I couldn’t feel my hands anymore and using them was impossible. The shivering was uncontrollable and violent. “That’s a good sign,” I thought.
I remembered from my studies of hypothermia that shivering stops before you lose consciousness. “If I’m still shivering then I’ll live for a while longer,” I reasoned. But mostly I was wondering how I got myself into that mess.
No, I hadn’t fallen overboard or stumbled off the docks. I had jumped into a half-frozen Lake Eerie on purpose. Forty people saw me do it and they were all just standing there, watching me – with cameras rolling – slowly freeze to death.
The National Water Safety Congress, who got eight of us to volunteer for this crazy – federally funded – experiment in suffering, recruited in August by design. It was easy to agree to jump into freezing cold water when it’s sunny and warm out. Their public service DVD – Cold Water Boot Camp, USA – was designed to dispel two dangerous myths about cold water: one is that a person’s swimming ability makes any real difference in their need for a life jacket, and the other is that hypothermia kills quickly. Neither is true.
I’m going to come right out and tell you something that almost no one in the maritime industry understands. That includes mariners, executives, managers, insurers, dock workers, for certain – fisherman, and even many (most) rescue professionals:
It is impossible to get hypothermic in cold water unless you are wearing flotation, because without flotation – you won’t live long enough to become hypothermic.
Despite the research, the experience, and all the data, I still hear “experts” touting – as wisdom – completely false information about cold water and what happens to people who get in it. With another season of really cold water approaching, I feel compelled to get these points across in a way that will change the way mariners behave out there on (or near) the water. What follows is the truth about cold water and cold water immersion. I know that you think you know all there is to know about hypothermia already (and maybe you do), but read ahead and see if you aren’t surprised by something. When the water is cold (say under 50 degrees F) there are significant physiological reactions that occur, in order, almost always.
You Can’t Breathe: The first is phase of cold water immersion is called the cold shock response: It is a stage of increased heart rate and blood pressure, uncontrolled gasping, and sometimes uncontrolled movement. Lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes depending on a number of factors, the cold shock response can be deadly all by itself. In fact, of all the people who die in cold water, it is estimated that 20% die in the first two minutes. They drown, they panic, they take on water in that first uncontrolled gasp, if they have heart problems – the cold shock may trigger a heart attack. Surviving this stage is about getting your breathing under control, realizing that the stage will pass, and staying calm.
You Can’t Swim: One of the primary reasons given by recreational boaters when asked why they don’t wear a life jacket, is that they can swim. Listen up, Tarzan; I swam for a living for the better part of my adult life, and when the water is cold – none of us can swim for very long. The second stage of cold water immersion is called cold incapacitation. lacking adequate insulation your body will make its own. Long before your core temperature drops a degree, the veins in your extremities (those things you swim with) will constrict, you will lose your ability control your hands, and the muscles in your arms and legs will just flat out quit working well enough to keep you above water. Without some form of flotation, and in not more than 30 minutes, the best swimmer among us will drown – definitely – no way around it. Without ever experiencing a drop in core temperature (at all) over 50% of the people who die in cold water, die from drowning perpetuated by cold incapacitation.
At the beach at Cape Canaveral, nineteen-year-old Josh Scurlock looks out at the water. The larger than normal waves look rough but not too rough so he and a friend go out in them to play. A strong swimmer – Josh loves the ocean and his new Florida home just five blocks from the beach. It’s Saturday and the sun is out and there is no school and nothing at all is wrong in the world.
Having recently moved to Florida from Indiana, he doesn’t notice – or even know how to notice – the rip current that will sweep him out to sea and away from his friend. Once caught in its pull, his instincts are to head back in. The land is where safe is and something is pulling him away from it so he fights. Swimming as hard as he can for as long as he can – with his friend on the beach now yelling for help – Josh Scurlock tires and drowns. And though a heroic surfer eventually makes it to him and brings him to shore – he cannot be revived. Josh never sees twenty.
The U.S. Lifesaving Association says a story like that will happen over a hundred times this year on U.S. beaches. My hope – and of that Josh’s mother, Dawn – is that they will be wrong. By knowing what to look for, where to swim, and how to escape one should you get caught in a rip current, your summer will be a safer one.
What is a rip current? Pictured to the left is a classic example: able to develop anywhere there are breaking waves, these swaths of current produced by water draining from the beach and back out to sea happen all the the time to lesser degrees without posing appreciable risk.
Often they move slow enough to barely be detected. But given the right circumstances of waves and beach profile, they can develop into currents moving at speeds of up to 8 feet per second – faster than any of us can possibly swim. Ranging in size from just a few feet to hundreds of yards, their pull can be to just outside the breaking waves to over a hundred yards from shore.
How to spot a rip current: As with all risks, avoiding it altogether is safest. Though not always visually detectable – stronger rip currents can give off some telltale signs.
An area of water through a surf zone that is a different color than the surrounding water
A break in the incoming pattern of waves
seaweed or debris moving out through the surf zone
Isolated turbulent and choppy water in the surf zone
Often, the best resource to help you avoid rip currents – not surprisingly – are the lifeguards.
Eight out of ten people rescued by beach lifeguards in the U.S. are rescued from rip currents. Guards hate rips and know how to spot them. Before going in, ask the nearest guard specifically about rip currents in the area and what the threat level is for rip currents. Also, please check the NOAA for Rip Current Threat advisories by clicking here.
If avoidance fails: If you are caught in a rip current the primary thing to so is to stay calm and relax. You are not going to win a fight with the ocean. Swim slowly and conservatively parallel to the shoreline or relax and let it carry you out past the breakers until it slacks.
Contrary to myth – rip currents are not “undertow,” a misleading term. They will not pull you under the water. So long as you can tread water or float you will be safe until you can escape the flow and head back. When you head back in, do so at an angle to the shoreline. Again, maintain a slow and relaxed pace until you reach the shore or assistance arrived. If swimming at a guarded beach ─ and you should be ─ they will most likely have seen you and will be on their way out (or watching carefully).
Swim only on guarded beaches. The USLA estimates the chance of drowning on a guarded beach is 1 in 18,000,000.
Talk to the guards about local hazards before getting in the water.
[Experienced] surfers go out when it’s rough because it’s fun and they are tethered to huge boards that float.* (See note) If you’re not VERY comfortable in rough water over your head – stay out of rough water totally. You’re not ready.
NEVER swim alone.
There is nothing wrong with making your young children wear USCG approved life jackets to play in the surf. That doesn’t mean you can leave them alone – but it will make them safer.
Discuss rip currents and how to deal with them with your children. In fact, make them read every page of http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/ and write you a report.
Swim only on guarded beaches. I said that twice for a reason.
I’d like to personally thank Dawn Armstrong for giving me permission to use the story of her son, Josh, to get your attention. Dawn is working hard to educate the public in her area of the country about the dangers of rip currents so that no one else will have a story like hers to tell.
* (Note: Reader Nate L., an avid surfer, correctly schooled me up and pointed out that too many beginning surfers depend on their boards for floatation. That’s a huge mistake. Leashes break, surfer’s lose their boards, and then the weak swimmers among them are in just as much danger as anyone else. Nate’s advice for surfers is “…if you can’t swim out and back from the break without a board, it’s too big for you to go out.”
Thanks Nate – that is a VERY good point.
disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.