Hypothermia kills: These tips can save your life

Seasonal Safety Risks

The Great Lakes environment shifts drastically with the seasons. The frozen wintry expanse thaws to a lush boater’s paradise in the summer. The region is currently in what is called the “shoulder season,” when any day can bring rain, sleet or sunshine. With temperatures forecast as high as 70 in parts of the lakes, it’s easy to forget that the water is still lethally cold. Paddlers, anglers and operators of open outboard motorboats are especially at risk.

A real-life cold water situation occurred just last weekend. Dan Crowner and two friends were rescued from the icy waters of Lake Ontario in the vicinity of Fort Niagara, N.Y., by a Coast Guard rescue crew from Station Niagara after spending nearly an hour in the water. All three of them were rushed to the hospital with severe hypothermia.

“We were out there for awhile, and we started losing feeling in our feet and hands within 10 minutes, but I stayed calm and help my friends stay calm and we made ourselves hang on,” said Crowner. “When hypothermia starts setting in you just lose function, my friends weren’t making sense, but I kept my spirits up because I knew help was on the way.”

“The most important things I did to help myself was having a back-up form of communication and staying with my boat and hanging onto it,” said Crowner.

Crowner’s boat capsized too fast for them to get a call off with their marine radio on their boat. But Crowner was prepared because he had placed his cell phone in a water proof bag, which he was able to access to call for help.

Every minute counts in cold water

Why is all this important? This table shows the approximate survivability time in various temperatures of water.

Why is all this important? This table shows the approximate survivability time in various temperatures of water.

Though cold water survival times vary from person to person, the colder the water is, the sooner hypothermia will set in. The Coast Guard will continue to search as long as there is a reasonable belief that a person is still alive. Each search case is different depending on:
• The victim’s physical condition,
• Weather conditions,
• Type of survival equipment the victim or victims had access to

You’re safest if you stay out of cold water, but accidents happen. These six tips can save your life if you end up in the water.

H - Heat E - Escape L - Lessoning P - PositionStay calm – Flailing around in the water causes a body to lose heat faster. Your head, neck, sides and groin are your body’s “hot spots” that lose heat most quickly and need to be protected the most. Hold your knees to your chest to protect your trunk from heat loss, and clasp your arms around your calves. The more energy someone spends after going overboard, the more quickly his or her body temperature drops, reducing survival time.

Save your Energy –Wearing a life jacket will help you save energy by minimizing motion needed to keep afloat and by helping insulate the body.


Use the Heat Escape Lessening Position if alone or huddle as a group to preserve body heat.

Don’t take off your clothes – Instead, button, buckle, zip and tighten collars, cuffs, shoes and hoods. If possible, cover your head.
Devote all your efforts to getting out of the water – Ever see the movie “Titanic?” The character Rose survives because she’s out of the water lying on a floating object. Your body loses heat 25 times faster in the water than air, so get out, if at all possible. Act quickly before you lose full use of your hands. Board a boat, raft, or anything floating. Turn a capsized boat over and climb in; remember most boats will support you even when full of water. If you can’t right the boat, climb on top of it and stay with it – It is easier to spot a capsized boat in the water than a single person.

Don’t try to swim – Although it is best to get out of the water, it is advisable not to make a swim for it. Don’t try to swim unless it is within reach or very nearby. Ignore the shoreline; it is further away than you think – especially in cold water, and you’re likely not going to reach your destination even if you are an Olympic swimmer. Swimming disrupts the layer of warm water between your clothing and your body and sends “warm” blood to your extremities, which cuts your survival time by as much as half.
Huddle together as a group – If you’re with other people, huddle together for warmth and support. Also it is worth mentioning again, rescuers will be able to see you better and rescue you faster; if you’re in a group.

Other factors that will affect a person’s survivability are; age, gender, weight, height, body fat percentage, fatigue level, immersion level, weather conditions, clothing worn and survival gear available.

Recognizing hypothermia

If you are in the water or managed to get yourself out, look for these common symptoms of hypothermia.

In the first stages of hypothermia your metabolism starts to slow and you can experience shivering, impaired judgment, clumsiness and loss of dexterity

In the later stages of hypothermia, body systems slow and then eventually stop. Late hypothermia is marked by slurred speech, withdrawn behavior, shivering stopping and muscle rigidity.

Left untreated, hypothermia will result in unconsciousness and death.

Treating hypothermia

Rapid treatment of hypothermia is critical. If you identify someone as hypothermic, here’s what you can do:

Heat the body's hot spots (marked in red) and wrap in blankets

Heat the body’s hot spots (marked in red) and wrap in blankets

1) Call for help (VHF channel 16 or call 911)
2) Restore warmth slowly
3) Begin CPR (if necessary) while warming person
4) Give warm fluids
5) Keep persons temperature up by keeping them wrapped up in a blanket

Boating Safety Tips

There are critical steps that boaters can take to safeguard their lives and those of their loved ones – before heading out to your preferred recreational or commercial water activity. Here are a few tips that can save lives: 

1. Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature – Even in sunshine and warm air, if you fall in the water, your body will respond as if you were standing outside naked in 40-degree weather. Cold water robs the body of heat 25 to 30 times faster than air. When someone falls overboard, his or her core temperature begins to drop within 10 to15 minutes. The water doesn’t have to be icy – it just has to be colder than the victim to cause hypothermia. Even worse, our body’s first response to cold water immersion is to instantaneously gasp for air, but chances are that you’ll end up with a mouthful of water and be on the path to drowning.
2. Wear a life jacket – Don’t just have a life jacket onboard; WEAR IT!!! The importance of this tip is amplified in cold water because the heat loss will rapidly impair your ability to use your fingers.

An ice rescue crewmember from Coast Guard Station Marblehead, Ohio, rescues a victim actor from the ice of Lake Erie during Icy Resolve 2013, an ice rescue training exercise held at the station, Feb. 9, 2013.

An ice rescue crewmember from Coast Guard Station Marblehead, Ohio, rescues a victim actor from the ice of Lake Erie during Icy Resolve 2013, an ice rescue training exercise held at the station, Feb. 9, 2013.

3. Be ready for the environment – The Coast Guard’s motto is “Semper Paratus” – “Always Ready.” Before getting under way, boaters must also be “Always Ready.” Life-threatening weather can develop quickly. Boaters should invest in a VHF-FM marine radio, which receives regular marine weather forecasts and warnings. They should learn the indicators of developing weather. And they should immediately seek safe harbor whenever weather warnings are issued.

4. Wear proper clothing – In water temperatures less than 72 degrees Fahrenheit wearing a dry suit is advised. This is especially true for paddlers. Avoid wearing cotton clothing when paddling in cool temperatures. Dress in layers using synthetic fabrics such as polyester fleece to prevent getting overheated or chilled from perspiration. Wear a warm hat that will stay on your head in the water. A fleece-lined skullcap is ideal.