cold water survival

It’s a warm day — you’re on your boat and get up to grab something. Suddenly you lose your balance and teeter off the side, falling into water that is less than 15°C.

The cold shock causes you to gasp and then you find yourself wildly hyperventilating.  It’s at this stage that many people start to panic fearing that dying of hypothermia is imminent!  People seldom make sound decisions when they start to panic.

The first thing you need to know is that, in about a minute, your breathing will come back under control.  You’ll have roughly ten minutes to self-rescue before the muscles and nerve fibres in your hands and legs start to cool to the point where they will no longer be able to keep you afloat and, if you’re not wearing a PFD or lifejacket, you will drown.  If you are wearing a PFD or lifejacket, however, while you may lose consciousness after about 1hour, you can last at least 3 hours before your heart will stop.   Too much to remember?  Can you remember 1-10-1?  Think one minute to get your breathing under control, 10 minutes of muscle movement to self-rescue and 1 hour before you lose consciousness due to hypothermia.  Also, do you get the common thread here?  Your PFD or lifejacket can mean the difference between life and death but only if you’re wearing it! Trying to put on your PFD or lifejacket while in the water can be nearly impossible, besides, while you struggle you’ll be using up precious seconds you could use to self rescue.

Three other things to remember at this stage:  Firstly, we lose body heat 25 times faster in water than in air of the same temperature so, if you can, try to get as much of your body out of the water as possible as quickly as possible even if that means climbing on to the overturned hull of your boat.   Secondly, don’t thrash around. Movement just reintroduces cold water next to your skin causing you to lose body heat more rapidly.  Thirdly, preventative measures make the most sense.  This can be as simple as cutting a 10 foot length of rope (thick enough to support your weight), tying 2 or 3 loops in it for footholds and secure the other end to a spot on your boat where it can be retrieved from the water.  This allows you to use the strength in both your arms and legs to reboard quickly.

If you traditionally boat in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, invest in a floater suit or drysuit. In addition to keeping your warm on the boat, it will help to protect you should you find yourself in the drink.

So, remember, should you find yourself on cold water, even ice cold, don’t panic and remember 1-10-1!

For more information, visit the Canadian Safe Boating Council website at www.csbc.ca.


Cold Water Boot Camp

Volunteers experience the 3 effects of cold water immersion – cold shock, cold incapacitation & hypothermia. Learn how to survive a fall into cold water.