Tips for boating in cold weather
One of the best things about boating in cold weather is having the whole watery world to yourself. Gone are the droves of boats, personal watercraft and crisscrossed wakes. Boating takes on a tranquility and stark beauty you won’t find in summer, but with that beauty comes added responsibility and the need to prepare for unexpected hazards.
Being prepared will increase your enjoyment of boating in cold weather. Staying warm is key, and more warmth is always better. If you think one sweater will keep you comfortable, bring two. Think tennis shoes will keep your toes toasty? Bring winter boots. Dress in layers so you can add or subtract clothes as conditions dictate. You’ll also want to be prepared for sun, rain, wind and even snow (in some locations). Weather can change on a dime, and when it does, the changes can be dramatic; think temperature swings of 30 degrees in a single day.
Because winter water temperatures aren’t exactly balmy, I recommend wearing a life jacket. In addition to saving your bacon if you go overboard, a life jacket provides thermal insulation for your core, and a warm core helps keep all your parts and pieces toasty.
It’s one thing to rush 30 yards into the frigid surf with hundreds of other likeminded people in an organized and controlled environment but quite another to find yourself unexpectedly treading water after an accident. Your tranquil voyage has now become a possible life-or-death situation.
When immersed in water 50 degrees or cooler, you only have around 15 to 20 minutes until your core temperature—the temperature of your internal organs—starts dropping. To protect itself, your body directs blood flow to the core, causing numbness in your hands and feet. Your blood thickens as it cools, putting stress on your heart. You are now experiencing hypothermia. When your core temperature drops below 90 degrees, you will lose consciousness.
Here’s what happens to your body in 50-degree water:
0 to 5 Seconds: Gasp reflex. You’ll immediately suck in air or, if your head is submerged, two to three quarts of water.
3 to 5 Minutes: You start to hyperventilate, and your heart rate accelerates. Panic sets in.
3 to 30 Minutes: You lose feeling and dexterity in your extremities, hampering your ability to swim.
10 to 30 Minutes: Rising blood pressure causes your kidneys to purge fluids; you have to urinate, which promotes dehydration.
15 to 20 Minutes: Your core temperature starts to cool.
30 Minutes: True hypothermia sets in. You become disoriented and start to hallucinate.
Before you go boating in cold weather, take a few precautionary steps.
File a float plan and follow it. Leave as detailed a plan as possible with your spouse, a relative or a friend, and tell them you will check in when you get back to land. If they don’t hear from you, they’ll know to call for help and where to send rescuers.
Dress for the water, not the weather. One of the biggest mistakes people make is dressing for the air temperature. Sometimes you get those 60-degree days, but the water temperature is still in the 40s. Water can sap your body heat 25 times faster than air can, so protect yourself from possible immersion, no matter how warm it feels outside. Also, wearing a wetsuit couldn’t hurt.
Cotton kills. Cotton is one of the worst things you can wear when it’s cold and damp. It absorbs water and reduces body temperature much more quickly than other materials. Wear water-resistant fabrics and layers that wick away moisture as well as a waterproof outer layer.
Prepare for the worst. Prepare for an emergency by bringing supplies such as blankets, food, water, warm clothes and communication and location devices, including a VHF radio, GPS and emergency position-indicating radio beacon or personal locator beacon. Don’t rely on a cellphone, but if you bring it, keep it dry, and preprogram rescue numbers.
Have a fire drill. Where’s the ladder, the throwable life preserver, the ditch bag, the VHF radio? Go over the exact location of all key safety gear before leaving the dock. If you’re boating with a friend, discuss how to make emergency calls and who’s going to do what if someone falls overboard.
Life jackets for all. The first thing you lose in cold water is the ability to swim and stay afloat, and the number one way to prevent disaster on the water is to wear a life jacket. It can increase the odds of survival in cold water by hours. Wearing one should become second nature, like putting on a seat belt in a car.
One hand for the boat. When boating in cold weather, one thing you should keep tabs on is a loss of dexterity. Fingers exposed to cold air get stiff, making it harder to perform fine-motor tasks like tying a knot, opening a latch, or pressing buttons on a cellphone, radio or other electronics. When your feet are cold, it’s harder to maintain balance, and bundling up can make you bulkier and less nimble than usual. Always have one hand on a grab rail for support when walking around on deck or along the rails.
Manage the risks. Too many people equate boating with driving a car, but if something goes wrong, you can’t just pull over. Monitor the weather at all times. At the first hint of bad conditions, start evaluating whether it’s time to return to the dock. Know your boat’s capabilities and what types of sea conditions it can handle. Sometimes it’s better to just go home.
With proper monitoring, careful planning and a sound understanding of the potential dangers of boating in cold-water conditions, you can safely enjoy the solitude of the great outdoors. –Al Ponzio
This article was originally published in Anchor Watch, newsletter of Annapolis Sail & Power Squadron/5.