Despite the cold weather, there are some avid kayakers and paddlers who refuse to let the temperature stop them from enjoying their beloved sport. And for those new to the sport or those who received a kayak or canoe for a holiday gift and are dying to test it out, beware of the cold water.
BoatUS, the national boat owner’s association with over a half-million members, says you should wear thermal protection be it a dry or wetsuit while paddling. They say a long-assumed guideline that is meant to help paddlers make the right decision is sometimes known as the “120-degree rule,” however it may instead put paddlers in danger.
The 120-degree rule is a formula that adds together the air and water temperatures to determine when thermal protection is needed. It assumes that the total is above 120 F, so no dry or wetsuit is needed.
“Using this simple formula, a paddler could mistakenly believe that if air temperature is in the low 70s (which it isn’t in January) and water temperature is hovering around the low 50s, that thermal protection is not needed,” said Ted Sensenbrenner, BoatUS Boating Safety director. “That could not be father from the truth.”
Sensenbrenner says that warm fall, winter, spring days give paddlers a false sense of security. “Water temps that have plunged, but the warm sun on your face hides the reality that accidently going overboard during these chilly times could quickly lead to trouble.”
According to BoatUS research, sudden cold-water immersion can kill in several ways: involuntary gasp reflex and hyperventilation, cold incapacitation, and immersion hypothermia. And not wearing a life jacket compounds the risk of drowning.
So you may recognize them, here are the four stages of cold water immersion that can lead to hypothermia, according to BoatUS.
Cold Shock: Falling into cold water provokes an immediate gasp reflex. If your head is underwater, you’d inhale water instead of air and it’s unlikely you’ll resurface if you’re not wearing a life jacket (PFD). Initial shock can cause panic, hyperventilation and increased heart rate leading to a heart-attack. This stage, says BoatUS, lasts 3-5 minutes and at this point you should concentrate on staying afloat with your head above water.
Swimming Failure: In just 3-30 minutes, the body will experience swimming failure. Due to loss of muscle coordination, swimming becomes a struggle and the body tends to go more vertical in the water making any forward movement difficult. That’s why it’s not recommended to swim for help, but remain with the kayak/canoe or something that floats while keeping your head above water while awaiting rescue. In this regard, it’s always advisable to paddle with a partner if possible.
Hypothermia: True hypothermia sets in after about 30 minutes. Most victims never make it to this stage since 75 percent of individuals succumb and die in the earlier stages or cold water immersion. At this stage, regardless of your body type, size, insulation of clothing, acclimatization and other factors, your body’s core temperature gets dangerously low. Your survival chances are greatly lessened at this stage. Victims are usually rendered unconscious in this stage.
Post Rescue Collapse: A rescued victim must be handled very carefully. When a person is removed from cold water, the body will react to the surrounding air and the body position. Blood pressure often drops, inhaled water can damage the lungs and heart problems can develop as cold blood for the extremities is released into the body core. Proper medical attention is essential to re-warm the body safely.
So if you are going afloat during these cold days, heed these factors and take appropriate measures to not become a victim.
Nick Hromiak has been an outdoors and automotive writer for over 30 years. He's been published in numerous national and state-wide outdoor magazines and newspapers.