It’s My Turn
At the time at which I write (the evening of March 2), I haven’t heard all details about the rescue of a kayaker which occurred on March 1 on Jamaica Bay, near the Rockaway Peninsula, but those which I do have (a lone paddler, a capsize, and a rescue featuring two helicopters and marine and shore units from the NYPD and NYFD) point to a story that’s far too common in the late winter and early Spring.
We’re now in the time of year that can be the worst for boating accidents. When there’s snow on the ground, only the most hard-core of boaters think of going out, but when the weather turns warm in the late winter or early spring, everyone’s tempted to get an early start on the season. Unfortunately, too many people launch on one of these balmy days without realizing the water is still winter-cold, with very little margin for error. This continues to be true through April and on into May, even if its shortsand t-shirt weather on land and a mishap can turn very serious very fast.
There’s a wealth of information available on cold-water boating safety, but a person has to be aware that the risk is there, and it sometimes just isn’t that obvious. I grew up in warmer climes and had some learning to do when I started kayaking in NYC. I was lucky, though, and learned my lesson my first year by watching a wetsuit-clad friend capsize in a lake that had turned cold by early October. She came up gasping, confused, and almost stunned. She recovered and kept paddling, but she was still shaken at the end of the day. As we’d been moving into the fall, our instructors had been telling us repeatedly about the dangers of cold water, but that was the first time I really understood just how dangerous an unexpected immersion could be.
What I watched my friend experience was one of the most dangerous of the physiological effects of a sudden off-season ducking – cold shock. People think of hypothermia as the primary hazard of falling in cold water, and it’s a real danger, but to die of hypothermia, first you have to survive the initial impact. Cold shock can cause involuntary gasping (possibly fatal if the victim’s head is underwater), hyperventilation, and severe disorientation (the victim may not know which way is up or even be quite sure where they are for the first moments).
In the worst cases, cold shock can cause cardiac arrest. Hypothermia only comes into play if the boater is able to recover from these uncontrollable responses to that first moment in the water.
It sounds awful, and it can be for an unprepared boater – but for all that, I’m now part of a group of experienced Sebago Canoe Club paddlers who paddle out of the Paerdegat Basin in Canarsie twelve months of the year. Off-season is a wonderful time on the bay. You can be out for hours and only see the NYPD launch or one of the Coast Guard’s RIBS the whole time. The bay teems with overwintering ducks and geese, and curious harbor seals may pop up anywhere. We love it – but we also have a lot of respect for the hazards and do everything we can to minimize the risk and maximize the fun.
Here are some of the safe-boating practices commonly followed by the Sebago off-season paddling crew:
Always wear a properly fitted lifejacket. NYS boating law requires that all boaters in recreational craft that are less than 21 feet in length wear lifejackets from November 1 through May 1. If you happen to fall in, it will mitigate or maybe even eliminate the coldshock effect by keeping you from going as far under; you’ll have a better chance of having your gasp reflex in the air instead of underwater, it’ll bring you up if you’ve momentarily lost your sense of direction, and then it will keep you afloat without having to swim (which just speeds up the hypothermia process).
Dress for the water, not the air. Different people have different levels of tolerance, but the rule of thumb among most of the trained paddlers in the area is drysuits and neoprene hoods if the water’s under 50, wetsuits for the 50’s and 60’s.
Boat with friends. Assisted rescues are almost always easier and less tiring than self-rescues, and if hypothermia sets in the other members of the group can see the symptoms and render aid.
Carry a VHF radio, and know how to use it. Cell phones aren’t so good; most can’t stand much water and, more importantly, 911 operators may not know the waterways or have any way to dispatch a boat to help you.
A VHF is a much better way to reach someone who can actually help you (Coast Guard, Harbor Police, or even a nearby angler).
Carry supplies to help combat hypothermia – these can vary according to your tastes and the space in your boat, but I usually carry a thermos of hot cider, something to eat (the body burns calories just staying warm), gloves, a space blanket, spare dry clothing, and if it’s a really cold day, a windproof balaclava.
File a float plan. Tell someone where you’re going and what time you expect to be back. If you don’t check in at the expected time, they can kick off a search.
Play it safe, don’t push your limits. Our winter paddles tend to be much shorter than our summer trips, and we get much more conservative about the weather conditions in which we’ll run a trip (we pay very close attention to the forecast in the days leading up to a trip).
Practice rescues in controlled conditions and work on them until you can get yourself and/or a friend back in a boat without having to think about it. Don’t assume that you’re not going to capsize or fall in; accidents can happen to the best.
Take care of your gear, and test it occasionally to make sure you can rely on it. Rescue practice is the best time to find out that your drysuit is leaking. Tugging at the buckles and straps of your lifejacket can reveal seams weakened by age and UV exposure. If you keep flares or other emergency gear in a zippered pouch, check the zipper now and then to make sure it hasn’t seized up from the salt air, and so on and so forth. Basically, if you would need it to work in an emergency, don’t wait for the emergency to find out if it works.
Educate yourself! I’ve just given an intro here. There’s a lot more information out there, and all sorts of ways to find it. You can surf the web, pick up a books or pamphlets at your local outfitter or chandlery, ask experienced boaters for advice, and attend a coldwater workshop run by a local club or boating shop, or all of the above. Whether you want to boat 12 months out of the year, or just break out the skiff on a nice day in March, you’re sure to have a better time if you’ve taken the time to learn what you need to know about cold water boating safety. Happy boating!