Recreational Boating Safety – Cold Water Survival

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
We have had several recent successful rescues in which boats sank or capsized. It is only because the persons aboard were able to get off a distress signal that they were saved. This is the time of year we boaters use to get ready for the next boating season rather than actually getting out on the water. If you just have to get out there, you need to be prepared for a boating emergency in which one or more people end up in the cold water. We all know that you can freeze to death if you don’t have the proper clothing, but if you end up in cold water you will die from exposure ten times faster than you would on dry land.

Cold Water Survival Time
Sometimes a chart is a good way to help you consider the consequences of entering cold water. This chart downloaded from is as good an example as any as to how long you would survive immersion in cold water. The chart is just a starting point, though, as there are so many factors that can influence how long an individual can survive in cold water. As an example, I used the Coast Guard app on my phone to pull up the information for the nearest NOAA weather buoy, GNJT2 (Galveston North Jetty 2), located at the entrance to Galveston Bay. Air temperature at 4:30 pm January 14, 2024, was 54 F, and water temperature was 57.9 F. That puts the temperature close to the middle vertical axis on the chart below. At 50 F, a person in good physical condition has a low probability of death if they remain in the water for an hour. From one to three hours of immersion time, that same person is in the danger zone and could die due to heart attack or exposure. After three hours of immersion time there is a high probability of death. Contrary to what you may think, moving about in the water does not heat up your body. Instead, it accelerates the effect of cold water.

The chart above is very general in nature and could very well indicate a best case scenario rather than the usual case. Factors such as poor general health and age can accelerate the effects of cold water on older boaters and those with health concerns. With this in mind, this column will address some ways to increase your chances of survival if you are immersed in cold water due to a boating accident.

Get a Distress Signal Off As Soon As Possible
The best and quickest way to notify the Coast Guard if there is a boating accident in which persons are in the water is by using a marine VHF/FM radio. We have our Rescue 21 System that automatically identifies your position using latitude and longitude as soon as you activate the system using the Distress button on your radio, as long as you are using a radio with built in GPS or have your radio connected to your GPS. The Rescue 21 System will pick up a distress call as far offshore as 20 miles. If you venture beyond 20 miles, then you should have either an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) for your boat or a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) attached to your life jacket.

Conserve Heat Using the HELP Method
A boater operating in cold water should always wear a life jacket. Anyone forced to enter the water should button up all clothing, and, if possible, cover his or her head; enter the water slowly; keep the head out of the water; and assume the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP). The HELP position is an attempt to reduce heat loss enough to lessen the effect of hypothermia. It involves essentially positioning one’s knees together and hugging them close to the chest using one’s arms. Furthermore, groups of people can huddle together in this position to conserve body heat, offer moral support, and provide a larger target for rescuers. He or she should also attempt to climb aboard the overturned hull if it is still afloat. The HELP position is demonstrated below:

Prepare for The Torso Reflex
The torso reflex (also known as the gasp reflex or inhalation response) is a physiological reaction – an involuntarily gasp – that happens when a person suddenly enters cold water. The reflexive sucking in of air is a way for the body to rapidly increase oxygen intake into the lungs as a means of increasing survival. Some reported drowning victims don’t die as a result of poor swimming skills or the effects of hypothermia, but from the torso reflex. Occasionally the torso reflex causes victims to inhale water. A person can also die from cardiac arrest brought on by sudden entry into cold water. If you find yourself falling overboard use one hand to hold your nose and cover your mouth. This may help prevent you from undergoing the torso reflex.

Understand the Effects of Hypothermia
Immersion into cold water can lead to hypothermia, the abnormal reduction of body temperature. Hypothermia can induce rapid, uncontrolled breathing, cardiac arrest, and other physical conditions, and can easily result in death from cold or drowning. Hypothermia is essentially a condition where bodily temperature drops too low to perform normal voluntary or involuntary functions. Cold water causes “immersion hypothermia”, which can cause damage to extremities or the body’s core, including unconsciousness or death. Prolonged exposure to what one may consider to be warm water can lead to hypothermia. Hypothermia will occur even with water temperatures in the 80’s if the person is exposed to that temperature long enough.

Dress for Immersion
Don’t go boating in water in which you are not prepared to be immersed should you sink or capsize. Be prepared for such an occurrence by dressing accordingly and carrying emergency equipment in your dry locker such as blankets and towels. You can reduce exposure by climbing onto your hull if you capsize. Get out of the water if you can. Loss of body heat occurs much more rapidly in water than in the air, even if the air temperature is colder than the water temperature. Also, don’t forget to file a float plan. Someone ashore needs to know your itinerary in case you are late reporting so they can pass the information on to rescue agencies such as the Coast Guard and Sheriff Department.

Know the Limits of Your PPE
I think everyone knows what PPE is, but just in case you don’t it stands for Personal Protective Equipment. Safe boating PPE includes your life jacket, a PLB (personal locator beacon- I hope you remembered that one), a handheld marine radio, a signaling mirror, a knife (no, not for fighting off sharks; you may need to sever a fishing line or boat rigging if you become entangled in such), and a signaling light. A life jacket is one of the most useful pieces of PPE when it comes to slowing down the effects of the cold water, but there are some even better products out there. Those heat saving devices include the float coat and the anti-immersion suit.

Wear a Float Coat
A float coat is an affordable life jacket option that can greatly extend your survival time over that of a standard life jacket. We use float coats routinely in the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary when water temperatures are such that hypothermia is likely due to immersion. They provide upper body heat conservation as well as providing excellent flotation.

Wear an Anti-Immersion Suit
An anti-immersion suit is a full body suit that provides full body heat conservation including your head. Only your feet are unprotected from cold water, but if you pair a set of scuba diver’s wet suit booties and dive gloves with your anti-immersion suit you will have very good heat conserving capability. Below is a picture of Coast Guard Auxiliary members testing their float coats in 58 degree water. This type of exercise helps us prepare for cold water immersion and tests our abilities to operate survival equipment under cold water conditions.

Your chances of surviving a cold water immersion depends greatly on your preparations and your health. You should always be prepared for immersion by knowing the temperature of the water you will be operating in and by dressing accordingly. The best way to survive cold water conditions is to not go out if you do not have the PPE necessary for the water temperature.

The reason for the particular topic of this column is we lost a recreational sailor this past week to hypothermia when his sailboat capsized in heavy winds. The two occupants of the sailboat were a father and son. The Coast Guard was notified immediately when the boat capsized. The son was able to pull himself up onto the capsized hull of the sailboat, but the father was unable to, as the cold water caused him to lose the function of his arms and legs and the current carried him off. Neither boater was wearing a life jacket.

[BC: Jan-16-2024]

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