Staying Alive in Cold Water

They claim that it is impossible to die from hypothermia in cold water unless you are wearing a PFD, because without flotation, you’ll simply drown.


Just because it’s winter and the water is cold doesn’t mean that paddlers don’t go boating.  But, if you do, it is essential that you are prepared to live if you go into the water.  For example, a Navy SEAL died recently when his boat flipped while paddling by himself in the Chesapeake Bay. With all his training, experience and the fact that he was from North Dakota, it  makes you wonder how that is even possible, but overconfidence has killed many a person.



20% of cold water deaths are within minutes.

People who fall into cold water unexpectedly often panic.  If you aren’t wearing a personal floating device (PFD) that keeps your head above water, you will likely gulp water and the shock can trigger a heart attack.   Surviving this stage is about getting your panic and breathing under control.  You lose body heat four times faster than you can replace it in Flatwater, and 40 times faster in fast moving water.


50% of the deaths occur because of not wearing a PFD

Sudden immersion into cold water causes the veins in your extremities to constrict, which restricts blood flow to vital organs and you can’t control your muscles.  Within minutes you won’t be able to tread water, swim, or pull yourself out of the water.


If you can stay afloat with your PFD, you have an hour before possibly dying from hypothermia in most cases.   If you do suffer from hypothermia you need to be checked by a doctor, as your body will be going through many changes, including heart rate fluctuations until you get back up to normal body temperature.


In addition to wearing a PDF, you should dress for a swim.  Wear a wet or dry suit in cold weather.  In milder weather, wear at least non-cotton clothing, as cotton absorbs a lot of water and is not quick drying.


TVCC Promotes Safety with trained Cruise Masters

I have been asked what I would have done if someone swam during our recent cold water paddle to view Sandhill Cranes.  I don’t claim to be an expert, so this is just what I would have done on a Flatwater paddle close to shore like we did last week.  Please note, this information does not apply in a current or for ocean paddling without taking further precautions.


Any self or assisted water rescue when a boat flips is difficult, tiring, and time consuming.    It’s much worse when the swimmer has layers of water soaked clothes, and the cold water affects your muscles so that you have no coordination or strength.  So, if you’re going to be paddling further than 140 feet from the bank in cold water conditions you should always wear a wet or dry suit.


In cold water, if someone flipped I’d forget about trying to get them back into their boat and get them to shore ASAP.  My plan is to use the throw ropes that the whitewater paddlers use to rescue swimmers in rapids in reverse.  Instead of holding the rope at the top end of the bag and then throwing the whole bag I hook the bottom of the bag behind my seat.  Check out paddle school in June for how to hold a rope if you are being rescued.

Towing a person who is upright in the water is very hard, slow, and tiring. By hooking them to a throw rope I’m not actually pulling them.  The rope just unwinds from the bag, and when I get to shore I just reel them in.  Since there is only 70 feet of rope in a bag I have two bags hooked in tandem to give me 140 feet.


I carry extra dry clothes as it is important to get the swimmer changed if possible.


If temperatures and the situation allows, such as during warmer weather, you can also rescue the boat.  First, flip the boat over if possible, get the water out of the boat, hook the carabiner from the top of the bag onto the front of their boat, have the swimmer hold onto the back of their boat and paddle as fast as possible to the nearest land.  This should be done with their boat far enough back to avoid interfering with your paddling and prevent the swimmer from holding on to your deck rigging.   You should also know how to roll your own boat back up.


If you are paddling by yourself (which I don’t recommend) in warm water (you can’t swim in cold water) I still recommend staying close to the bank and hooking a throw rope to your front carry handle, as in my second photo. If you flip your boat, try to get the boat right side up if possible, and then hook the rope around your upper arm and swim to the bank.    This way you don’t have to hold onto your boat and you don’t have to drag it. Just reel it in when you get to land.

A quick release belt should be used by the rescue boater, or at least have the carabiner where you can reach it for an emergency release.


Never tie a rope to yourself. Keep a knife handy whenever you’re working with rope.


Happy and Safe paddling,




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