The danger of hypothermia is always present in cold weather like Suffolk’s

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 10, 2002

This past week really reminded all of us that Hampton Roads can get cold quickly. Temperatures in the high 30s at 5 a.m. are not something those in Suffolk are used to. When you add in 10-15 knots of wind the temperature drops even further. Face it – it was cold!

Last week I started a discussion on cold weather boating. This week I’ll explore one specific facet of boating in the fall and winter – hypothermia.

First off, a basic question needs to be addressed: what is hypothermia?

Email newsletter signup

According to the Web site (yes, there is such a site), &uot;hypothermia is defined as a body core temperature of less than 35 degree Celsius. Decreased consciousness occurs when the core temperature falls to approximately 32 to 30 degrees.&uot; (The temperature at 35 degrees Celsius equals 94 degrees Fahrenheit equals, and at 32 degrees Celsius equals 87 degrees Fahrenheit.)

What is the biggest danger hypothermia presents? The same site goes on to add that &uot;Heart failure is the usual cause of death when the core temperature cools to below 30 degrees. The body loses heat to the water about 30 times faster than in the air.&uot;

To understand hypothermia and its dangers it is good to have a feel for the signs and stages that a boater, or for that matter, a recreational diver, might encounter.

According to a couple of different Coast Guard publications the signs for hypothermia include: shivering, numbness, weakness, impaired vision, dizziness, confusion, impaired judgement, drowsiness

The stages include:

1 – Shivering

2 – Apathy

3 – Loss of Consciousness

4 – Decreasing heart rate and breathing

5 – Death

If you do end up in the water, what can you do to minimize heat loss and protect your vital organs? The best thing to do is assume the Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP). This position is best described as placing yourself into a three-fourths sitting position in the water, with your hands crossed and knees bent. If you have a hat on, keep it on. This will minimize heat loss.

The other important item to remember is keep in mind what experts say about swimming under these conditions. states, &uot;Swimming is an option, but this leads to faster heat loss and exhaustion, even a strong swimmer wouldn’t be able to swim more than one kilometer in calm water. Cramps and hypothermia develop more quickly, and usually a victim becomes semiconscious and is likely to drown.&uot;

What about hypothermia and recreational divers? We’ll explore that topic next week. So until then – Boat Safe, Boat Smart!

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