the anticipation of late-season ducks banking over decoys to approach your blind. The lure of catching a few more fish, like the trout stocked by states including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, before things freeze over is another. And there’s the simple thrill of easing through crystalline water on afternoons when the world feels sparkly clean and the air so pure it almost hurts to breathe.

But in each case, danger – even death – lurks.

Cold water exacts a heavy toll on the unwary. Fall in and the race to survive is on.

“Cold water immersion can be deadly, so every second you’re in the water is a race against the clock,” said Josh Hoffman, boating safety education coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

It’s how the human body reacts that’s the issue.

“When a person is unexpectedly plunged into cold water below 70 degrees, the body’s first response is usually an involuntary gasp,” says the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “Without a life jacket, a victim may inhale while under water and drown. The ability to swim is restricted by shortness of breath or hyperventilation.”

About 20 percent of those who fall into cold water die in the very first minute, says the National Weather Service.

Make it beyond that and cold water still sucks the life of you, literally. And quickly.

According to the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association, cold water cools the body 25 times faster than cold air. Trouble follows in three stages.

First, a person who falls into cold water loses their ability to swim within three to 30 minutes, according to the “Boat New York” safety curriculum. Second comes “long-term immersion hypothermia,” which is when the body starts losing heat faster than it can produce, comes next.

Third and finally, there’s “post-immersion collapse.” That’s when cold-induced drop in blood pressure prompts cardiac arrest.

“Also, inhaled water can damage your lungs, and heart problems can develop as cold blood from your arms and legs is released into the core of your body,” the curriculum reads.

The statistics show just how dastardly cold water is.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, there were 4,291 boating accidents across American in 2017, the latest year for which there are numbers. Of those, 599 resulted in 658 fatalities.

Thirty-six percent of those deaths occurred when the water was 69 degrees or less.

There’s another, perhaps more telling, way to look at things, though.

The peak month for total accidents and deaths – 1,070 and 121, respectively — was July, which figures. That’s the busiest month for boating, with the most people on the water the most often.

But only 11 percent of accidents in July proved fatal.

By comparison, people died in 19 percent of all boating accidents nationally in January and February. That means you’re almost twice as likely to die if you go overboard then rather than in summer.

It’s often the least experienced boaters who are losing their lives. According to the Boating Safety Council, roughly seven in 10 deaths involved people with no formal boater safety training.

Increasingly, that’s paddlers, said Corey Britcher, chief of the Fish and Boat Commission’s law enforcement bureau.

“For a couple of hundred dollars these individuals can buy a kayak and be on the water in no time. They have little or no boating education and pay little attention to water conditions,” he said.

The commission addressed that a few years ago with a rules change. Now, by regulation, anyone paddling a canoe or kayak or piloting any other boat shorter than 16 feet, whether it’s in motion or at anchor, must wear a life jacket – or personal floatation device, called a PFD — between Nov. 1 and April 30. That rule went into place in 2012.

It appears to have had a positive impact.

The total number of boating accidents in the state, the number of fatal ones and the number of fatal accidents in cold-weather months have all remained fairly stable since. But – with the number of boats on the water up — the percentage of boaters dying in cold water accidents has declined, said Ryan Walt, boating safety education manager for the agency.

The PFD rule gets a lot of credit for that within the agency.

“We usually hear from at least one individual every year that said they never wore a PFD until the rule was in place and since started and have ended up in the water. Each one credits the PFD with saving their life due to the cold water emersion they didn’t think they would have made it without the device,” Britcher said.

That’s not surprisingly, necessarily.

Hoffman said anyone boating in winter needs to be “prepared for the worst.”

That starts with wearing a life jacket, he added.

“It’s really the simplest thing you can do to save your own life and return home safely,” Hoffman said.

There are some other precautions winter boaters should take, too.

The National Weather Service recommends wearing a wet suit any time the combined air and water temperature are less than 100 degrees.

The National Center for Cold Water Safety and the National Safe Boating Council recommend wearing a wetsuit or drysuit, or a float coat – an insulated jacket that also serves as a PFD – and carrying an emergency spare blanket. They also suggest carrying a personal locator beacon and filing a float plan, too.

It’s all advice that can save your life.

So if you’re going to venture onto the water now — and there are plenty of reasons to do it – be smart about it.

“No boating trip should even begin without wearing a life jacket, especially at this time of year,” Walt said. “Even on sunny days when air temperatures are comfortable, water temperatures are quickly dropping. A life jacket can keep you afloat and alive.”

Cold water boating safety tips

The first thing you should do if you fall into cold water? Get out, obviously.

But if you can’t get to shore, at least try to get back into your boat or, if it’s upside down, climb on top of it.

If none of that is possible, and you have to remain in the water, assume the HELP – of Heat Escape Lessening Posture – position. Draw your knees to your chin and wrap your arms around them, elbows pinned close to your side.

When there are two ore more people, wrap your arms around one another so that you are chest to chest.

All that slows down heat loss through the armpits, groin, head, neck and chest.

A video demonstrating the position can be found here.

If you rescue someone from cold water, follow these steps:

  • Call 911.
  • Move the person to a warm place.
  • Monitor their breathing and administer CPR, if necessary.
  • Remove any wet clothing and dry the person.
  • Warm the person slowly by wrapping them in blankets or putting them in dry clothing. Do not immerse them in warm water or try to warm them too quickly; that can cause heart problems.
  • Warm the person starting with their core, meaning their abdomen and chest. Warming their hands and feet first can send cold blood to the chest and cause chock.
  • If applying something like a hot water bottle to a person who’s been in cold water, wrap them in a blanket or clothes first, rather than applying it directly to bare skin.

Source: National Weather Service and American Red Cross


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Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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