Water Safety Warning for Water Enthusiasts

Cold Water Immersion Dangers

This year’s abundant snowfall and spring snowmelt have resulted in high, swift and cold river flows.  Use caution and be prepared.  Wear a life jacket.  Knowing how to swim will not “drown-proof” you. The water may look calm on the top, but the current is usually very strong beneath the water’s surface.

Knowing what to do in case of a water immersion and understanding the effects of cold water is critical in improving your chances of survival.  Please use this page as a resource for this boating season.

What's the proper body position I should take if I accidentally fall in the river?

CALM WATER: If you boat capsizes and you are in cold water, get as far out of the water as possible by climbing onto any floating object, such as the boat’s hull.  This may help prevent heat loss from your body, especially if the temperature is warm and the winds are calm. If you cannot get out of the water, keep your head out of the water to limit heat loss.  Curl into a ball or huddle with other passengers and restrict movement of arms and legs to further help limit heat loss.  These are known as HELP or Heat Escape Lessening Positions.

SWIFT WATER: If you do end up in the river, point your feet downstream.  This helps your legs to come in contact with floating debris or rocks first instead of your head.  Stay calm and try to make your way to the shore while floating.  Be wary of branches in the river.  It may be tempting to reach for a branch, but you can become entangled in the branches and drown.  Look for a clear place to get to shore.


What are the effects of cold water immersion?

The effects of cold water immersion are predictable and well documented by Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a thermophysiologist with the University of Manitoba and a world expert on freezing to death through his 1-10-1 principle.

  • 1 minute: Upon accidental immersion the body reacts with an involuntary GASP followed by hyperventilation of up to 10 times regular breathing. If your head is underwater during that initial deep gasp you can inhale enough water to drown. Do not panic. Breathing will return to close to normal.
  • 10 minutes: In cold water a person will become INCAPACITATED to the point that the muscles in their limbs stop working and they will no longer be able to swim or rescue themselves. Try to rescue yourself before incapacitation becomes a factor and if you cannot, at least try to get as much of your body out of the water as possible to delay the onset of hypothermia.
  • 1 hour: After an hour, depending on the water temperature, the body continues to cool and the resulting HYPOTHERMIA can create a range of symptoms from confusion to unconsciousness and eventually leading to death.

How can I increase my chances of surviving cold water immersion?

The best way to survive an accidental cold water immersion is to wear your life jacket. It will help keep your head above water in the event of an accidental immersion until you can get your breathing under control. It will also keep you afloat while you concentrate on rescuing yourself. If you are unable to rescue yourself, your life jacket can provide some thermal protection against the onset of hypothermia and keep you afloat until someone else can rescue you.


How do I know if I have hypothermia?

Early symptoms of hypothermia include feeling cold, shivering, loss of coordination, and feeling tired or ill. If the victim is not treated, violent shivering, increased heart rate, and impaired judgment will result. In advanced stages of hypothermia, symptoms include cessation of shivering, loss of consciousness, cold skin and blue lips, and the inability to speak, walk or swim. As this condition progresses, your breathing and heart can stop, resulting in death.


How can I avoid hypothermia?

You can avoid hypothermia by preventing heat loss. The best way to do this is to be properly equipped and clothed. This may include wetsuits, dry suits, warm synthetic clothing, fast-drying clothing, life jackets and a warm hat.

Your body temperature can drop quickly if your boat capsizes and you are in cold water. Get as far out of the water as possible by climbing onto any floating object, such as the boat's hull. This may help prevent heat loss from your body, especially if the temperature is warm and the winds are calm.

If you cannot get out of the water, keep your head out of the water to limit heat loss. Curl into a ball or huddle with other passengers and restrict movement of arms and legs to further help limit heat loss. These are known as HELP or Heat Escape Lessening Positions. The positions are most effective in calm waters.

Staying out of the wind may become a very important factor is staying warm as well. Wind chill, the effect of wind and air temperature on the human body, can rapidly cause heat loss, especially if you are already wet.

Lastly, hypothermia is the early stages can easily be reversed by vigorously exercising to generate body heat and limiting exposure to further cold. High energy foods and warm liquids (no caffeine or alcohol) also help.

Remember to seek medical help, except in mild cases, as improper rewarming can cause complications. If left untreated, both hypothermia and hyperthermia can result in death.


What else can I do to protect my family and friends during this boating season?

  • File a float plan
    • Boaters are also advised to file a float plan before heading out on the water.
    • The chances of successfully locating an overdue boat are much greater if the US Coast Guard or other rescue agencies have certain facts about the boat trip that may be included on a float plan.
    • For your own safety and before boating, file a float plan with a reliable person who will notify authorities if necessary.
  • Know your limits
    • Swimming in open water is more difficult than in a swimming pool - people tire more quickly and can get into trouble.
    • Cold water causes impairment leading to fatalities. It reduces body heat 25-30 times faster than air does at the same temperature.
    • Many unseen obstacles can be lurking below the water's surface. Swift water can make these obstacles even more treacherous.
  • Parental supervision
    • Actively supervise children in and around open bodies of water, giving them your undivided attention. Appoint a designated "water watcher," taking turns with other adults.
    • Teach children that swimming in open water is not the same as swimming in a pool: they need to be aware of uneven surfaces, river currents, ocean undertow and changing weather.
  • Know the law
    • A 2010 boating law states that children under age 13 must wear a life jacket when on a moving vessel that is 26 feet or less in length.
    • Every person on board a personal watercraft (popularly known as "jet skis") and any person being towed behind a vessel must wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
    • It is against the law to operate a boat or water ski with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more. You can be arrested even when your BAC is less than 0.08 percent if conditions are deemed to be unsafe.
    • Other California boating laws