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Cold Water Immersion and Survival

Posted by on December 30, 2011

It can happen during any time of the year in even the least expecting conditions. A slip on the dock, falling through ice, or the accidental canoe or kayak capsize can bring you face to face with a cold water survival situation. But wait… it is 70 degrees outside and you are an excellent swimmer –there is no way you could develop hypothermia, right? The following article will debunk some of the leading myths of cold shock and hypothermia. So bundle up, grab your hot cocoa, and prepare yourself for some potentially lifesaving information.

It may come as a shock to many but cold water ( less than 68 F) can be fatal regardless of the air temperature or your ability to swim. Picture this scenario: it’s a beautiful spring day, there is a light breeze on the water, and it is a picture perfect day for a paddle. You notice that there are not a lot of other boats in the harbor, the water is calm, and the sun is out. The weather channel forecasted a high of 71 today! The conditions could not be more perfect. You typically wear your lifejacket during cold weather but the sun is getting hot and uncomfortable. It will be perfectly fine to keep it inside the boat “in case something happens… you could always put it on.” You notice a flock of seagulls nose diving into the water after a school of small fish. When you paddle over to investigate, you fail to see the large algae covered rock slowing moving under the right-side of your hull. Suddenly, the boat begins to shuffle… you self correct, but it is too late….

As soon as your body hits the water…

  • The instant immersion causes a powerful, uncontrollable gasping reflex. You unintentionally inhale a mouthful of water in an attempt to catch your breath
  • Within a few seconds your hands, feet, arms, legs, and fingers become numb and useless
  • A sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure begins a panicking response – it’s impossible to think clearly, climb back on your boat, or even find your lifejacket!
  • The shore is only 50 yards away so you decide to swim back to safety
  •  The rapid swimming only accelerates heat loss and suddenly you cannot move at all
  • Losing consciousness — you merely float until…. a nearby boat sees you and picks you up

Luckily a nearby fisherman saw you just in time to save your life. Unfortunately, most people who find themselves within this type of situation are not as lucky. Strong swimmers have died before even swimming 100 yards in cold water. Attempting to swim only decreases your likelihood of survival. Cold water removes heat from the body 25 times faster than cold air. It is for this reason why cold water results in hundreds of fatalities each year – many of which happen in the springtime.

So what can you do in the instance of a cold water survival situation? The first rule of thumb is to ALWAYS wear your lifejacket. You could be Michael Phelps in the dead of summer and still be overtaken by the rigors of cold water without proper floatation attire. Assuming that you are wearing a life jacket, the best option is to minimize your movement if you cannot get back into your boat immediately. Assume the H.E.L.P (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) by crossing your arms and legs, keeping thighs close together, and letting the buoyancy of your lifejacket keep you above water until help arrives. This will greatly increase your chances of survival. See illustration below.

Important notes to take away from this article: always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) regardless of what the air temperature is, remember and practice the H.E.L.P position, it is impossible to outswim the cold, and always plan ahead by wearing appropriate clothing (avoid cotton and polyester – aim for synthetic, waterproof, and fast drying materials such as fleece).

Additional information:

32.5 degrees Under 15 min Under 15 to 45 min.
32.5 to 40 15 to 30 min 30 to 90 min.
40 to 50 30 to 60 min 1 to 3 hrs.
50 to 60 1 to 2 hrs 1 to 6 hrs.
60 to 70 2 to 7 hrs 2 to 40 hrs.
70 to 80 3 to 12 hrs 3 hrs. to indefinite
Over 80 Indefinite Indefinite



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