Since it’s winter, let’s look at what happens in cold-water immersion. Cold-water immersion and hypothermia can occur any time in water as cool as 70 degrees. During the early months of the year, Lake Allatoona’s water temperature averages in the mid- to high 50s. Even on a warm, sunny day, a sudden fall into cold water can result in hypothermia in as little as 30 minutes and lead to a life-threatening situation in three to five minutes if you’re not wearing a life jacket. When immersed in cold water without a life jacket, most people die long before they become hypothermic.
If you find yourself in the water, stay calm and move slowly. Don’t try to take off clothing, as it can trap air and help keep your body afloat.
Hypothermia advances through three stages:
- Cold shock response (within three minutes of immersion): Gasping, hyperventilation and panic.
- Cold incapacitation (within 30 minutes): Cooling of arms and legs impairs sensation and function, regardless of swimming ability.
- Immersion hypothermia (after at least 30 minutes): Gradual cooling of the body’s core temperature eventually results in loss of useful consciousness.
Capsizing and swamping are the leading causes of cold-water immersion and often are caused by overloading or poorly secured or shifting loads, improper boat handling, loss of power or steering ability, anchoring from the stern, wrapping a line around a drive unit or taking a wave over the transom after a sudden stop.
If your boat has capsized, stay with it. More than likely, it won’t sink and can be used as a platform, so pull yourself on top of it as much as possible.
Falling overboard is another leading cause of immersion and often is due to slipping, losing your balance when standing, moving around or reaching for objects in the water.
Cold-water immersion is a fight for survival. The 1-10-1 Principle may save your life if you’re wearing a life jacket:
- One minute – Get breathing under control.
- 10 minutes (or more) – Meaningful activity: assess the situation and plan; prioritize and perform the most important functions first, such as locating other party members; self-rescue; emergency communication and signaling.
- One hour (or more) – Useful consciousness: focus on slowing heat loss, use a communication device (hand-held waterproof marine VHF radio, cellphone in a waterproof case) and/or emergency signaling devices (locator beacon, whistle, mirror, small flares), which every boater should carry on his/her person.
Always wear a life jacket in an open boat or on an open deck. Trying to put on your life jacket in cold water is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and costs precious time and energy. And always be realistic about your abilities and the circumstances, especially considering the coldness of the weather and the water.
– Greg Fonzeno is the public education officer and commander of the local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Unit (Flotilla 22) at Allatoona Lake.