Two minutes – that’s about all the time people have before they lose their ability to move their muscles and save themselves if they fall out of a boat or kayak into cold spring water.
“This time of the year is particularly dangerous for water fans anxious to enjoy boating, fishing and kayaking soon after the ice melts,” said Roy Zellmer, conservation warden and boating safety administrator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “An important thing everyone who enjoys Wisconsin’s rivers and lakes must remember is this: the water temperature does not rise as fast as spring temperatures.”
And, Zellmer adds, someone’s chances of survival of an early season boat flip into icy waters get even worse if they failed to wear a life jacket.
A real-life reminder occurred at 6:30 a.m. on April 19 when four anglers were dumped into Lake Michigan as their boat capsized in waters just north of Algoma in Kewaunee County. The four were rescued by another fishing vessel and taken to a nearby hospital to be treated for hypothermia. Marine Warden David Allen, who says the boat has since washed up on shore, is handling the investigation.
Zellmer says hypothermia can occur when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees. “The loss of body heat results in loss of dexterity, loss of consciousness and eventually loss of life,” Zellmer says. “Water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air.
Boaters can take these steps to ensure their safety to have a safe time boating in cold water:
- Always wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. You can float without using energy and they cover part of your body thereby providing some protection from the cold water.
- Avoid alcohol. Most hospitalized hypothermia cases involve alcohol. Alcohol impairs judgment and inhibits the body’s normal shivering trigger—denying the body its most effective heat producing response.
- Stay low in the boat, don’t stand or move around unless necessary. Capsizing and falling overboard is often due to a victim losing balance or tripping over equipment in the boat. Never allow passengers to ride on gunwales or seatbacks or outside of protective railings, including the front of a pontoon boat. A sudden turn, stop or start could cause a fall overboard.
- Do not overload a boat.
- Avoid sudden changes in boat speed which can allow the stern wake to overtake and swamp the boat.
- Tell someone where you are going and when you will return.
- Plan what to do if you should fall in.
Zellmer says the physical shock of cold water can cause cardiac arrest or cold-induced gasping.
“If your mouth is underwater when this gasp occurs, drowning is the most probable outcome,” he says. “If you know you are about to fall into cold water, cover your face with your hands. This helps you to avoid gasping water into your lungs.
“If you do fall in, get back in the boat if possible. The more of your body that is out of the water — on top of an over-turned boat or anything that floats — the less heat you will lose. See professional medical care as soon as possible even if the victim has seemingly made a complete recovery.”
If someone is not able to get back in a boat, they should limit body movement, and not swim unless they can reach a nearby boat or floating object. Swimming lowers your body temperature and even good swimmers can drown in cold water.
Instead, Zellmer says people should “assume the heat-escape-lessening-position” (H.E.L.P.). Begin by crossing your ankles, then cross your arms over your chest, draw your knees to your chest, lean back and try to relax.
For more information search the DNR website for “boat safety.”
Logo courtesy Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources