While this has most definitely been one of the mildest winters I can remember, paddlers still need to be cautious around, on, and in the rivers and lakes. The current weather pattern here in Southern Ontario with it's warm, sunny days, is one of the most deceptive, and the most difficult to prepare properly for. With air temperatures in the mid-20 degrees Celsius it's tempting to head out paddling in light layers (or less). Just the other day we watched a young couple canoe past our place wearing blue jeans and short sleeved T-shirts. Unfortunately, neither of them was wearing a PFD and they were clearly not properly dressed for an accidental immersion in the 8 degree C water. Eight degrees sounds like a mild Spring day, right? So, what's the danger? If you watch the news, listen to the radio, or have a Facebook account, it's pretty hard to avoid the onslaught of stories this time of year about paddlers getting into trouble, some of them fatally so. Stories of people taking ill-equipped recreational kayaks out onto the Great Lakes in February, people not wearing their PFD's, people not dressed for immersion, people paddling in conditions beyond their ability when the weather changes suddenly....too many stories, to many tragedies. Maybe it's because we're in the business, but we seem to hear about a new paddling accident almost every day. An Ohio newspaper reporting on a boating accident last week said it had been the SIXTH coast guard response to an incident on Lake Erie in a WEEK! Just because the early warm spell means that the lakes and rivers here in Southern Ontario are not "frigid" does not mean that they are not dangerous. Lengthy exposure to even warm water can rob your body of precious heat and bring on hypothermic conditions. "Cold" water is defined as anything less than about 21 degrees C (70 degrees F). Put that into perspective, and keep in mind that normal body temperature is 37 C. Your body will perceive the water as "cold" and will react accordingly (shivers, etc) when your body temperature drops just 2 degrees C. Amnesia can begin to set in with just one more degree of body temperature loss, at just 34 degrees C. At 30 degrees C body temperature, a person in the water will most likely be unconscious, and death will occur at 26 degrees C. That's 18 degrees WARMER than the current water temperature! According to statistics, it would take between 30 and 60 minutes to be rendered unconscious in 8 C water, with an expected survival time of 1 to 3 hours. These numbers do not take into account how the person is dressed, what their physical fitness or age is, what the associated air temperatures might be, so it's a pretty vague guideline. But, if you found yourself in 8 degree water, do you have a rescue plan that can get you out of the water and to safety in under an hour? That assumes that the person is not susceptible to cold shock. Cold shock is an involuntary response to be suddenly plunged into "cold" water that causes panic and shock. This strain can often bring on the sudden inhalation of cold water and/or cardiac arrest. Everyone's perception of and tolerance for "cold" is different. Despite the physiological response at any given water temperature, people with a lower tolerance for cold will certainly experience a different psychological response. Shock, panic, and fear will shorten a person's expected survival time in any situation. Cold water will absorb your body heat 32 times faster than cold air. This is one of the major reasons that getting a victim out of cold water immediately is so important. Water presents many other hazards than can make survival (and rescue) more critical, but it's simple ability to rob your body of precious heat is the number one risk. Even moderately cold water can quickly make your hands numb and this can play a major factor in your ability to get out of the water and back into, or onto, your boat. Are you planning to head out paddling or boating in the nest little while? Take advantage of this weather, but go properly prepared! Do you have the proper experience to rescue yourself or others in the conditions to plan to be in? Are you familiar with the signs, symptoms and first aid response to hypothermia? Do you have the proper clothing and gear for immersion in water the temperature you will be around? Keep in mind that your head, neck, chest, armpits and groin are the areas where the majority of heat loss will occur. When your body temperature starts to drop, circulation to the extremities is decreased to protect your vital organs and brain, so the cold will be felt first in the hands and feet. Make sure they are protected with warm layers. Wearing your PFD is a must, in all conditions, all the time. They save lives! Do you KNOW what the current water temperature is? Here at Grand River Kayak, we paddle year-round whenever there is open water. In the colder season, we wear drysuits and appropriate layers under our drysuit to suit the weather. We tend to stay closer to shore, and we're more careful and aware of our paddling, especially in the winter. We plan routes with easy access and egress points, we bring materials for a hypothermia wrap, hot water for making drinks, and a couple of dry bags with extra warm layers to change into. We always discuss the weather and water temperatures with the group. If you'd like to learn more about the local water conditions and planning a safe paddling trip we'd be happy to help.
"It is impossible to die from hypothermia in cold water unless you are wearing flotation, because without flotation “you won't live long enough to become hypothermic." - Mario Vittone, has nineteen years of combined military service in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard SmartBoater Canada produced this excellent video demonstrating the effects of cold water immersion during a "Cold Water Boot Camp". It's 11-1/2 minutes, but it is worth watching all the way to the end.