When the Chill of Death Comes Creeping

By Tom Neale, 10/1/2008


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Tom suits up to work on Chez Nous bottom. 3 layers over torso.

Like the hardheaded fool I am, I took off on my windsurfer into the teeth of the cold front.  The year was well into its fall season and the water was nicely chilled, but I didn’t plan to stay in it very much.  The front was a serious one with temperatures slated to drop into the lower 40s that night. The northwest wind was a perfect direction for launching and sailing. I knew the season was coming to an end until I could get “Chez Nous” and her assortment of toys south, so I rigged up, put on a light weight wet suit and flew off into the open water and wind.

Sailing on a board is, to me, the most perfect form of sailing. To me, it’s also the most perfect way to fuse with nature. Others will disagree, particularly surfers, but we all have our passions. It’s also a great thing to do if you’re cruising. You can carry your board, sails and gear with you and launch from your boat, whether it’s a sailboat or power boat. It can be much tougher launching from a boat than from a beach, particularly when it comes to putting your rig away, but if you want it bad enough, you figure it out and get your technique down. My technique was down, my sail was up, I was hooked in with my harness, laying back against the wind and flying.  Life was incredibly good.

Until the first catapult.  I’m by no means a good windsurfer.  I take my falls. And my overhead flights.  On this day, as I raced out from the lee of the shore, the chop picked up, which was fun. But then I got a little too confident and the nose of my Mistral flicked under a wave. With about 25 knots of breeze in the sail, the board tried to keep on going but, tripped by the wave, flipped instead, its stern snapping up and over in a summersault.  The mast and boom whipped forward, and I was harnessed to the boom. The quick action catapulted me through the air, flying like a splayed dead duck, finally crashing into the water ahead. Been there done that, I thought.

I checked everything out (including my bones) and found that all was reasonably intact. I got up again, but with much more difficulty than before because of the chop and the wind.  I should have been doing water starts where you essentially put your back to the wind, position your feet on the board, and let the wind pull you up. But I never mastered that well enough to do it in those conditions. This made it even harder to get going again.

Head Cover is important when its cold.

Which is why, when I found myself catapulting through the air a few minutes later, I wasn’t quite as happy about it. The third time I went into the water unexpectedly was when I was leaning back against the wind, thinking “This is perfect,” and the gust immediately quit. Where before, a solid bank of cold air was holding me up, all of a sudden there was nothing, as I sank ignominiously into the cold water.  I’m accustomed to doing things ignominiously while on my board (and lots of other times) so I just crawled up on the board and started to get the rig up again. It was much harder this time. I should have gotten a clue. But I was having too much fun. And something else was going on.

The falls increased, over and over again, every which way, with every “excuse” imaginable. I kept going into the cold water and then racing off again in the colder wind. “It’s OK, I thought, I’ve got this wetsuit on.”  And then came the dump that I couldn’t quite recover from.  I found myself sitting on the board, shivering, unable to get going again. It takes strength to get the sail up, whether you’re using a water start or the more elementary way of pulling the sail out of the water yourself.  And my strength wasn’t there anymore.


1. Go to www.boatus.com and type the word “hypothermia” into the search box in the upper right corner of the home page. It’ll bring up a lot of information about the issue, including how it can affect you and things to do. It’s a good start in your familiarization with this problem.

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I’d been having a lot of fun and was far from “Chez Nous.” I looked back and couldn’t even see her, across the river and around a bend. Not good.  “More than not good,” I thought, “stupid.”  I knew I’d just have to get going again and get back. I always had before.  But something wasn’t working right. Actually a lot of things didn’t seem to be working right.

I simply didn’t have the strength to get the sail up, no matter what tactic I used. And a few times when the gusts dropped out for a moment, I’d get the sail up, but I’d then topple right over. I couldn’t keep my balance.  So I sat there, trying to figure out what to do and, more than that, trying to figure out what was going on. I couldn’t seem to “figure” anymore. After awhile I had to admit that I was confused. Now it isn’t a really big deal for me to be confused, but this was far more than my normal customary state of confusion.  I couldn’t think well. And I was getting weaker and weaker.  I lay down on the board, but the water was lapping over me and chilling me even under the wet suit. When I sat up the cold wind was doing a number on me.  I tried to sit and huddle, holding my knees, allowing the mast and boom (both of which float) to provide stabilization for the board. I was doing this, without much benefit, when a word fuzzed into my mind. It was “Hypothermia.”

Tom after hour under cold water.

“Oh Hell,” I thought, now what am I supposed to do about this? Am I getting hypothermia? I think maybe I’ve done something really stupid here.”  As I was thinking this, I noticed that I was having more and more trouble staying on the board. My body didn’t seem to be answering “command” from the brain. And when it did, it was hardly able to accomplish everything. I was getting weaker and weaker.

Meanwhile, back at the “Chez Nous,” Mel, my wife, had been getting more and more worried. She’d raised an eyebrow or two (or three) when I’d announced I was going out, but had given up trying to talk me out of it.  But she was sitting on the boat, watching the cold gusts pick up and watching the chop build. And in all of this, she could not see my sail, so she knew it was down and had been down for a long time.  She launched the dinghy and sped out into the wind and sea, spotting me before I had a clue that she was coming. When I saw the dinghy heading in throwing spray I was on the way to being helpless. She pulled alongside and I rolled aboard the dinghy. We wanted to tie the windsurfer to the stern and pull it in, but my fingers wouldn’t work.  Somehow we got it secured, and we made our way back to “Chez Nous.”

As luck would have it, an emergency room doc happened to be in his boat nearby and he pronounced the obvious and had me to take a warm shower, drink warm tea and warm soup, and get beneath the blankets. I lay there shivering for hours, and it took days for me to really feel right again. And my hypothermia had been relatively mild.

So why am I making this confession of my poor common sense? Because I don’t want it to happen to you. Fall is here. Winter is coming. If you’re like me you’re going to still be around the water as much as and as long as you can. Hypothermia sneaks up on you. It doesn’t knock on the door and say “hello.” It’s insidious. It works on you before you know what’s happening, taking your strength, your cognitive powers and, if you don’t get help, your life. And depending on the conditions, it may not take long to do its evil work. Even if it’s mild, it can impair your judgment and hinder your ability to take corrective actions. And there are certain things that you should and should not do to a victim. There’s a lot of information out there about hypothermia, and it’s a good idea for all of us on the water to become familiar with it.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale