I can’t emphasize enough the extreme danger of paddling in cold water without wearing the proper clothing for immersion in that water. COLD WATER KILLS!!!!
Right now we are experiencing an unusually warm spell in mid March here in southeast Wisconsin. The air temperature today is in the 70’s. However, the water temperatures are still in the 30’s. Believe it or not, hypothermia is not what is going to kill you. It will be something called “cold shock”. When you fall into water that is less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, your body will undergo some physical responses that you have very little control over.
The first reaction you will experience is a gasp reflex. Most of us have experienced this when we get into a swimming pool that is less than 80 degrees. Luckily, we don’t usually have our heads underwater as we slowly wade into the ever deeper water and gradually immerse more of our bodies. However, when you capsize suddenly into a cold lake from your kayak, your head usually goes underwater and there is a good chance that you will have that gasp reflex while your head is underwater. This is the reason that many cold water drowning victims never resurface after that first plunge into the cold water. They drown almost immediately with a lung-full of water.
Another immediate reaction of the body to cold water is that the heart slows down. This may not kill you, unless you have an underlying (perhaps undiagnosed) heart condition. Sadly, we have recently heard of several young athletes in our area who have died suddenly and unexpectedly with heart problems. Do not assume that just because you are young and seemingly healthy that this reflex does not pose a risk for you. If you are middle age or older, I think we all know that we are at some risk for heart problems without dumping ourselves into cold water.
If you survive the first problems with the gasp reflex and slowed heart rate, the next thing you will experience is hyperventilation. Since you cannot really control your rate of breathing during hyperventilation, you may well swallow water as you breath in at the wrong moment instead of holding your breath when a wave is about to hit you in the face. This swallowing and breathing water into the lungs causes gasping, sputtering, and a panicked feeling that results in inefficient swimming leading to more gasping, sputtering, and panic. Even supposedly strong swimmers may slip below the surface very quickly when this happens if they are not wearing a life jacket.
The hyperventilation will last about a minute or so before the swimmer is able to get control of his/her breathing. At this point, you probably have 10 minutes in which to attempt to rescue yourself before your body shunts blood away from your extremities (hands and feet) and sends it to the core organs (heart, lungs, and brain) in an attempt to protect the very vital functions these organs perform in keeping you alive. The problem is that you need your hands and feet to help keep you alive when you are trying to rescue yourself from the water. You need to have good self rescue skills so that you can complete your rescue in under 10 minutes before your hands and fingers especially quit working.
Hypothermia, which is often mentioned as a cause of death in these early season drowning cases, actually does not kill you or even render you unconscious for at least 45 minutes to an hour in even the coldest water. If a paddler is wearing a life jacket to keep them from slipping below the surface, they have a much better chance of being fished out of the water if there are people nearby that can help. Unfortunately, if they are not wearing clothing that is appropriate to protect them from immersion in icy water (drysuit or wetsuit), they may not still be alive even when they are fished from the water due to the immediate effects of cold shock.
I really wish I did not have to keep repeating this message over and over each year, and I certainly wish I did not have to read about young men and women dying while out kayaking and canoeing in March and April. Do yourself and your family a favor. Don’t paddle in water that you would not be comfortable swimming in. With my drysuit on and the correct number of layers of clothing underneath, I can comfortably swim in 32-degree water. With shorts and a t-shirt, you won’t find me in water that is less than 70 degrees.
* The information above comes mainly from the research of Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht and can be found on the website, www.coldwaterbootcamp.com. I strongly urge you to visit this website if you have not done so already.