Lessons from Cold Water Boot Camp

While paddling from the Commercial Street Boat Launch to the mouth of Little River the other day, I crossed paths with two other Belfast kayakers who were also out enjoying the brilliant December sunshine. Winter paddling is not for everyone, but IF you have the right equipment, take the right precautions, and maintain a healthy respect for cold water, it can be safe and immensely rewarding.

Skaters and hockey players have begun to venture out onto area lakes and ponds. With the ice-fishing season opening up on January 1st, it seems a good time to review the latest research on the effects of cold water immersion.

The dangers of hypothermia have gotten a lot of press in recent years, and hypothermia is what most people think of first when it comes to cold water immersion. But as the 10-minute Coast Guard video Cold Water Boot Camp shows, hypothermia is only one-third of the challenge of being unexpectedly immersed in cold water.

The first challenge is cold shock (also known as “the gasp reflex”), which lasts for about 1 minute and results in gasping and uncontrolled breathing. Cold shock can severely limit your ability to swim or do anything to rescue yourself. It also can cause you to ingest water into your lungs, especially if you gasp while under the surface or while submerged by a wave.

If you survive the first minute, you will begin to breathe more normally. The second challenge of cold water immersion is cold incapacitation. According to the video, in water temperatures of 45 degrees, you have just 10 minutes of “meaningful movement” before your muscles will be impaired to the point that you may no longer be able to perform simple self-rescue tasks such as swimming, holding onto a rope, hauling yourself up onto the ice, or climbing back into a kayak.

According to the GoMoos site, Penobscot Bay water temperatures are down to 39 degrees. Without doing a lot of complicated math, let’s just say, that doesn’t give you a lot of time.

The third challenge of cold water immersion is loss of functioning due to lowered core body temperature (hypothermia). The video states that in 45 degree water it would only take one hour before you lapse into unconsciousness.

The point the video makes is that due to the effects of cold shock and cold incapacitation, if rescue is not immediately available, you likely would drown before reaching the hypothermia stage — unless you are wearing a life jacket or have some other means of being supported in the water.

If you are paddling, please wear a life jacket and dress for immersion. This means wearing a wet suit or dry suit.

If you are going out on the ice, check the thickness of the ice before doing so. A thickness of 6 inches is suggested for those on foot. Also be aware that ice thicknesses can be highly variable. Going out on the ice with a partner is a good idea. Rope, a whistle, and a cell phone can be useful if a rescue is needed. And if you are at all doubtful about the safety of the ice, it’s not a bad idea to wear a pfd.

Wishing everyone an adventurous and safe 2009!

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