Going Overboard in Icy Water

Posted by Drew Frye at 04:20PM - Comments: (3)

PS Tester Drew Frye tests a drysuit to see if how it might hold up in the U.S. standard test for immersion suits—six hours in freezing water (32-degree F). Dry suits are not certified to the immersion suit standard, but are more practical for the cruising sailor. Frye was able to complete the test, enduring six hours without serious discomfort. Isaac Asimov kept him occupied for the duration.

Should you find yourself cast into icy water, there are few things you can do that may help.

Acclimatize. As a year round kayaker and small boat sailor, I’ve fallen in cold water countless times, and I was always dressed for the water. According to research, it is also important that I get use to the water by immersing myself in stages with the approach of fall. Sure, this process was particularly cold in the face, but by winter it was not a true shock. Alternatively, get a wet suit and do your own in-water work. Research has shown that getting your face in cold water just a few times each season may make all the difference.

Should you fall in, focus on doing the right things in the critical first minutes:

• Take a deep breath and focus hard on not gasping.

• When you get to the surface, focus on floating and stabilizing your breathing. You are not going to be able to swim or do anything productive for several minutes, and as a cold water overboard victim, there is nothing you need to do for a minute or two. Focus on not drowning. If you have a PFD that will be a huge help. If not, try to tread water with as little effort as possible. Calm down and realize you have some time.

• Once your breathing has returned to normal, try to reach any flag buoy or floating objects pitched in the water by the crew. Tighten up every zipper and flap on your foul weather gear and curl up in a fetal position to conserve heat. If you are alone or on a small boat that has capsized, make a clear-headed decision about what to do next and do it. If help is likely or you don’t have a PFD, stay with the boat. If shore is nearby and no one is coming, it can make sense to strike out before the cold gets to you, but watch your pacing.

For more on surviving in cold water, see the previous blog post on this topic: "Cold Water Survival." Among the resources available in that blog post is an informative 10-minute video on cold water survival based on a program developed by Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht (Professor Popsicle), a professor of thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.

The upcoming March 2019 issue of Practical Sailor offers a more detailed look at cold water survival equipment and strategies.

Comments (3)

We did not read the original research, but the following language has been repeated numerous times, always attributed to prior research:

"... Swimmers can habituate this response very fast; as few as 5 or 6 three minute immersions where the whole body (not the head) are immersed in cold water will halve the cold shock response. Research shows that these dulled response are conserved for a period of time: if you miss a couple of weeks in cold water, you don't start all over again. Half of this cold water shock reduction is present 14 months following the initial batch of cold water immersions."

This follows common sense; cold weather surfers and kayakers face extreme water immersion regularly without incident. The reason is that it is as the season progresses, cold water is not a shock to them, not anymore. An odd corollary, also supported by research, is that a wet suit or even dry suit, alone is not enough; just the cold water on the face and neck can be enough to trigger gasping. What is required is both adequate immersion clothing and regular exposure to cold water in the face.

Having been in very cold water a few times with protective but non-specialized clothing, I don't like your chances without clothing designed specifically for cold water exposure.

Posted by: Drew Frye | February 9, 2019 5:32 PM    Report this comment

As the medical presenter for the US Sailing Safety at Sea Seminar in the Pacific Northwest, I applaud your efforts to address this vital issue. Very few things will kill you while sailing. Going overboard with subsequent cold water immersion is one of them. Long before hypothermia sets in, cold water incapacitation will cause you to drown IF you are not wearing a PFD. This is not a question of the PFD being a "huge help". They are mandatory if you are to have a chance of surviving. Wear your PFD, wear your PFD, please wear your PFD!

Posted by: Ken Fabert, MD | February 7, 2019 10:27 AM    Report this comment

Can you cite the research that you discuss for acclimatization to cold water?

Posted by: spencerford | February 7, 2019 9:20 AM    Report this comment

New to Practical Sailor?
Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In