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Cold Water Boating Safety and Tips

Boating season has ended but for some die-hard boating enthusiasts, the change of weather just means a change of approach for boating. Cold water boating can be fun and exciting, but extra precautions must be taken to ensure that safety is first with the colder weather and colder water temperatures.

If you are planning on boating in the colder weather, consider these preparation and safety tips to stay warm and safe out on the water.

cold water boating safety tips infographic

Preparing for a cold water boating trip

1) Layer up - Make sure that you are wearing multiple layers to protect your skin from cold air and water. As a general rule, dress according to the water’s temperature - not the air’s. Consider base layers made of synthetic materials that wick away moisture and always wear a hat. Keep extra clothes on board in a dry pack in the case of someone going overboard.

2) Pack fuel for your body - Avoiding hunger and keeping hydrated is crucial to staying alert, energized, and maintaining your internal temperature. The fuel your body gets from food helps maintain homeostasis, so starving it can actually cause you to get colder easier. Pack snacks that are high in protein, pack plenty of water, and keep a thermos of something warm to drink on hand.

3) Wear a life jacket that fits properly - No matter what type of boating you plan on doing, wearing a properly fitted life jacket is critical in maintaining your safety on the water. A life jacket that is too loose can cause strangulation or can keep you from floating with your head above water if you were to fall unconscious. A comfortable life jacket can save your life and can double as an extra layer to keep you warm. Don’t forget to check your life jacket’s expiration date as well - materials and components do go bad over time.

Understand the effects of cold water on the body

If you or someone on board were to fall into the water it is important to know how the body reacts to being immersed in cold water. Falling into cold water is incredibly dangerous and rescue needs to swift and knowledgeable of the 4 stages of cold water immersion:

1) Cold shock - The instant reaction to hitting cold water is shock and panic. It is not uncommon for people who are in this situation to gasp as a reflex. If this happens underwater, choking or drowning could occur. The body also reacts to scary situations with faster heart rates, muscle spasms and hyperventilation, rendering you incapable of thinking and acting in a calm manner. During this stage it is most important to stay afloat with the help of your life jacket, try to regain control of your breathing and keep your head above water and in vision of rescuers.

2) Swim Failure - Within 30 minutes of being immersed in cold water it can become impossible to swim due to loss of muscle coordination. Long exposure to cold water can have a paralyzing effect on your muscles. This is why it is important that you let the life jacket keep you afloat near the boat and do not attempt to swim towards help.

3) Hypothermia - After 30 minutes of being immersed in cold water your body can succumb to hypothermia, or the lowering of the body’s core temperature. This is a very dangerous situation to be in as you lose muscular function, coordination, mental function and eventually lose consciousness.

4) Post Rescue Collapse - Precautions still need to be taken even after an overboard victim is rescued. The surrounding cold air and the changing body position can cause blood pressure to drop, lung damage and heart issues with the cold blood from arms and legs returning to your body’s core. It is important to stay close to someone who was rescued from cold water to be able to respond to these symptoms. After rescue it is also important to seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.

How to H.E.L.P. yourself in cold water while waiting for rescue

If you are in cold water awaiting rescue, there are techniques for reducing internal heat loss and delay hypothermia. One technique is called Heat Escape Lessening Posture, or H.E.L.P. IF you are alone in the water, pull your cinch cords on your life jacket nice and snug, cross your arms tightly across your chest, bend your knees and bring them up against your chest and floating while keeping your head above water. The goal is to keep your neck, chest and groin area from losing core heat. To enhance your body’s buoyancy, kick off any heavy boots that could fill with water and weigh you down. If you are in the water with a group of people huddle together with everyone facing inwards. Link arms over shoulders and pull in close together to share heat. Small children and seniors can be placed in the center of the huddle to keep them warm.

The do’s and don'ts of cold water immersion rescue

Do…

  • Move a rescued victim to dry and warm shelter
  • Check for heartbeat and for breathing. Begin CPR if necessary
  • Remove wet clothing from the victim. Cut clothing off if a lot of movement would be required to remove them as sudden movements could cause cardiac arrest.

  • Lay victim level on their back and cover with a blanket.
  • Cover victim with dry clothing and dry blankets. If you can, also cover the head with a hat or wrapped blanket.
  • Give the victim warm liquids to drink but not hot liquids. Something with sugar is best, such as honey sweetened tea or cooled hot chocolate.

Do not…

  • Do not change the victim’s position from the position they were rescued in - this could cause the victim to suffer a stroke.
  • Do not massage or immerse the victim in hot water. This sudden change in temperature and rough handling could cause cardiac arrest.
  • Never give the victim alcohol. This thins the blood and opens veins, causing the body to lose more heat.
  • Do not apply heat to extremities like arms and legs. These body parts will be the coldest from the cold water and warming them will force the cold blood in the veins to return to critical organs such as the heart, lungs and brain. This can cause fatal lowering of the body’s core temperature.
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