Cold Weather Boating: All You Need To Know!
It might seem crazy to some, but there are plenty of people who boat in cold whether almost exclusively. We've covered how to winterize your boat engine but haven't yet talked about the safety precautions that need to be taken should you decide to enjoy a bit of boating despite the icy grasp of winter.
Safety is more important than ever when partaking in cold weather boating, particularly if you're on an excursion all by yourself. Things can turn deadly in no time without the proper precautions in place. Going overboard in the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico can be dangerous, but nowhere near as dangerous as a dip in the Great Lakes during the dead of winter!
Hypothermia certainly does happen, but you absolutely do not want it to happen to you. When the body gets too cold it starts to shut down vital systems. When things are too frigid that can lead to your heart slowing down. The final stages of hypothermia are a loss of consciousness and then death...
These symptoms can come on quickly and develop even faster. A person submerged in icy water will rarely last for more than a couple of minutes before succumbing to the cold. While I constantly suggest life jackets for boating safety, it might not be enough to save you should you take a dip in wintery water.
Ideally, you will always have a first mate on board if you decide to take a cold weather boating trip. If you do decide to fly solo you have about 30 seconds to pull yourself back on board before your strength is sapped and hypothermia sets in. Once that happens, things are all but over. Jack Frost is not a friend.
Luckily hypothermia is fairly easy to treat. Remove all wet clothing, warm the person up with blankets or skin to skin contact, and wait for signs of improvement. If recovery doesn't seem to be making progress then you'll want to get them to the ER as soon as possible!
Watch Out For Wind
Even if you manage to pull yourself out of the drink, whipping wind can still cause hypothermia. Being wet certainly lowers your core temperature, but when wind us passed over wet skin? Things can get dangerous in a hurry. The same mechanism that makes sweating so effective at keeping us cool during warm weather or heavy activity can easily become a double-edged sword.
You don't need to submerge yourself in order for wind to become your worst enemy either. A rogue wave over the bow or even just an accumulation of water spray can soak your clothes in a hurry. If you insist on cold weather boating then you'll need to wear the correct clothes.
Dress For Success
It might seem ridiculous to pile on endless layers and throw a life jacket on top of it all. Feeling like a marshmallow person is a small price to pay in order to keep yourself that much safer from the dangers of cold weather boating. Long johns, sweaters, and especially a waterproof outer layer are all essentials for boating in the winter months.
Emergency Exit Plan
A float plan is always a good idea. Tell multiple people that you trust with your life (literally) what you plan to do and when you expect to return. If you are delayed then stay in contact to update them on the itinerary. If you don't arrive when expected, insist that your float plan holders contact the authorities ASAP.
Encountering an emergency is almost a given when you've been sailing for as long as I have, and a waterborne emergency is bad enough but adding cold weather into the mix? It might be a recipe for disaster if you don't maintain your bearing. Assess the situation and figure out the best course of action.
If you are stuck in a storm then do your best to stay warm and dry as you stay put. If someone's life is in danger, you might be forced to head for shore and run your boat aground. Insurance exists for a reason, things can always be replaced but a person can't. Calling for help is an option (which is why a marine radio is so critical) but if you can't be reached then revert to hunkering down until the worst of the storm passes.
Being prepared for the worst can mean the difference between life and death in a marine emergency, particularly a cold weather marine emergency. Taking on icy water? You'll wish you had brought a manual bilge pump! A telescoping mini-paddle might not replace a stalled engine, but it can take your dinghy where it needs to go if you do end up forced to abandon ship.
Stay safe on your cold weather boating adventure! You can certainly still have fun even if Mother Nature attempts to disagree.