Cold Water Kills!

by Sherri ~ April 11th, 2011. Filed under: Paddling Safety, Sherri's Musings.

I’ve been pretty busy lately teaching kayaking at some local high school physical education classes.  The teaching isn’t too hard, but all the boat loading, unloading, and gear hauling takes its toll on me physically, not to mention having to get up at 5am this week.  As a result, I haven’t gotten a blog posted for over a week.

I was watching the news today and saw a story about a teenage girl who drowned in Lake Michigan yesterday on our unseasonably warm 83-degree day.  She decided to jump into the water from a pier, obviously unaware of the danger of  jumping into 38-degree water.  If I heard the story correctly, she didn’t surface.  A friend jumped in to try to save her (we’re lucky only one person drowned), but was unable to help.

I can’t stress this enough.  Please! Please! Please!  Tell everyone you know about “cold shock” and the dangers of jumping into cold water when you are not dressed for immersion.  It’s not just kayakers that need to know about this.  Sometimes I think that kayakers are the only people around here who DO know about cold shock.  I’ve lost count of all the fatalities over the years in which the story goes,

“Person jumps into Lake Michigan from a boat/pier (or capsizes from a canoe/kayak), never resurfaces, divers later find the body.  Police/fire/dive team spokesperson talks about hypothermia on the evening news.”

It isn’t hypothermia that kills a person in less than 5 minutes, even when the water temperature is barely above freezing.  It’s cold shock, or the subsequent swimming failure that occurs right after.  If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, please take the time to visit the website, If you know a police officer/fire fighter/dive team member, please encourage them to talk more about cold shock instead of hypothermia.  The survival times that people see for hypothermia lull them into thinking that they will be out of the water long before anything bad will happen.

If you’re tempted to cite the annual polar bear plunge at Bradford Beach as proof that this is not dangerous, keep in mind that the polar bear plunge participants mostly do not submerge their heads, so they don’t suck down a lungful of water.  They are also in shallow water, so swim failure is not an issue unless they venture out farther where the fire department safety guys are standing around in dry suits waiting to effect a rescue when needed.

That’s my 2-cents worth for the day.


3 Responses to Cold Water Kills!

  1. Gary

    So, so true. This is a post worth reading. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Haris

    Great piece on an important topic!

    Most Polar Bear Plunge participants also prepare for the immersion in cold water by exposing themselves to it gradually and in controlled conditions beforehand. People can prepare themselves for cold water immersion by something as simple as regularly washing their face with cold water or taking cold showers.

    I wonder if knowledge and information about involuntary inhalation alone can be helpful? The goal is to develop just enough conscious control so that one can hold their breath until the mouth is clear out of the water and not give into the urge to inhale.

  3. Sherri

    You’re right about being able to condition your body to prevent some of the effects of cold water. I, for one, have never been willing to subject myself to cold showers. I’d much rather wear my drysuit. : )

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