The average temperature of Puget Sound in January is 45 degrees, not the most pleasant swimming weather. Check back in July and the average temperature is 51 degrees, though you might a find a shallow bay or two at a whopping 55 degrees. Wow, you say, just like Hawaii. Not quite. The average water temperature in Hawaii is 77 degrees, more than a 20-degree difference. In fact, it can be the difference between life and death for boaters in the Northwest.
The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is hypothermia. If we swim in cold water, get stuck on a snowy mountainside, or get lost in a late Autumn rain storm, we’re at risk of developing hypothermia. Most boaters are aware of hypothermia, the lowering of our core body temperature that, when left untreated can lead to death. If we fall off our boat, our first concern would be getting out as quickly as possible, because we’d be thinking that we wouldn’t want to induce hypothermia. We’d be wrong.
In ‘man overboard’ situations, we should be more concerned about Cold Shock, it’s far deadlier, and often leaves us without self-recovery options.
“If you are lucky enough to survive long enough to die of hypothermia, you have done very well; most die in the first minute of immersion,” according to Mike Tipton, one of the authors of Essentials of Sea Survival. Many coroners have mistakenly attributed drowning as the cause of death in water-related accidents, when in fact, it was Cold Shock.
As mentioned earlier, Puget Sound waters are extremely cold. Your body’s first reaction to sudden immersion in cold water is to instinctively suck in air. You can’t control it. The problem is that if this happens while you’re completely submerged, you suck in water instead of air. You won’t be able to swim, yell for help, or even raise your arms.
So how do you prevent this? Start by wearing a life jacket. How many time do we need to say it? Your life jacket will help keep your head out of the water and even provide some insulation for critical organs, at least for a few moments, giving your body time to adjust to the new temperature and thus, avoiding Cold Shock.
Some new research has indicated that people who don’t wear life jackets are under the false assumption that if they are strong swimmers, a life jacket is simply an annoying encumbrance. Others have stated that they can rely on their crew to get them out of the water. In the first instance, the boater is simply mistaken. If you experience cold shock, it won’t matter how strong you are. You simply won’t be able to get oxygen to your muscles because your lungs would be full of water. The latter reason is simply irresponsible. With that kind of mindset, you are putting your fellow crewmembers in unnecessary danger if an overboard situation occurs. Knowingly putting your crew at risk could be considered very close to criminal negligence.
So you can ignore this warning if you choose. You can muse about hypothermia if you want, envision yourself warming up in a wool blanket and sipping hot chocolate once you’re out of the water. That isn’t going to happen if Cold Shock greets you first. An accident can happen at any time. They’re never planned. Think about Cold Shock before you take your involuntary plunge. Wear a life jacket! – Gary Bryant