The Chilling Facts About Cold Water Survival

Posted by at 06:48AM - Comments: (5)

PS tester Isabella Lemole gives her PFD a real-world workout while racing her optimist in Clearwater, Florida.

After living in Florida for so many years, it is easy to forget the risks associated with colder waters, vividly demonstrated in a video on cold-water survival that I have included in this week’s blog post. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the risk of drowning increases nearly five times if the water temperature is below 59 degrees. That puts many sailors in the Northeast, West Coast, and Great Lakes areas at serious risk for most, if not all of the year.

Practical Sailor enlisted the help of several young volunteers for our recent life jacket test.

Former U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer Mario Vittone has an excellent blog article that explores some of reasons why cold water changes everything in a drowning situation. These are things that every boater should know, regardless of the boat’s sailing area. Another great resource is Cold Water Boot Camp, an award-winning website that promotes the research of Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht (Professor Popsicle), a professor of thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, where he runs the Laboratory for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, and studies human responses to exercise and work in extreme environments. The website and videos were developed to show the real-life effects of three phases of cold-water immersion: cold shock response, cold incapacitation, and hypothermia.



For a graphic demonstration of what the human body goes through when it hits cold water, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators has produced a 10-minute video (also above) of volunteers trying to survive in icy water during Dr. Giesbrecht’s Cold Water Boot Camp. The Canadian Safe Boating Council has recently followed up with a website, Beyond Cold Water Boot Camp, aimed at first responders and boating safety educators. This website investigates the causes of Circum-rescue Collapse, in which a victim dies suddenly shortly before, during, or after the rescue. One of the key findings of this study was the importance of a gentle recovery and keeping the victim in the horizontal position. The discussion of victim extraction and care apply to victims in warm water as well; I would encourage all skippers to take a few minutes to visit this website.   

The first phase of immersion in cold water is called the cold shock response. It is an involuntary physiological response to cold water. This response can last from less than a half-minute to a couple minutes. Some people are more vulnerable than others, and some people are able to condition themselves to avoid this response. It can be so severe as to cause cardiac arrest and death almost immediately.

The second stage is cold incapacitation, which is just like it sounds. The water temperature prevents you from being able to swim, wave for help, grab a throw ring, etc. Even before your body temperature begins to drop, the veins in your arms and legs constrict, making it difficult and then impossible to keep swimming. Even the best swimmer will begin to drown in less than 30 minutes.

The third phase of cold water immersion is hypothermia, in which the core body temperature drops below 95-degrees. Uncontrollable shivering and mental confusion set in, then comes unconsciousness and organ failure. With flotation a person can remain conscious up to an hour in 40-degree water; survival times can be as long as three hours. Survival will, of course depends on flotation.

Bottom line: Wear a personal flotation device.   

Comments (5)

We have repaired the link to the cold water boot camp video. Thanks for the note.

Posted by: sailordn | February 7, 2019 1:26 PM    Report this comment

This is a great topic. Hypothemia is a very real and often misunderstood issue. I too am a long time sea kayaker and I've taught "Kayaking in a Cold Water Environment" to hundreds of people in out area. People die in my area (Puget Sound, WA) nearly every year from capsizing and not wearing effective thermal protection. I highly recommend the "Cold Water Bookcamp" videos.

PS -- I was unable to see or view the video -- the box for it had not have a link. Is there another way to see that video?

Posted by: Mac C | February 7, 2019 9:32 AM    Report this comment

MAN, OH MAN. Did I ever learn this lesson the hard way. At the helm of a fast Corsair 24 trimaran, in the middle of a "cold" Florida daysail, I took an emergency phone call and mistakenly sat down where there is no seat! Man overboard. Me. No matter. Simply lost my glasses and phone, while the boat quickly came back. Plus I already had a change of winter clothes aboard. But those few minutes of frigid floating? My muscles started to stiffen; it was hard to climb back into the sugar-scoop stern after just a few minutes! I began second stage cold incapacitation.

Posted by: A. Colin Flood | February 12, 2017 7:58 PM    Report this comment

This is the reason for the simple northern maxim, "dress for the water." Often a wet suit of dry suit is the only reasonable answer--dingy sailing or kayaking--but materials like Windblocker fleece, fitted layers, and tight hand and ankle closures can greatly increase survivability. Another huge factor is whether the person is warm or cold when they hit the water; slightly hypothermic hunters and fishermen, chilled by inactivity, are ready victims, experiencing muscle failure immediately. I've found myself in 32F water twice dressed in this manner; not pleasant, but glad that my clothes were working for me.

This is also the reason all northern sailors should keep a wet suit on the boat; you never know when a rope around the prop might require a swim.

Posted by: Drew Frye | May 13, 2013 6:00 PM    Report this comment

Excellent attention getter! Should be seen not only by boaters but anyone who plays in temperate waters!
How can I get a copy of this video clip?
Thank you so very much. David Brown SV Kismet

Posted by: | May 9, 2013 6:50 AM    Report this comment

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