Hypothermia Can Kill….

The weekend is almost here and your new boat awaits you. Maybe you will spend the weekend anchored out on the islands with friends or go fishing out by the lights. Or perhaps you will even venture down to New York City for the day. Wherever you go, one thing is certain. The water temperature may still be dangerously cold. Hypothermia is the abnormal lowering of your body’s internal temperature due to the cold air, wind or water. Each year many unfortunate boaters die due to immersion hypothermia, even when the air is 75 degrees. Your survival in cold water can vary with many factors; the temperature of the water is only one, your body size is another, your body fat %, and your activity in the water are also contributing factors. Heavy people cool slower that thin people and small children cool faster than adults. In April and May, the Long Island Sound is somewhere around 45 degrees. If you were to capsize or fall overboard, your core body temperature would drop quickly to a point where you become hypothermic.

Some people may survive for an hour or two due to their body size; others might go to the bottom in a matter of seconds. When a person hits the cold water, the body’s natural reaction is to open the mouth and gasp. As you gasp for air you also take in enough lake or sea water to fill your lungs. This unfortunately is the reason most people who fall into cold water without a life jacket; otherwise know as a personal flotation device or PFD, sink straight to the bottom. Those smart enough to have been wearing a PFD or lucky enough not to have instantly drowned, might try to swim for shore. Here’s the problem; as you swim or move your limbs to stay afloat, your body will naturally pump warm blood to all your limbs and extremities. All that warm blood is now quickly being cooled by the cold water surrounding your body. The average person, in spring clothing and a PFD may survive 2 to 3 hours in 50° F water by just remaining still. Your survival time can be increased considerably by getting as far out of the water as possible, staying with your boat or anything that floats and keeping your head covered. If you cannot get out of the water, try to button or zipper up any loose clothing as your clothes will actually help form a barrier against the cold water while the warmth of your body heats the water trapped in between. If alone, draw your knees to your chest with your arms to conserve body heat. In a group, you can huddle (group hug) to do the same.

It is highly advisable that you let someone who cares, know where you are going and when you are expected back. This is called a float plan, it should include where you departed from, what route you will be taking, the name, type and color of boat, how many people are aboard and their names as well as any other information which might aid the Coast Guard or other search and rescue services in finding you. If you come upon or need to provide first aid to a hypothermia victim, call the Coast Guard on the VHF channel 16 first then get the victim into a dry and warm environment as fast as possible. If you have a dry blanket, remove the wet clothing and wrap the victim to keep warm. Do not give alcohol as this will only cause further body temperature loss. Transport the victim to medical help as soon as possible. If you must boat on cold water, wear several layers, polypropylene undergarments to wick away moisture followed by a layer cotton to absorb it then either a watertight dry suit or insulated jumpsuit to keep out the weather above the water and keep in the heat below. Uncomfortable maybe, but it beats a pine box any day. If you take basic precautions and know the dangers of cold water boating, your time on the water will be much safer in the long cold water season we must endure here in New England. Above all else, wear that PFD!