Like everything else in boating, thinking through a plan will make a world of difference in an emergency situation. If you fall overboard into cold water, you need to be prepared for the shock of it and ways to maximize your survival time for a rescue. Falling into cold water is a lot different than in warm water, affecting your body within minutes; severely limiting your time in cold water.
Stages of Cold Water Shock
When thrust in cold water, the immediate reflex is to gasp, which may lead to swallowing water and can lead you to hyperventilate.
Mammalian Dive Reflex
As your body cools, your capillaries constrict as blood is drawn to your core. This restricted blood flow affects find dexterity, making simple tasks like inflating your life vest almost impossible.
The restriction from the dive reflex deprives your large muscular groups, weakening and further restricting your movement. This inability to swim leads to drowning.
Maximize your chance of survival
Dress for the temperature of the water, not the weather. Wear layers of wool and windproof material and avoid cotton. Below 60F, you should wear a dry suit.
Always wear a PFD and know the ins and outs of how to work your PFD, from automatic to manual inflation. If your boat is in sight, have your crew throw over additional flotation, like an underarm flotation device and locator pylon.
If you end up in cold water without a PFD, your best attempt is to tread water. With or without a PFD, the more body area you can keep out of the water, the better your chances. Conserve your body heat by remaining as still as possible. If you have your life vest on, the Heat Escape Lessening Posture/Position (HELP) minimizes the water flow across your body, crouched in the fetal position.
Swimming isn’t recommended unless there is little chance of being rescued or the shore is less than a mile away. Plan ahead by having a man overboard recovery device on board and teach your crew how to use it. Activate your PLB if you have one.
In cold water, conserving body heat is essential for survival and for increasing your chances of being rescued. Swimming and thrashing around will actually cause your body to lose heat at a faster rate so it is key to remain calm and stay still.
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