Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: In Cold Water, Preparation Can Save Your Life

By Shawn Perich

Jerry Dzugan wasn’t planning to capsize his skiff in Southeast Alaska’s Frederick’s Sound. Of course, no one ever plans to capsize, especially when the water temperature is just above freezing. Dzugan was 300-400 yards away from shore. In the distance, ice bergs were calving from a coastal glacier.

As the executive director of Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, Dzugan teaches others how to survive a cold water immersion. He knew that all boats less than 21 feet in length are designed to float when capsized. He also knew that two rules of cold water survival are to stay with the boat and to get out of the water as soon as possible. So he climbed atop the overturned skiff.

“Now I was able to do what is called the second stage inventory,” Dzugan says. “I thought about the tide and whether it was taking me toward or away from shore.”

On the beach, a frantic friend was preparing to enter the water in an attempt to save him—a potentially fatal mistake. The tide was carrying him shoreward, so Dzugan yelled at his friend to stay put. Forty-five minutes later, he safely stepped off the skiff and onto the beach.

Whether in Alaska or Minnesota, cold water is a dangerous reality for boaters and others who spend time around the water. Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in Alaska, where the drowning rate is 12 times the national average. While Minnesota has an excellent boating safety program, cold water tragedies occur here, too.

Most of us know the basics of water safety, such as be sure to wear a PFD and to avoid alcohol when on the water. While wearing a PFD will keep you afloat and staying sober may keep you from getting wet in the first place, knowing what to do once you are in the water can greatly increase your survival odds.

Dzugan says the U.S. Coast Guard defines cold water as temperatures below 59 F. There is no medical basis for this definition, but it allows the oil industry operating in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere to be exempt from carrying higher standards of survival equipment. Actually, the human body can experience the effects of hypothermia in any water less than 91 F. Cold water shock, also called the mammalian diving reflex, occurs in waters less than 70 degrees. Because exercise increases blood flow to your extremities, swimming may greatly increase your risk of hypothermia. If the water is less than 70 degrees, you are likely better off to conserve body warmth by remaining stationary with your head out of water rather than trying to swim to safety.

When you suddenly fall into cold water, you immediately gasp for air. If you are underwater when this occurs, you may inhale enough water to drown. After the initial gasp, you may begin hyperventilating. And hyperventilating—not to mention a surprise immersion—may cause you to panic. Dzugan says it is important to get your breathing under control and not become overwhelmed by panic. Even in very cold water, you have about 10-30 minutes before hypothermia lowers your core temperature to the point where you start losing motor skills. Once you get your breathing and feelings of panic under control, you can assess your situation and develop a plan.

If you are near a capsized boat, it is best to stay with the craft and, if possible, to climb upon it to get out or partially out of the water. If you are with other people, stay together and form a huddle to preserve warmth and increase your odds of being found. Now, while you are thinking clearly, make a survival plan. Take note of the wind direction and whether it may blow you to safety. Consider, as well, your odds of being discovered by rescuers. Swimming to safety is probably not a good option. According to the Canadian Red Cross, it is likely that an individual could swim no more than one tenth of the distance that same person could swim in warm water. Once you have a plan, it is important to stick with it. Remember, hypothermia will soon affect your ability to think clearly.

On a Colorado River rafting trip two years ago, Dzugan capsized in the infamous Lava Falls, known for 16-foot standing waves.

“I was wearing a PFD, so I popped to the surface, took a breath and got hit by the next wave,” he says.

The water temperature was 42 F and he was swept downstream with the current. He found the raft, but was unable climb into it. Instead, he tried to save the gear in the raft, which was vital to the remainder of his group’s Grand Canyon camping adventure. After 15 to 20 minutes in the water and a mile and a half of downstream travel, someone threw him a line and he was able to come ashore. And, thanks to his actions in the water, none of the group’s gear was lost.

“I was surprised at how much I was able to do and that I was able to think so clearly,” Dzugan says.

Once on the beach, he began shivering uncontrollably, a common response following a cold water rescue. Known as post rescue collapse, it happens when the victim feels safe and no longer needs to fight for life. One woman who capsized with Dzugan was conscious, but unable to do anything for herself for 24 hours after she was hauled from the water. He says in such situations, it is important for rescuers to maintain contact and talk with the victim until they are physically and mentally functional.

Since all cold water immersions are unplanned, it stands to reason that wearing a PFD—rather than just having it in the boat—can save your life. Some PFDs are better than others for cold water safety, but they may not be the styles many boaters choose to wear.

“Recreational PFD users are often more concerned with air temperatures than with water temperatures,” says Anne Price, marketing project manager at Mustang Survival.

Choosing a PFD for comfort over function may be fine in August, but probably isn’t the wisest choice in May or October. Mustang Survival manufactures cold water survival gear to meet virtually all situations. Instead of a traditional flotation vest, Price says recreational users will have better thermal protection by choosing a flotation coat, perhaps matched with floatation pants. Even more protection is provided with a one-piece survival suit, often the choice of offshore sailors. The drawback is that the suits offer less mobility. If mobility is important—and the water is warm—you may choose a lightweight inflatable PFD.

Regardless of the PFD style you choose, it won’t do you any good if you are not wearing it. Many boaters adopt a cavalier attitude toward wearing PFDs, perhaps assuming their swimming ability will get them out of a jam. In Minnesota, a cold water immersion can happen to anyone. A better attitude is to be prepared for trouble before it happens to you.

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