It’s mid-November and the waters in the Chesapeake have fallen below 60 F. This is the time of year when water sports turn deadly. Just this past month at least two Marylanders have died in what appear to be cold water immersion related accidents. One was a kayak fisherman, the other a SUP paddler off the coast of Ocean City. I use the term "accident" loosely. Obviously, no normal person plans to do something that will cause their own death. But from the information available, both of these deaths could have been prevented. People just don't seem realize that what they are doing can kill them. They believe that because they are a good swimmer, they don't need to wear a PDF. It won't happen this time - and then they hit a submerged stump and find themselves gasping and unable to keep their head above the water's surface. In the first death I mentioned, inappropriate attire appears to have been the main factor at play. Fishermen don't tend to wear expensive, brightly colored dry suits. Perhaps if someone made one in camo, they would. In the second, failure to listen to good advice given by other, more experienced individuals was a contributing factor. For whatever reason, these individuals were not adequately prepared for the conditions they would face on the day they chose to paddle and they paid a very costly price.
There are two common myths about cold water. The first is "if you are a good swimmer, you don't need a PDF." I can swim to shore, or I'm strong, I can get back into my kayak quickly. Wrong. The second is "hypothermia kills quickly." Again, wrong. The facts are you will not survive long enough in cold water to die from hypothermia unless you are wearing a PDF. You're most likely to drown within the first 10 minutes due to your loss of coordinated arm and leg movements. Yes, those things you use for swimming - the things that keep your airway above the water's surface. That PDF grants you an extra 50 minutes of life. The gift just may determine whether your body is rescued or recovered. It's your choice.
Right now you are asking yourself, "Why all the doom and gloom?" Believe me, I'm not usually a negative person. But on the topic of cold water, the facts are harsh; they are binomial - you will either live, or you will die - depending on how prepared you are. And staying alive isn't going to be easy. This winter, through early next spring, kayakers are going to die due to accidental cold water immersion. Despite all the information that is available to them; despite the warnings from peers, they will not be adequately prepared for the conditions they will encounter paddling. These deaths will have been preventable.
I urge you, if you plan to paddle between now and the next spring, please learn about how your body reacts to sudden cold water immersion and the things you can do to prevent or minimize these effects. The time you spend educating yourself may help save your life or that of someone else.
Cold Water Immersion Facts
There is a lot of information about cold water immersion on the Internet. It makes no sense to duplicate that material here. What I will say is that while many sites talk about what cold water does, the better sites will also tell you how you can blunt the most adverse of these from occurring. What you will be looking for is knowledge that you can apply to weight the odds of survival in your favor. Equally as important, in my opinion, is educating yourself about what to expect if you find yourself swimming. With this type of knowledge, you can make more informed decisions about what you need to do next. It will allow you to anticipate the sequence of events that commonly occur following cold water immersion. For example, it's best not to make critical decisions within the first 1-3 minutes, because of the mental confusion that can occur. Focus on keeping your head above water and your airway clear. That floundering your arms are doing will pass shortly. It's good to know that you will lose your fine motor control within the latter part of the first 10 minutes, and that if you haven't yet re-entered your kayak, it's time to make that radio call while you can still manipulate the controls. When should I resign to the fact that I will not be able to self-rescue? When is the proper time to decide between "should I swim to shore or stay with my kayak?" How long will I have to float before being rescued, and what can I do to prevent heat loss? Do you know what 1-10-1 refers to? If you cannot re-enter and find yourself in for the long haul, keep in mind that the average time for a USCG rescue is 247 minutes. Yes, you read that number correctly. Just over 4 hours.
All of what I have said above is meaningless unless you take the next step at this point and invest in a good dry suit. To be properly attired and prepared for cold weather/cold water conditions is expensive - I mean, seriously expensive. A good dry suit will cost you between $800 and $1500. That's more than I paid for my Tempest. The question you have to ask yourself is, "How much is my life worth?" I'm not aware of any cost-cutting shortcuts, unfortunately. When it comes to cold water garments you're paying for all those high-tech fabrics, zippers, and comfort.. Sometimes you can find used suits on EBay or Craigslist or one of the other kayak gear threads. But make sure you can return it if it doesn't fit or is now in proper condition. Wherever you look to outfit yourself properly - do so. Your life is worth the investment.
Cold Water Clinic
Last Sunday I had an opportunity to meet Mario Vittone and to hear him speak on cold water safety. Mario is a rescue swimmer for the USCG and one of the services leading experts on cold water immersion, swim failure, and hypothermia. He spoke in Annapolis at the Annapolis Canoe & Kayak Center; a presentation hosted by the Chesapeake Paddlers Association, Inc. Mario has participated in Cold Water Boot Camp USA and speaks first hand on the physiological events that unprotected exposures to cold water creates. His talk was fascinating. He is a gifted speaker. I cannot repeat his talk here, but I would like to direct you to two websites related to the topics of his presentation. Mario's personal website may be found here. The Cold Water Boot Camp USA website may be found at the highlighted link. Both contain a wealth of written information on cold water immersion, swim fatigue, hypothermia and all things related. Both sites also contain informative videos that show you what happens when you are exposed to cold. It's not pretty. I highly recommend both sites.
As part of Sunday's events, attendees were invited to bring their personal gear to test in a controlled environment. Participants donned their dry (or wet) suits and took a plunge into the 54 degree waters of the Chesapeake Bay to experience what cold water immersion feels like when properly attired. The event was supervised by members with previous experience in cold water survival techniques. It was an experience through which all of us learned. As you may expect, some two piece suits leaked and provided only initial protection. Some people forgot to completely dress and found out just how cold a dry suit can be when a zipper is left open. But most were satisfied that their attire will keep them reasonably comfortable and protect them against the cold until help arrives. Additional information about the event may be found on the CPA, Inc. Facebook page.
Please. Click onto Mario's website and the Cold Water Boot Camp site to learn more about how to protect yourself. Then test your knowledge about cold water exposure. The time you take may be a life saver.