Are You Safe When Boating in Cold Water?

How to be SAFE boating when the water temperature is cold

When the air temperature warms up in spring or remains warm in fall, we tend to think we're safe on boats. Not true. What you really need to think about is the air temperature PLUS the water temperature. If the two add up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or below, you absolutely should wear a lifejacket when sailing or going out on any boat. For example, if the air temperature is 60 degrees in November, yet the water is 57 degrees, you're in the danger zone. Wear a lifejacket. Wear a wetsuit for paddling. Some say it's dry suit time! Some paddlers wait until the water temperature is in the low 50s for dry suits.  

In an insightful video produced by the National Water Safety Congress, eight participants are subjected to cold water to see how they do. Viewers watch as swimmers struggle to gain their composure and swim to a buoy 40 yards away. See more important cold-water safety information below the video.

The video was created to bring awareness to the three stages of cold water immersion: Cold Shock Response, Cold Incapacitation, and Hypothermia. 

Cold Shock Response happens the moment the body is exposed to water below 68 degrees. Initial exposure to cold water will have you gasping for air, so it is imperative to keep your head above water. Remember that you can inhale up to a liter of water in just one gasp.

Cold Incapacitation is the effect of the cold on muscle and nerve cells, and severely limits your ability to perform. This occurs within two to 10 minutes of being in the water, and makes it difficult for you to have any sort of meaningful movement.

And finally, Hypothermia occurs roughly one hour after being exposed to cold water. This state can ultimately lead to unconsciousness and death. How long will it take you to lose dexterity in cold water? Check this chart.

The video's ultimate message to the swimmers was a 1-10-1 principle: If you fall into cold water, you have one minute to get your breathing under control. You have 10 minutes of meaningful movement to get to your destination. And you have one hour before you become unconscious due to hypothermia.

A 2007 study by the United States Coast Guard showed that of water accidents occurring in water under 59 degrees, 40 percent were fatal. But 'cold water' is defined as anything below 68 degrees, as this is the temperature at which your body must defend itself to maintain its own temp. The same study showed that of those drownings, 43 percent were less than six feet away from safety. And 90 percent were not wearing lifejackets.