An Ounce of Prevention
The Coast Guard requires that everyone serving duty on a small boat wear a full drysuit if the water temperature dips below 50 degrees. No matter the weather, every Coastie on small-boat duty wears a search-and-rescue (SAR) vest, a life vest that holds a personal EPIRB, plus hand-held pyrotechnics (flares), a signal mirror, a whistle, a strobe light and a survival knife — all tethered to the vest. Whether you have all that gear or not, the No. 1 way to prevent disaster on the water is to wear a life jacket.
Life Jackets For All — “The very first thing you lose in cold water is the ability to swim and stay afloat,” Folkerts says. “Your life jacket is critical for keeping your head above water.” It can increase the odds of survival in cold water by hours. Wearing one should become second nature, like putting on a seat belt in a car.
One Hand For the Boat — When boating in cold weather, one thing you should keep tabs on is a loss of dexterity. When your fingers are exposed to cold air, they get stiff, and it’s harder to perform fine-motor tasks like tying a knot, opening a latch or pressing buttons on a cell phone, a radio or electronics. When your feet are cold, it’s harder to maintain balance, and bundling up can make you bulkier and less nimble than normal. When walking around on deck or along the rails, always have one hand on a grab rail for support.
Kill Switches For Life — “Can you imagine the feeling of falling in the water and watching your boat drive away from you?” Folkerts asks. For boaters heading out alone, clipping on the kill switch is critical. Even when boating with a crew, the driver should always wear the kill switch so the boat stops instantly if anything happens to him.
Risk Management — “A lot of folks we rescue say they knew they shouldn’t have gone out,” Folkerts says. “I imagine the ones we couldn’t had the same thought.” As Folkerts and Borg point out, too many people equate boating with driving a car, but if something goes wrong, you can’t just pull over. Monitor the weather at all times. At the first hint of bad conditions, start evaluating whether it’s time to return to the dock. Know your boat’s capabilities and what types of sea conditions it can handle. “Sometimes,” Borg adds, “it’s better to just go home.”
Then again, with proper monitoring, careful planning and a sound understanding of the potential dangers of boating in cold-water conditions, you can safely enjoy the solitude of the great outdoors during these times of the year. After all, in many areas of the country, there’s simply no better time to go.