As we head into the busy time of the summer boating season, Lieutenant Commander Brian LeFebvre, the Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator at U.S. Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound in Seattle, wanted to pass along some vital information to those who plan to venture out onto the water.
Here is his message to boaters:
Cold water kills.
That is the stark truth of a lesson I first learned from a grainy, black and white water survival video I saw as a cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Sadly, I’ve seen the devastating simplicity of that lesson bear out time and again, including recent tragedies in the greater Seattle area where cold water snatched the lives of two adults and a thirteen year old boy.
Here in the Puget Sound region, where average summer water temperatures reach just 55 degrees, the threat of cold water is masked by summer sunshine, warm breezes, abundant fishing and spectacular scenery.
When suddenly immersed in cold water the human body gets shocked, setting off a number of uncontrollable reactions that frequently lead to drowning.
First, the body instinctively gasps for air increasing the chance of immediate drowning if too much water is swallowed and enters the lungs.
Second, blood pressure and heart rate increase substantially which can trigger panic, hyperventilation and cardiac arrest – all making survival increasingly more difficult.
After the reaction to immediate cold shock, the body works instinctively to preserve its core temperature. At this stage the loss of blood flow to the arms and legs causes muscular failure and the inability to swim.
So, what can you do to prevent boating accidents and increase chances of survival if one occurs?
Wear your lifejacket
Lifejackets, also known as personal flotation devices, are the easiest and most cost effective way to save lives on the water. Yet statistics show that fewer than 4.5-percent of adults over the age of 18 wear them. And even when boats carry a lifejacket for each person the jackets are often stowed in hard to reach compartments. That’s like storing your car’s seat belt in the trunk.
When the weather changes, your boat heels over too far, or a person gets tangled in fishing gear, someone may be unexpectedly and suddenly immersed in cold water. At that point it is often too late to put on a lifejacket.
All of the reasons not to operate an automobile while drinking apply on the water. In addition to impairing judgment and coordination, alcohol in the blood stream magnifies cold shock and precipitously weakens the body’s resistance to hypothermia.
Have a plan
Don’t take anything for granted. Even the most experienced boaters have accidents. Before heading out file a float plan with a friend, look over your boat for hazards, check safety equipment, study the weather and identify at least two methods to contact emergency responders. Cell phones don’t work everywhere in Puget Sound.
If you are suddenly immersed in cold water, keep in mind the following Coast Guard slogan to improve your chances of survival: “1 minute – 10 minutes – 1 hour.”
You have 1 minute to get your breathing under control, don’t panic.
You have 10 minutes of meaningful movement before you will lose the ability to move your arms and legs. Use this time to get out of the water, put on a lifejacket or stabilize your situation.
You have 1 hour until you become unconscious from hypothermia, if you don’t panic and struggle unnecessarily. And if you are wearing a lifejacket, it may take another hour until your heart stops due to hypothermia.
Coast Guard men and women across the region are poised to respond in the event a mariner reports distress. Our willingness to prosecute marine distress missions is unmatched but we need your help to make this boating season the safest on record. So wear your lifejacket, avoid alcohol and have a plan.