Aug 24 2021 All Articles

Surviving in cold water

Surviving in cold water

Brrrr. That may well be your first reaction to the “surviving in cold water” heading. That, followed by a shiver of fear at the mere prospect. As with most things carrying the potential for danger, it pays to arm yourself with preventative knowledge.

Maritime NZ has a whole host of valuable information focused on techniques to assist with surviving the unthinkable – cold water immersion. That information covers taking precautions, what to do if you go overboard, how the body reacts to cold water, and how to improve your chances of survival.

If you are a person overboard here are some tips on improving your chances of survival:

  • Try not to panic. Panic can impair breathing and hasten the drowning process
  • If it’s possible to clamber on top of an overturned boat or any floating wreckage then do so – even if you feel colder out of the water. This is because in the water the body loses heat 20 to 30 times faster than it does in air
  • Don’t automatically attempt to swim for shore. When deciding to swim for it, consider: your swimming ability; the weakening effects of the cold and anxiety; and the huge overall heat loss that the swim will cause.  If in any doubt – stay with the boat
  • Adopt postures known for conserving heat and energy.

If you are on your own then:

  1. Hold your arms tight against the chest
  2. Press your thighs close together
  3. Raise up your knees to protect the groin region

If you are in a group then huddle. Do this by:

  1. Pressing the sides of the chests and lower torsos together
  2. Hugging around the lifejackets
  3. Intertwining legs as much as possible and talk to one another

If you are with children, then they should be sandwiched in the middle of the group as they succumb to the cold more quickly than adults.

  • If you need to enter the water, don’t strip off layers of clothing. A person wearing two layers of woollen clothing will lose less heat than a person wearing only a swimsuit. If possible, wear as many layers of wool as possible and cover yourself with a waterproof layer to help trap warmer layers of water closer to the body
  • Wear a good lifejacket, which will help to keep your head and airway clear of the water (even when your strength and mental capacity starts to wane). A good lifejacket will also make it easier to adopt the heat-loss reducing postures
  •  We’re often told to avoid alcohol when boating.  The overboard scenario provides another reason why - while alcohol may make you feel warm, it actually accelerates heat loss. It makes blood vessels dilate forcing blood closer to the skin.

The Maritime NZ site includes information on how the body reacts to cold. It tells us that while progressive loss of body heat can result in loss of consciousness and death, many victims perish much sooner when immersed suddenly in cold water. Cold shock can affect some, causing cardiac failure within a few minutes. Increased breathing rates can lead to dizziness, and the muscles cool rapidly. Immersion in cold water can cause such rapid loss of muscular function that in minutes a person loses the strength to board a raft or even operate a flare.

Sobering information, yes. But refer to the Maritime NZ information and take it on board to better arm yourself for survival.

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