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Cold Water Boating Safety Tips

cold water boating safety tips infographic

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

Preparing for a Cold Water Boating Trip

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

Layer Up

When going cold water boating, 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.

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, bring plenty of water and keep a thermos of something warm to drink on hand.

Wear a Life Jacket That Fits Properly

No matter what type of boating you plan to do, wearing a properly fitted life jacket is critical to maintain your safety on the water. A life jacket that is too loose can cause strangulation or 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 understand cold water safety and how the body reacts to being immersed in frigid water. Falling into cold water is incredibly dangerous and rescue needs to be swift. The following are the four 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 virtually 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 view 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 toward 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 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, and 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 critical to seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.

What Should You Do If You Fall Overboard into Cold Water?

If you are in cold water awaiting rescue, there are techniques for reducing internal heat loss and delaying hypothermia. One technique is called Heat Escape Lessening Posture (H.E.L.P.)

If you are alone in the water, pull the 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 float 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

When conducting a cold water immersion rescue, the following are a few do's and don'ts to keep in mind.

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…
  • 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 the victim with dry clothing and dry blankets. If you can, also cover the head with a hat or wrapped blanket.
  • Give the victim warm (but not hot) liquids to drink. Something with sugar is best, such as honey-sweetened tea or cooled hot chocolate.
Do not…
  • Change the victim’s position from the position they were rescued in — this could cause the victim to suffer a stroke.
  • Massage or immerse the victim in hot water. This sudden change in temperature and rough handling could cause cardiac arrest.
  • Give the victim alcohol. This thins the blood and opens veins, causing the body to lose more heat.
  • 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.

Store Cold Water Boats with the Help of Jet Dock

Now that you have a firm grasp of cold water safety, make sure you're keeping your boat safe and protected as well. At Jet Dock, we're proud to provide customers with safe, convenient and user-friendly floating boat docks to keep their crafts high and dry. Have a question or need additional information? Reach out today — we'd be happy to help!

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