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As wintertime ushers in freezing temperatures and icy waters, it also introduces an increased risk of boating fatalities in the event of an accident, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Although many of these fatalities cannot be attributed to one specific cause of death, cold water conditions, such as hypothermia and cold water immersion, do set the stage for many dangers not as present in the warmer months.
While June, July and August are the months with the highest total numbers of boating fatalities these same months represent the lowest number of deaths when compared to total accidents (averaging about 1 death for every 10 reported boating accidents). However, accidents during the colder months of November, January and February, are far more likely to result in a boating fatality (approximately 1 death for every 5 reported).
While hypothermia can happen whether a person is wet or dry, the threat is much more severe when a person is in the water. The body loses heat 25 times faster when it is immersed, allowing hypothermia to occur in water as warm as 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Early symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, poor judgment, slurred speech, and loss of manual dexterity, all of which can turn deadly in the water and make rescues more difficult. Numb hands make it difficult for a victim to grab onto a thrown rope or floating object, or to climb on top of a capsized boat to get out of the water. Lack of good judgment may cause a boater to misjudge the distance to land and attempt to swim- a deadly mistake, since movement will speed the effects of hypothermia by about 35 percent, in most cases rendering the body’s extremities useless before reaching shore.
An additional risk posed to boaters overboard in cold water is involuntary gasping reflex, a condition that occurs when the body experiences a sudden unexpected entry into cold water (commonly referred to as cold water immersion). The initial shock initiates a reflexive gasp, which causes the victim, if still immersed, to inhale water into the lungs. Drowning can be instantaneous in these cases.
In addition to setting the stage for the physical distresses that make it difficult for one to assist in his or her own rescue, winter conditions also affect the chance of rescue. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, between 70 and 80 percent of enthusiasts take to the water each month during the summer as opposed to only 11 percent each month in the winter; fewer boats on the water may result in delayed rescue efforts, and consequently, increased fatalities.
To maximize boating safety during the winter months, boaters should take extra care to prepare. As always, wearing a life jacket is a boater’s first line of defense when it comes to accidents on the water. Besides simply keeping you afloat as it does in warm weather, a life jacket can save a boater from the instantaneous drowning that can occur as a result of an involuntary gasping reflex associated with cold water immersion. It also allows you to stay afloat with a minimum of expended energy- crucial to retaining body heat and warding off hypothermia. In the absence of warmer clothing, a life jacket even provides minimal protection against loss of heat by covering the trunk of the body.
Other tips for surviving the winter boating season:
- Never boat alone.
- Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.
- Don’t stand or move around in a small boat.
- Don’t overload your boat.
- File a float plan with a trusted individual so that someone knows where you are going and when you plan to return.
- Use the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (H.E.L.P.), or huddle with other boaters to retain heat, if you do end up in the water.
- Do not attempt to swim to shore unless there is no possibility of rescue, you are very close to shore, or the water is above 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated health care costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include always wear a life jacket and require passengers to do the same; never boat under the influence (BUI); successfully complete a boating safety course; and get a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons®, or your state boating agency’s vessel examiners.