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In cold weather, dress to swim: expert

Charles Sutherland, Ph.D., an expert in cold-water physiology, doesn’t mince words when it come to cold-water survival: “Cold water and no life jacket equals no chance.”

Sutherland shared his insights recently with the attendees at the Cold Water Workshop held recently at The Small Boat Shop in Norwalk, Conn.

“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 … could die before swimming 100 feet,” says Sutherland. “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.

VIDEO: Cold Water Boot Camp USA takes eight hardy volunteers from across America and puts them into cold water to see what really happens. Produced by the National Water Safety Congress.

More resources

> Visit Sutherland's Web site
> Cold Water Boating by Chuck Sutherland (PDF)

Sutherland’s message to cold-water and offseason 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.

Boaters need to dress for swimming, not for the air temperature. Most importantly, wear a dry suit. “Without the waterproof dry suit ‘shell,’ the inner layers are instantly turned to icy-cold dead weight when immersed in cold water,” Sutherland explains.

Rande Wilson is Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

See related article: "Search for N.H. sea kayaker is called off."

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.