Every year, we hear stories of people getting into trouble on the water. Stories of experienced paddlers and strong swimmers who couldn’t rescue themselves. Stories that too often end in tragedy. We are in the heart of winter, but the weather can be acceptable for the experienced paddler. We always check the air temperate before going outside, but, and more importantly, when paddling we must be aware of the temperate of the water.
Immersion or submersion in cold water induces a physiological response called the Gasp Reflex. This sudden and uncontrollable gasping for air lasts for one to three minutes in most people. It is very important to keep your head out of the water while this is happening. If you experience a complete submersion the gasp may draw water into your lungs and you will drown. Wearing a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD) provides buoyancy and helps keep your head out of the water. You will not be able to rescue yourself and these first few minutes should be used to try to control your breathing and keeping your head out of the water. It’s scary, but it will pass.
Once you have your breathing under control you have about ten minutes before you experience Cold Incapacitation. These precious minutes are critical as this is your chance to self re-entry. You have about ten minutes to help yourself out of the situation that you’re in. Having appropriate rescue equipment and training is now well worth the investment. After 10 minutes, your body redirects warm blood from your arms and legs to your core to keep your vital organs alive.
The next response is Hypothermia, which is defined as a drop in your body’s core temperature. You are hypothermic when your body temperature drops only two degrees Celsius. After your body becomes incapacitated and your core temperature is dropping, you are waiting for rescue. Mobility is reduced and your window to help yourself is over. Get as much of your body out of the water as possible and stay still. You lose heat 25 times faster in water and up to 100 times faster if you are moving. You will survive in cold water for an hour or more if you do not drown.
Thermal protection helps to reduce the shock of cold water immersion/submersion. Two popular options are wetsuits, made from neoprene, and dry suits, made from one of many waterproof/breathable materials. Wetsuits are designed to warm a thin layer of water between the neoprene and your skin. Conversely, dry suits keep water away from your skin and your clothing underneath stays dry. Both of these options must be worn with a PFD – you have enough to worry about in cold water without being concerned with staying afloat.
Coldwater is a reality for the Canadian Paddler. Every paddler knows it is well into the summer season before you can swim in the ocean comfortably. Educate yourself and paddle smart. Don’t paddle beyond your limits and ask yourself critical questions before you go. Your paddling safety kit is one of the most important bags you’ll ever pack. But the stuff that you have with you is no substitute for knowledge, skill, and attitude.
Nova Scotia Director and VP Paddle Canada
Sea Kayak and SUP Instructor