When you start researching cold water safety, stark statements come to the surface that are enough to freeze you in your tracks—all puns intended. The coldwatersafety.org site jumps straight in with a strong warning on its opening page:
“Cold water preys on the unsuspecting, the unwary, and the careless, but it also lurks offshore, waiting patiently for those with plenty of experience who don't take it seriously.”
As interest in chasing endorphins beyond the shoreline grows, as gear becomes more technically advanced in its design and function of keeping us warm and dry, and as our desire to extend our water adventure season expands, it’s about time we took a minute to stop, pause, and ask an important question: are we really prepared?
Chances are the general population heading out onto the water would trust their safety skills in fair temperatures. And, assume that those ‘abilities’ and insights could keep them safe—and alive—once the seasons shift and the water temperatures drop.
But in the case of cold water, it’s a whole different ball game.
One that asks marine-goers to do an honest assessment and consider if they really know what to do should the worst case happen. Better yet, how to prevent it from ever happening in the first place.
We spoke with both local British Columbia Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (RCMSAR) and Mustang Survival’s Wendell Uglene—an expert on cold water survival and safety—to understand the common mistakes people make when interacting with cold water, and gather some sound safety tips aimed at setting any adventurer up for success when they venture out onto cold water.
So, before you grab your rod and reel or your paddle board and new dry suit, settle in and take a few minutes (possibly with a warm brew of choice) and learn from the experts on how to make the most of your time on colder waters; keeping your safety, and the safety of everyone you’re with top of mind, and seasonally sound.
The Cold, Hard Facts
There’s no gentle way to put this:
Cold water can kill you in less than a minute. It’s called Cold Shock - and it’s our body’s natural response to submersion in freezing waters.
The highest risk here? Inhaling water as your breath rate increases - and drowning. This can happen in any kind of water - even when it’s flat and calm and even if you’re a confident swimmer.
If you survive the cold shock phase, the threat shifts to physical incapacitation. It’s quite possible to lose the ability to use your hands in 60 seconds, and the use of your arms in minutes. The Baby It’s Cold Outside (BICO) website breaks down 1 - 10 - 1 as a general rule of thumb to know the time markers for certain stages of cold exposure, and the implications of extended time in the water - inclusive of Hypothermia - which can have lasting effects should you survive it.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make around cold water is they mentally compare the water temperature to that of air, and it’s very different”, says Wendell Uglene.
“Water takes heat away from your body 26 times faster than air. People should be aware of hypothermia and its symptoms and how to help themselves.”
While a PFD should always be on your body (not just on board) in any waters, it becomes a pivotal piece of survival equipment in cold water scenarios. And, treat any water below 70F/ 21C with caution and have a protective layer on; a dry suit along with your PFD, or a thermal flotation layer.
Staying Safe Around Cold Water
Mustang Survival’s resident cold water expert offered up these tips for how to stay safe in cold water scenarios. The crucial piece: your gear. It can save your life.
Have a foam vest or jacket as your outermost layer. This will help keep your head above water and allow you time to regulate your breathing in the first minute should the worst case happen.
A 2-piece system—like a flotation jacket & bibs—is great for ice fishing; offering both warmth and flotation protection.
A foam life vest is the most robust system for cold water. It’s easier to maneuver out of water while wearing it, you don’t need the dexterity to manually inflate it and it won’t freeze up as it doesn’t hold the water as much. And, it acts as a warmth layer.
If you wear an inflatable PFD, make sure you wear it over your float coat or jacket. To work properly it must be on the outside of your coat.
Protect your skin against the cold by acting as a layer to slow the loss of your body heat and helping to prevent the onset of hypothermia.
PSA: know your gear. Wendell reminds that a leak in a dry suit, in the cold, could kill you. Slow down and take the time before you head out to check and service your gear properly, addressing ‘small’ issues with heightened attention.
Know the conditions. Know the environment. Know your ice
Know how to read it and measure it! Know your boating conditions, know the weather, and let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.
“Some of the most common mistakes people make is underestimating the weather and overestimating their ability,” explains Rob Walter, Deputy Station Leader from RCMSAR Squamish Station 04. “Local knowledge is key in route planning and predicting weather patterns.”
Remember, just because it’s flat, calm and sunny when you decide to head out on your paddle adventure, doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way. Winds pick up fast and if you find you’re suddenly paddling into them to get back, this can create trouble if you’re not prepared.
Before we part, here’s two myths that need some cold-water-debunking:
I’m a good swimmer - I’m tough
Maybe you are. But a solid breast stroke and the attitude of toughness doesn’t help you in cold water.
Swimming failure starts after as little as 10 minutes as your muscles begin to seize up. And, that’s if you got past the cold shock phase.
Even the most confident swimmers need the gear, and attitude of respecting cold water and a healthy amount of fear when they leave shore in colder months.
Another attitude that won’t work? “It won’t happen to me attitude”.
Of course it won’t, until it does.
No one heads out expecting the worst – that’s why planning and prevention are the keys to staying safe, and coming home alive.
One final word of advice from Mustang Survival cold water safety expert of over 30 years, Wendell Uglene – #wearit.
“I can’t say this enough to people: wear your PFD or float coat. It won’t help you if you aren’t wearing it!”
Photos courtesy of: