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Cold Water Boating


Don't get left out in the cold....

One of the most dangerous aspects of boating, particularly for sportsmen who thrive on cold weather adventure, is the risk of hypothermia. Hypothermia happens when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. It can occur as a result of prolonged exposure to cold air, or more dramatically, when a person is suddenly immersed in cold water. If a sportsman does fall into very cold water, there is only a limited time before he begins to lose his thinking capability and the use of his limbs. Most experts say that half of all drowning victims do not actually die from water filling their lungs, but instead from the fatal effects of cold water.

Hypothermia and You

Water does not have to be icy to be cold enough to bring on hypothermia, it just has to be colder than you. Cold water is considered to be water under 70 degrees, but imagine, even 80 degree water is still almost 20 degrees colder than your body temperature. Given time, your body’s core temperature will drop as you lose heat to the water.

Hypothermia and Hunters

Waterfowl hunters use boats on some of the coldest days of the year. Not only is the water deathly cold on these days, but the hunter is likely wearing enough layers to make himself heavy and clumsy. If he goes in the water, he’s in serious trouble. Here is where a life jacket or a “float coat” can mean the difference between life and death. Without some flotation device, your chances of survival simply aren’t that good.

(Photo courtesy of MN DNR)


If you see yourself about to fall in, if possible, cover your face with your hands. This may sound strange, but quickly becoming immersed in icy water can cause “Torso Reflex,” or a sudden involuntary intake of breath. Covering your mouth is an attempt to avoid gulping water into your lungs when this happens.

Try to hold onto something that floats.
If you are wearing a life preserver, great. If there are more floating in the water, grab those too to use as floats. Even decoys can be used, one under each arm, to keep you floating. Try to hold onto your boat, or even right the boat and climb inside (some boats are inherently buoyant and float even when filled with water). The idea is to get as much of your body out of the water as possible, so there is less area that can lose heat.

Conserve what heat you can.
Tighten up your jacket, vest, shoes, whatever you are wearing. Try and keep your legs together, and your arms close to your body.  Most importantly, try to keep your head dry and try to always wear a hat.  You will lose over half of your body heat through your head.  Even a mesh ball cap will help retain body heat.  The water trapped inside your layers of clothes will warm up from your body heat and act as a wetsuit. Do not remove clothing!

Do not try to swim.
unless it is to reach a nearby boat, another person, or a floating object on which you can climb or use for floatation. Swimming pumps out the warm water trapped between your skin and your clothes and brings in colder water. Swimming can also cause debilitating cramps. Furthermore, the movement pumps warm blood to your extremities, where it cools quickly. Swimming can reduce your survival time by almost 50%.

Stay as still as possible.
No matter how painful. Intense shivering and severe pain in cold water are natural reflexes that will not kill you, but cold water can. Getting into the “H.E.L.P.” position (explained below) may help you keep your cold arms and legs still.