Boat Safety / October 21, 2021

Cold water safety and fall boating tips

In Canada our warm boating season is quite short, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your boat in the fall and spring. However, it is imperative that you are aware of cold water safety before you head out in the chillier climates. Even boating in warm weather can be dangerous if the water is much colder than the air.

What you need to know about cold water safety

Water temperature and air temperature are two very different measurements. 21* degrees celsius in air temperature is quite warm, but 21*C degree water temperature can kill a person.  According to Cold Water Safety, you should treat any water temperature below 21*C with caution.

Not to be alarming but water temperatures 15-10C  is very dangerous and can be life threatening within seconds. Humans  can have total loss of breathing control,  intense cold shock, and the inability to control gasping and hyperventilation. To put this in perspective the average temperature of the Pacific Ocean around Vancouver in October is about 10*C. Even though you are out on your boat, you need to dress appropriately, wear the appropriate life jacket for cold water and have a plan in case something goes wrong.

Why cold water is so dangerous

Sudden Drowning
If you are not wearing thermal protection such as a drysuit or a wetsuit cold water can be immediately life threatening. The bigger danger is inhaling water because of the involuntary gasp when a human gets immersed into cold water. It is known as cold shock – the immediate loss of breathing control.

Stages of Immersion
Cold water deaths can be instantaneous because of the four stages of immersion:

Cold Shock: The immediate lowering of skin temperature on submersion in cold water represents one of the most profound stimuli that the body can encounter.Physical Incapacitation: When muscles and nerves get cold enough, they simply stop working. In very cold water, it’s possible to lose the use of your hands in under a minute. This means you will be unable to self-rescue or help someone else who is trying to rescue you.

Hypothermia: This happens when the core body temperature is below 35C. You have to survive both cold shock and incapacitation before hypothermia becomes an issue and this will occur within 30 minutes. A person experiencing hypothermia will have decreased mental capacity and may become unconsciousness.

Circumrescue Collapse: Is not well understood, but appears to be related to an abrupt drop in blood pressure. It can cause unconsciousness and also heart failure.

Nonfatal drowning victims should be monitored for ongoing medical distress, usually caused by lack of oxygen to the brain, and even small amounts of water absorbed by the lungs. Read more on understanding the drowning process by International Surf Lifesaving Association.

According to Boat US Foundation, “cold water immersion is almost always the result of a capsize or swamping of, or a fall overboard form a vessel less than 26’Ft.

No bad weather, just very poor clothing choices

What we wear on a boat – at any time of year – is critical to safety. But in the colder months of the year, it is imperative to be dressed for the weather. Focus on the principles, under layers, accessories, how to wear them, and what materials stay dry. One of the more important items is to be able to control the air flow. Ventilation is as important as insulation. The exchange of air keeps you warm by preventing condensation that will make you colder when temperatures drop.

Base layers: Synthetic base layers are the best because they wick away moisture and they dry faster. Although, wool (merino) is much warmer, insulation value is next to nothing when wet.  So stick to what will keep you dry and work with layers.

Water proof layer: Full waterproof coats do not breathe, so you have to be able to vent and work with layers. But it is imperative to have a full waterproof jacket if you are out when it is raining.

Footwear: Not only do you need to think about slippery docks and decks, but keeping your feet warm. A great trick is to line your boots with neoprene socks. But for wetter offshore conditions, you’ll want good sea boots. Check out Yachting Monthly for their test drive of 9 different seaboots.

Head and hand gear: Wearing a hat is not about just keeping your ears warm, but to keep your head dry and seal the neck against drafts. Many elite sailors wear water repellant balaclavas. You can wear a wool cap underneath or anchor it with a ball cap overtop.

Depending on the type of boating you do, gloves can get in the way, but it is important to find the glove that works and just get used to operating with them on at all times. Options are:

  • High-gauntlet PVC gloves are inexpensive, dry, and relatively durable, but they will require some internal layers.
  • Gore-Tex ski gloves will work but are not water proof and take time to dry. A two step system is the best.
  • Neoprene dive gloves – will not stand up to lots of rope work on a sailboat, but are otherwise durable and warm.

Life Jackets: Recreational PFD’s (USCG Type III) are not designed to float a person in a face up position and are not designed for rough water or situations where rescue may be slow in coming.

Wear a properly fitted life jacket. Consider buying a cold weather life jacket, one that has extra insulation to double as an additional warm layer. It is important to note that some inflatable life jackets have a statement on the U.S. Coast Guard label that reads “do not use below freezing (air temperature)”. Inflatable life jackets get their buoyancy from the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas (CO2) inside the life jacket’s bladder. As the temperature decreases, so does the CO2 pressure. Less CO2 pressure inside the life jacket’s bladder means less buoyancy. So if you are going to be out on a boat when the air temperature is below freezing, then you should wear a buoyant foam-filled life jacket that is compliant with local laws.

Tip from Practical Sailor  
Take diaper cream with you. Wind, cold and wet can dry out lips, face and hands.
Applied liberally to face and hands, a zinc oxide cream like Desitin will prevent chapping.

Resources for cold water safety

Safe Harbour Insurance: Drowning prevention when boating
Safe Harbour Insurance: Top 10 safety practices to avoid injury and death while boating


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