2013-04-25 / News

Officials warn boaters about water temperature

With freshwater fishing season here, the state Department of Environmental Management reminds anglers that even on a warm day, water temperatures can hover in the low to mid 50s.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, a boating accident is five times more likely to be fatal if the water is colder than 60 degrees. The Coast Guard also notes that eight out of 10 boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length.

According to DEM officials, victims who experience an unexpected fall overboard suffer initial cold-water shock in the first minute, which involuntarily causes them to hyperventilate. If their heads are underwater, they can inhale more than a quart of water and drown immediately.

People lucky enough to keep their heads above water will continue hyperventilating as their blood pressure jumps, says Steven Criscione, the state’s boating safety coordinator. If they can’t control their breathing within 60 seconds, they’ll suffer numbness, muscle weakness or even fainting, which leads to drowning. A person with heart disease may experience sudden death due to cardiac arrest.

A victim who survives the first minute of cold shock and hyperventilation will progress to the second stage called cold incapacitation. Within about 10 minutes, Criscione says, rapid cooling of the extremities causes muscle stiffening so a person will no longer be able to perform the simplest tasks such as swimming, holding onto a floating object, or putting on a life jacket. Even yelling for help can be difficult.

Hypothermia is the third stage. A victim won’t start to become hypothermic for 30 minutes. Severe hypothermia can take an hour or more to set in. A body core temperature of 95 degrees is considered hypothermic, loss of consciousness occurs at about 86 degrees, and death is imminent when the core temperature drops below 82.

Experts recommend that people who end up in the water stay with the boat, even if they aren’t able to get back in. They are more likely to be seen by potential rescuers if they are next to a boat. A person should only swim for shore if a life jacket is being worn, if the likelihood of rescue is low, or if they are close to shore and aren’t able to climb back into or on top of the boat. The key is the life jacket, Criscione said. A person who suffers swimming failure or loss of consciousness will stay afloat wearing a life jacket, but drown without one.

Criscione said smart anglers wear a life jacket from the time they enter the boat until they return to shore. “There is no time to put one on before a boating accident,” he said. “It would be like trying to buckle your seat belt before a car crash.”

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