As we move into January and the colder months, we normally think more about staying warm when fishing in the cold, windy weather. Also, since the Captain of a vessel is responsible for the safety of his/her vessel and the crew, all Captains should be giving some thought to the prevention of hypothermia. Hypothermia can pose a problem for boaters anytime of the year, but should be of greater concern to all Captains as we approach colder weather.
Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. As a Captain, have you ever thought about what a life jacket has in common with a blanket relative to hypothermia and safety in boating? Both can save your life when you are facing a major killer in aquatic mishaps such as hypothermia. As a result, you should carry both of these items on your boat. A life jacket is a federal and state requirement, but a blanket is not. However, all boaters should carry a blanker on board.
A life jacket, obviously, will keep you afloat, but can also help ward off hypothermia by trapping warmed water between it and your body. A blanket can help prevent hypothermia by reducing body heat loss. Most boaters do not have a full understanding of hypothermia and how it can impact them. Most people think of hypothermia as “freezing to death” or frost bite. Hypothermia can kill a person at temperatures well above freezing.
Hypothermia occurs most rapidly when your body is immersed in cold water but may occur at anytime especially in windy situations if your clothing is wet. In water at 50 degrees, the predicted time for survival is 1.5 to 3 hours. It can also occur in water as warm as 80 degrees if you are exposed for a long period of time. For instance, in70 to 80 degree water, a person may become exhausted or unconscious in as little as 2 to 12 hours with an expected time of survival of 3 plus hours. If you should fall overboard with a lifejacket on, do not exert yourself. Keep your arms at your side and your legs together to conserve heat.
If you find yourself in the water without a lifejacket conserving heat is even more important since you will have to keep yourself afloat. Do not try to swim, but exert as little effort as possible to float until rescued. An individual who falls overboard without a life jacket has virtually no chance of conserving heat loss. In fact, many individuals, who fall overboard, seem to lose the ability to climb back on board or to hang onto some craft of object, since there is a progressive decline in muscle strength following immersion in cold water. However, if possible, get out of the water as heat loss is less to cold air than to cold water. Always try to get out of the water.
A person’s body burns food to give it energy and maintain its temperature. When your body cools, blood moves from the surface area to the vital organs and you burn stored food to generate heat. Shivering is the first sign that your body is telling you that its temperature is below normal and action is required to correct the situation. If nothing is done, your body will begin a systematic shutdown. It is at this point; a blanket can be a lifesaver. A shivering person should be attended to immediately and dried if wet, removed from the wind and covered with a blanket and kept as warm as possible to conserve body heat.
If confronted with a hypothermic person, always remember that hypothermia is a serious medical problem. Make the person as comfortable as possible and seek medical help as soon as possible. If some distance from the shore, inform the Coast Guard by radio and they may send a medivac copter to remove the victim.
The best solution for hypothermia, however, is to prevent it by wearing protective gear, staying dry and out of the wind. Never go into a potentially hypothermic situation without having eaten a good meal and be aware that hypothermia can kill you. Exercise the necessary precautions to prevent hypothermia and continue to enjoy safe boating throughout the year.