Coldwater boating safety
Posted on 10 March 2016
The weather was bright and warm as a family paddled their canoes to City Beach on Whitefish Lake.
The father unloaded his dog and a small girl on shore, while the boys splashed their paddles in the water, just 20 yards from shore - their life jackets unbuckled and hanging loosely on their chests.
Little did the father know, the kids were playing with a deadly substance: cold water.
It's this time of year when the warm air beckons canoeists, rafters and motor boaters to northwest Montana's lakes and rivers. But while the air is warm, the water is still deadly cold, says Liz Lodman, boating education coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
It was April 2006 when a 23-year-old man died in Whitefish Lake after his canoe capsized. The man was not wearing a life jacket - something that is often overlooked, especially when it comes to children, Lodman said.
"Having one on is great, but if it's not strapped on correctly, or it is too big, it's not going to be any good," she said. "People need to invest in life jackets that fit their children."
Warden patrols with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have been out on the lakes and rivers in northwest Montana, and are already seeing people making the dangerous choice of not being prepared for a cold-water swim, FWP warden captain Lee Anderson said.
"This is the time of year when it is really critical, given the cold temperatures, that you wear your vest," Anderson said. "I'd recommend you wear it, because your time frame of having muscle control in these waters ... is a real small window."
Water temperatures in most northwest Montana lakes and rivers range from 35 to 45 degrees, according to the U.S. Geological Service. That means the time you have before exhaustion or unconsciousness is 15 to 30 minutes, according to the United States Search and Rescue Task Force.
Montana has not had any boating fatalities yet this year, but last year two men died on Whitefish Lake and Flathead Lake. Of the 13 people who died while boating in northwest Montana since 1998, half were not wearing life jackets, a report from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says.
Experts are beginning to think that death by cold water immersion happens quicker than was originally thought. In the past, hypothermia was often considered to be the cause of death in many overboard falls, Lodman said. However, more research is revealing that the initial plummet into cold water is more likely the deadly culprit. While hypothermia sets in after longer periods of exposure to cooler temperatures, the effects of cold water immersion are instantaneous.
If the swimmer falls face-first into the water or has their head near the water, which is often the case, they tend to inhale a deadly amount of water from this gasping reflex. That's why it's important to wear a life jacket that fits properly and is worn properly, Lodman said. She recommends that the jacket be snug and well-fitting, so in case of a cold-water immersion, your head and neck - vital areas to maintain the ability to breathe - are kept above water. If the water is up around your face or nose, your chances of survival are much less, Lodman said.
Depending upon health conditions, age, and physical fitness, being in cold water can greatly increase heart rate and blood pressure, causing the victim to go into cardiac arrest, according to a report from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In stage two, known as short-term immersion (five to 30 minutes in the water), the victim begins to experience swimming failure, as cold water affects the muscles of the arms and legs, limiting dexterity and muscle strength. Inability to coordinate swimming strokes and breathing makes many victims unable to swim even a few yards to shore. Muscle strength is zapped, rendering most victims incapable of self-rescue or climbing back on board, according to the report from FWP.
The third stage of immersion, also known as long-term immersion (30 or more minutes), is when hypothermia begins. Cold water removes heat from the body 25 times faster than cold air. Death occurs from cardiac arrest somewhere below a body core temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The report from Lodman's office said that in stage four, or the post-rescue collapse stage, survivors being removed from the water still face great danger. Rescue technique and proper treatment of victims are critical as heart and brain failure are still possible. Because of significant changes in blood volume and distribution, cold blood in the extremities may suddenly return to the core and cause cardiac arrest upon re-warming of the victim.
Cold water immersion can be a deadly threat to Montana boaters in the spring, and the only way to improve chances of survival is to prepare yourself before you get on board. When boating in the cooler seasons, experts recommend wearing a wetsuit or drysuit.
However, Lodman notes, the most important piece of gear to wear is a life jacket. Wearing a life jacket will help keep your head above water and will give buoyancy to a victim struggling to swim. Life jackets or float coats give the victim a chance to survive long enough for rescue. While overboard falls are unpreventable, wearing something to keep you warm and buoyant could help save your life, Lodman said.
Adults are not required to wear life vests, but must have one present for each adult on the boat. Children under the age of 12, however, must wear a lifejacket any time the boat is in motion.
Rafters and kayakers are already starting to hit the water, too. People need to be aware that river channels may change from year to year, and boaters should be watchful for debris and log jams, Lodman said.