Continuing the safety discussions from last month, this article will feature topics related specifically to cold water safety and survival. Here on Lake Michigan the cold water can be very dangerous well into June and beyond. Many of us have experienced a strong west wind in mid-summer where the air temperature is gorgeous and the water temperature is cold, proof that even at the peak of summer cold water can be a danger. Being prepared with appropriate clothing and wearing your lifejacket can be an issue of life or death, particularly in the early season.

It’s a great idea to wear your lifejacket at all times when on the water. Last month’s article discusses this topic in more detail, but the fundamental truth is wearing a lifejacket will greatly increase your chance of survival in all man overboard situations. Taking the time to find a comfortable lifejacket suited to your activity is important and eventually wearing your lifejacket on the water will become as second nature as putting on a seatbelt in the car.

Survival time in cold water is often longer than people think particularly if you’re wearing a lifejacket. Without your lifejacket you are at greater risk and we’ll talk about those risks later.

Approximate survival times based on water temperature:

cold temp chart.jpg

The greatest risk, beyond drowning of course, is hypothermia. Wearing a life jacket allows you to use survival positions that minimize heat loss. Swimming and treading water actually speed up heat loss as the cold water constantly flows over exposed areas of the body. The H.E.L.P. Position (Heat, Escape, Lessoning, Position) helps keep your body heat in and essentially involves condensing into a small area to help trap in your body heat.

HELP position.jpg

The Gasp Reflex or Inhalation Response is another important reason to wear your lifejacket while on cold water. The Gasp Reflex is an involuntary reaction to your body entering cold water. The Gasp Reflex has led to fatalities due to victims inhaling water and very quickly drowning. Lifejackets provide some level of protection as they keep your head near the surface even when jumping or falling into the water. The floatation of the lifejacket will also bring you back to the surface even if you are unable to yourself.

Beyond your lifejacket it is important to consider what gear to wear on the water. It is easier to dress for cold water when the air temperature is also cold, but when the air temperature is warm and the water still cold it can be more of a challenge. While there are no perfect answers, here are some general rules to follow.

-          Layers! Just like your mother taught you, when it’s cold wear layers that you can easily add or remove for comfort.

o   Modern Base Layers like Under Armour or other thermal wicking materials are great. Gill has a great base layer set that I love wearing! I wear them undershorts well into the summer when the water is cold, they provide some protection from the cold and added benefit of blocking the sun’s UV rays.

o   Middle Layers vary considerably, typically a fleece or softshell work great, wool is also a traditional choice as it will keep you warm when wet (but it’s heavy when wet!). Avoid cotton, denim, and other non-wicking fabrics as they will actually promote heat loss when out of the water.

o   Outer Layers are traditionally foul weather gear while sailing or fishing. These can be relatively light weight and designed for water repellant or larger heavier gear that helps provide warmth. It is important that this gear helps block the wind and keep the wearer dry. Hard shell winter jackets will serve this purpose well if you don’t want to invest in expensive foul weather gear!

o   Drysuits function by keeping you encapsulated in a waterproof suit. They have no thermal properties of their own so base and middle layers are important. Note: You will sweat in one of these and that water is trapped inside with you, it is essential that you wear proper base layers to help address this!

o   Wetsuits work well for small boat sailors, surfers, and others who know they are going to get wet. They come in a variety of thickness for various conditions. Surfers here on Lake Michigan are famous for their deep winter surfing and a high quality winter wetsuit can keep you warm in extreme conditions. Wetsuits are worn on their own with at most a rash guard underneath to prevent chafing. 

Other safety equipment such as survival suits are out there but less likely to be utilized in all but a few activities here on Lake Michigan.

Now is also an appropriate time to recommend doing man overboard drills each season with your crew regardless of how long you have been sailing together. A few years ago during a late May regatta the lifeline on a nearby boat broke and sent one of the crew into the cold water without a lifejacket, a quick and proper man overboard recovery got him out of the water in a matter of minutes. Practicing this is important and, yes, you can do a man overboard recovery with the spinnaker up but that is another topic. Practice this often and your crew will be all the safer!

A great video showing the effects of cold water immersion called Cold Water Boot Camp was put together about 10 years ago and is a great resource for understanding the effects on individuals:

As simply as it gets, when the water is cold: Dress appropriately and wear your lifejacket!