Beware of the Gasp Reflex

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Should you find yourself cast in icy water, there are few things you can do that may help.

Acclimatize. As a year round kayaker and small boat sailor, Ive fallen in cold water countless times, twas always dressed for the water. According to research, it is also important that I got use to the water by stages with the approach of fall. Sure, it was cold in the face, but by winter it was not a true shock. Alternatively, get a wet suit and do your own in-water work. Research has shown that getting your face in cold water just a few times each season may make all the difference.

Should you fall in, focus on doing the right things in the critical first minutes:

Take a deep breath and focus hard on not gasping.

When you get to the surface, focus on floating and stabilizing your breathing. You are not going to be able to swim or do anything productive for several minutes, and as a cold water MOB victim, there is nothing you need to do for a minute or two. Focus on not drowning. If you have a PFD that will be a huge help. If not, try to tread water with as little effort as possible. Calm down and realize you have some time.

Once your breathing has returned to normal, try to reach any flag buoy or floating objects pitched in the water by the crew. Tighten up every zipper and flap on your foul weather gear and curl up in a fetal position to conserve heat. If you are alone or on a small boat that has capsized, make a clear-headed decision about what to do next and do it. If help is likely or you don’t have a PFD, stay with the boat. If shore is nearby and no one is coming, it can make sense to strike out before the cold gets to you, but watch your pacing.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.

1 COMMENT

  1. Check out the Wim Hoff method of deep breathing. This guy has trained himself to be in icy cold water for long periods of time with only swimming trunks on. Also if you finish your nice steamy hot shower in the morning, with a two min cold one, your body and brain gets used to and tolerance is built up pretty quickly. Plus, it feels fantastic once you get out!

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