Dealing with cold weather on the water

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 4, 2002

Quick poll: who found the temperatures a bit brisk on Halloween? I did as I sat on my front porch dressed in a warlock outfit handing out ring pops, M&Ms and other assorted goodies! Couple this with a need to pre-heat my car before departing Thursday morning to defrost the coat of ice formed on the front and back windows and one quickly comes to the conclusion that there is a need to address cold weather boating.

Face it, the hot weather is now behind us! Put away your shorts and break out the Gortex!

According to the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Public Affairs Office in Portsmouth, the water temperature in the Hampton Roads, area drops 54- to 36 degrees between November and December. The 18-degree drop is the most drastic plunge in the cold weather season.

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In the winter months, there are typically fewer boaters on the water. However, the risk factors are still high. For example, from December 2000 to February 2001, 71 boaters died nationally. Fewer boaters mean fewer Good Samaritans who may be in the area to help. What does this mean? Help may not be as close as on a warm sunny Saturday in July.

When the water temperature drops to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia (the lowering of the core temperature within the body) can set in quickly. Signs of hypothermia include shivering, drowsiness, confusion, dizziness and weakness. Those who plan to be on the water, especially in colder weather, need to dress for the possibility of entering the water unexpectedly. This includes wearing a Coast Guard approved life jacket. There are specialty life jackets on the market for hunting and fishing.

If a boater finds himself in the water, what should they do? Here are some simple suggestions:

1. Tuck your legs into your chest and cross your arms, essentially hugging yourself. This is called the heat escape lessening position (HELP). Doing this will reduce the loss of body heat by 50 percent.

2. Stay as still as possible. Treading water or swimming will burn much needed energy. Do not swim for shore or another boat unless very close.

3. If more than one person is in the water, hug one another and stay close, sharing body heat.

All recreational boaters including hunters transiting a river to a favorite location, should keep in mind the following safety tips, again provided by the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Public Affairs staff for consideration during the cold weather season:

1. Carry one Coast Guard-approved immersion suit of the proper size for each person on board the vessel and insure it’s easily accessible. All onboard should be well versed in how to properly wear and maintain the immersion suit. If you haven’t tried yours on yet take time and practice! These take a few practice tries to become comfortable with!

2. Be aware of current and forecasted weather conditions. Think about the number of ways you can get the latest weather info: by phone, by computer, or by radio. Use them!

3. Life rafts must be readily accessible or stowed to float free if the vessel sinks. Crewmembers must know how to operate them.

4. Carry the proper number and type of Coast Guard approved fire extinguishers.

5. Be aware of your vessel’s load/stability limitations. Rem-ember bulky cold weather items add weight and may effect stability.

6. File a float plan with someone on land with the intended destination and length of your trip. Make sure that person has the number for the Coast Guard and/or Virginia authorities.

Finally, just use your head. Cold weather recreational boating can be incredibly enjoyable. However, there are additional factors that you really need to consider. Next week will continue to look at cold weather boating and some other considerations. Until then, boat safe, boat smart and stay warm!

LCDR Joe DiRenzo III is a resident of Suffolk and a regular columnist for the News-Herald.