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Important tips for cold-water survival

Charles Sutherland, an expert in cold-water physiology, doesn’t mince words when it comes to cold-water survival:

“Cold water and no life jacket equals no chance.”

Cold water expert Charles Sutherland explains what it takes to survive in cold water to attendees at a recent workshop.

Sutherland, of Green Lane, Pa., is a cold-water workshop instructor for the American Canoe Association and avid sea kayaker since 1978. He teaches classes in his home state as well as throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

“Your swimming ability in warm water has no relationship with your ability to swim in cold water. In water below 40 degrees, a strong swimmer in warm water could die before swimming 100 feet,” says Sutherland. “Cold water removes heat from the body four times as fast as air at the same temperature. Immersion in turbulent water or attempting to swim can double the rate of heat loss from the body.”

Without a life jacket, survival time can be reduced to minutes, he says.

For kayakers and canoers, having a paddling partner is extremely important.

“It’s a lot easier to be rescued if your kayak flips over if there’s someone else there,” says Sutherland, who recently conducted a cold-water workshop in conjunction with the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Norwalk, Conn. “Many of us do, at times, paddle by ourselves, but the level of caution needs to be … in proportion with the coldness of the water.”

The Coast Guard Auxiliary recommends carrying the following survival gear: a VHF radio, rescue knife, whistle or boat horn, signal mirror, strobe light, flares, bailer or hand pump and an EPIRB. But it’s equally important to be able to access that equipment, says Sutherland.

“We always recommend that people tie any important equipment to themselves on a 3-foot string, and then attach themselves to the kayak somehow,” he says. “Once you’re out of that boat all that stuff might as well be in the basement of your house back on land.”

Sutherland also recommends that boaters of any type use a dry suit for any water temperature below 40 F — and be sure to use it properly.

Sutherland’s message to cold-water and off season boaters is simple:

• Dress to swim. Be prepared to go in the water at any time by always wearing a dry suit and life jackets.

• Test your gear in cold water before you go out.

• Train in assisted- and self-rescue techniques.

The four stages of cold-water immersion in which death can occur include:

Cold shock, which can be fatal immediately or within five minutes of immersion. The cause of death would be cardiac arrest or drowning.

Swimming failure, in which impaired physical performance due to cold can result in drowning, can be fatal between two and 30 minutes from immersion.

Hypothermia, which can kill after 30 minutes of immersion depending upon water temperature. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core cools to the point where the person becomes unconscious and drowns.

Post-rescue collapse, which results in death at the point of rescue or up to several hours after.

For more safety tips on cold water boating, visit Sutherland’s online brochure at

Rande Wilson is Public Affairs Officer (FSO-PA) for the US Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Ellis, Soundings Staff Writer.

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters section of the June 2009 issue.