Boating in Canada Archive

Hypothermia Discussion

The following messages were from a discussion in the can.rec.boating newsgroup (quoted text deleted for brevity). The information posted is not represented as the absolute truth on this subject. See Preventing Drowning in cold water on our boating statistics page.

Subject: Close Call with Hypothermia
Date: 24 to 25 Feb 2003


From: Lloyd Sumpter <lsumpter@shaw.ca>

My Lady decided she didn't like trolling, so I let her off with Near Cove at Round Island to set a crabtrap and try bottom-fishing. Trouble is, although the weather forecast said gale-force outflows, there was a 10-knot inflow, which blew right into the bay she was in. By the time I picked her up, there was a 1-2ft chop in the bay, and she was tired of rowing and was tied to one of the mooring bouys. I hooked her up and towed her out to clear water, then she tried to get back into Far Cove (like she's done many times before!). Halfway out, the dinghy moved away ...st-re--ch...sploosh! Into the freezing water, with a VERY heavy wool coat. She kept hold of the dinghy, and got out in about 30 seconds (didn't even get her shoulders wet!) But the coat was soaked.

Fortunately, I have spare pants, socks, sweaters, jackets, etc. in FarCove, so off came all the wet stuff. She insisted she was not even cold,so I didn't start the heater. Unfortunately, 3 hrs later, she was cold,and by the time I started the heater, she was quite cold (not dangerouslyso, but uncomfortable). Once back at the dock (by then the sun had set andit was about 1 deg. outside, but cabin was toasty!), she made a bee-linefor the van, and by the time I got there, it was a sauna. She was stillcold all evening, but fine now.

Lessons:
1. you can ALWAYS fall overboard!
2. ALWAYS have spare clothing and blankets aboard
3. Start the heater BEFORE you get cold
4. Hypothermia is sneaky - be careful! Don't believe the victim.

Lloyd Sumpter
"Far Cove" Catalina 36
"Near Cove" Walker Bay 8


From: WayneB <WayneBatRecDotBoats@hotmail.com >

Maintaining contact with the boat is important of course but incold water people quickly lose muscle control and the abilityto hold on. Once that happens, only a PFD and quick rescuecan save you.


From: Capt. Mooron <overproof@mooron.ca>
> Why anyone chooses to go out for recreational purposes in freezing waters is beyond me.

With that mentality nobody in Yellowknife would go sailing ... let alone live aboard for 10 years. Cold is a matter of perspective. Respect your element. I have swam in water that was 5c. ... The Yellowknife Coastguard Aux. considers even full Mustang Floater Suits as only good enough to keep the bodies afloat for retrieval. If you hit your head while falling overboard... water temperature is not the primary cause of death. It may even assist in revival due to Mammalian Cold Water Reflex. PFD in cold water.... Ha Ha Ha Ha! Good for about one minute.


From: Lloyd Sumpter <lsumpter@shaw.ca>

I appreciate your attitude, and thank you. I agree that a floater-coatwould have been better. A PFD would be VERY hard to wear over the coat. If she had been in the water any lengh of time, or there was enough room (she was in the water between the stern and the dinghy - there wasn't room to fit the lifering!), I would have thrown her a lifejacket AND the lifering.

MY "attempt at education" is to quell the knee-jerk, solve-everything answer of the PFD. It is NOT the Universal Guaranteed-to-save-you panacea that some people seem to think it is. Especially when single-handing, all a PFD does is make your death-struggle last a while longer. A harness is WAY more important.

My other attempt at education was to warn others of the errors I did make (like underestimating hypothermia) and pointing out the "safety equipment" I DID have (change of clothes, blankets, hot soup, heater...) and how important they can be. I know everyone as PFDs aboard - do they have clothes, blankets, etc.?

And in this case, maintaining contact with the boat was the primary issue (there was no way she could have "hit her head" here - we're talking a slow descent into the water, finally making the choice of going in rather than trying to hang between the boat and dinghy.)

As for the "made an error" - yes, several. The main one being I didn't start the heater right away. Another was that I didn't stop the boat completely while she was climbing aboard. I STILL don't think that not wearing a PFD (but having one handy) was an error.


From: "Capt. Mooron" <overproof@mooron.ca>

Well put Lloyd. I agree totally with your newfound discoveries on the after effects of hypothermia. I have lived in the Arctic and have been subject to Hypothermia situations on numerous occasions. It will kill slowly. Shivering is a good sign... ambivalence to warmth is a bad sign. Heat the core not the extremities. Warm slowly. Application of heat too quickly can kill a hypothermia victim in seconds. I suggest a floater suit in occasions where you find yourself in ice cold water. Standard jacket type PFD's are useless.


From: DS King <doug888@bellsouth.net>

Lloyd Sumpter wrote:
> If she had been in the water any lengh of time, or there was enough room (she was in the water between the stern and the dinghy - there wasn't room to fit the lifering!), I would have thrown her a lifejacket AND the lifering.

Not sure that would have helped. Some of the serious issues with hypothermia, I haven't seen anybody address yet. For example, when a person falls into freezing water it is quite common for cold shock to drive the breath out of them. Other effects are severe cramp, sometimes it brings on cardiac arrest. I wouldn't count on a victim being able to grab & hold a life ring.

> MY "attempt at education" is to quell the knee-jerk, solve-everything answer of the PFD. It is NOT the Universal Guaranteed-to-save-you panacea that some people seem to think it is.

Agreed. Fishermen say the letters stand for 'Person Found Dead.' However, floating *is* better than sinking.

> Especially when single-handing, all a PFD does is make your death-struggle last a while longer. A harness is WAY more important.

Agreed, but you can't use a harness & dinghy in to shore at the same time ;)

You mention that the victim insisted she was warm at first, this is not uncommon for hypothermia. It doesn't feel like anything is wrong. But it can be dangerous. One bad sign is if the person is slurring words or having difficulty with cognitive tasks. Capt. Mooron mentioned that shivering is good, and that it is bad to warm up a hypothermia victim too rapidly.... both correct. Drinking warm fluids and breathing warm air are the two best ways, however if the victim has clammy limbs with poor circulation, it is important to NOT rub the extremities or try to restore circulation. That sends chilled blood to the heart and can lead to cardiac arrest. Now might be a good time to mention that alcohol is bad for hypothermia, despite it's reputation as anti freeze.

Anyone who goes out in boats should know about hypothermia, as you can die of it in water that is quite warm. It's just that it takes less time when the water is cold!


Subject:
Re: Close Call with Hypothermia
From: "Charles T. Low" <ctlow@boatUNdocking.com>

I'm not experienced enough with cold-weather/water boating to be able to pontificate. Your answers all seem very reasoned.
A few things arise anew:

- not stopping the boat. When the "authorities" retrieve a "victim" into a boat, they often not only stop the boat but turn off the engine. I think the idea is to have redundant safety concerning no spinning props near anyone in the water. Of course, these are power boats - your propeller may be so far away from the stern that it's different, but I've never heard anyone comment on that.

- PFD's - my closest experience about this was helping a sailboater tie up after a long day's passage (under power) on a cold, windy, rainy day, just a few degrees above freezing, and commiserating with him about how awful it must have been. "Oh, no," he exclaimed jovially, "I'm with the Coast Guard Search and Rescue, so I'm all outfitted for this! I'm warm and dry, and feeling great!"

He was wearing distinctly unofficial-looking garments, something like a heavy sweater under a winter ski jacket under a rain shell - and over top of all that was a standard, blah, PFD - its adjustment straps right out to full length.

And I know two separate stories of people who have been dumped into very cold water, for over an hour on one occasion, and didn't even get cold -they were wearing layer upon layer of clothing (one was floating in an inner tube! - long story), and I guess more or less had inadvertently constructed their own wet suits. Sounds a lot better than the "floater coat" scenario one hears described.

Anyway, I'm still really puzzled about the no-PFD thing being OK. It seems to me you can get severely disabled and damaged by hypothermia, with or without drowning. With a PFD, your chances of drowning are significantly less. I think the chances of recovering from the hypothermia are better if you haven't drowned <irony>. Am I missing something?

All of your other points are very well taken.

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