Life jackets are essential boating equipment in any season. Lightweight inflatables are popular in the summer months; however, in cold weather, float coats and jackets will provide buoyancy and additional insulation. While the boat is underway, everyone should wear a life jacket at all times; there is rarely time to put one on during an emergency. To help rescuers find you more quickly, consider equipping your life jackets with devices such as whistles, strobe lights, signal mirrors and/or personal locator beacons. If you do fall in, stay with your boat where you can be more easily spotted.
Think about how you will retrieve anyone who falls overboard. Climbing back in can be next to impossible in heavy, cold, wet winter clothes—even for someone otherwise uninjured. Consider providing a sling if your boat has no boarding ladder. If you boat in cold weather often I would strongly recommend that you practice (under warmer conditions) how you would get back in your boat, as well as how you would bring passengers on board under cold weather conditions.
Know What to Do
In autumn, those occasional warm days can be deceiving because water temperature can be frigid. Simple steps may turn a worst-case scenario of a swamped or capsized boat into the best-case scenario for surviving cold-water immersion. To reduce the risk, do not to overload your boat, avoid those situations that put you at risk of going overboard, and make sure that everyone wears a life jacket.
Understanding the critical phases of cold-water immersion and some basic techniques for delaying their onset greatly increases your chance of survival. Cold shock is an initial deep and sudden gasp, followed by hyperventilation. Keeping your airway clear and wearing a life jacket greatly reduces drowning risk. Try to avoid panicking, and concentrate on your breathing. Cold shock normally passes in one minute.
Over the next 10 minutes you will lose the effective use of your extremities. Concentrate on self-rescue; if that’s not possible, keep your airway clear and wait for rescue. Remain calm. Don’t try to swim—the movements associated with swimming can cause body heat to escape 10 times faster.
Hypothermia means that a person is losing body heat faster than they can produce it, but even in ice water it may take an hour before a person becomes unconscious. (To learn more about surviving cold-water immersion, visit www.coldwaterbootcamp.com.) If you cannot get out of the water and help is not immediately available, draw your knees to your chest and wrap your arms across your chest, hugging your life jacket in the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (H.E.L.P.) and protecting the critical areas of heat loss. If others are in the water with you, huddle together with your arms around each other. Huddling in a group will help conserve body heat, keep everyone together, and make a larger target to spot in the water.
Don’t Boat Alone
With fewer boaters on the water, not boating alone is especially important. If you are injured or fall in the water, having one or two other people on board means someone can help you back in the boat or call for assistance.
As a matter of routine—in winter or summer—every boat operator should file a float plan listing a description of the boat, the number of persons on board, the area where you’ll be boating, and your anticipated return time. Leave it with a friend, family member or someone at the marina. Should you fail to return, a float plan containing this basic information can assist the local marine police or Coast Guard if they need to initiate a search. Just remember, if you're delayed for reasons other than an emergency, inform those in possession of your float plan as soon as possible. Be sure to notify them when you do return so the float plan can be closed out. The Coast Guard makes float plan forms available online (http://www.uscgboating.org/safety/float_planning.aspx).