When (if?) cold weather arrives, be ready

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 4, 2005

A couple of weeks ago I was developing my slate of topics for this column, which would take me through the end of February.

I noticed that had not run a specific column about winter boating.

Of course, as I am typing this, it is nearly 60 degrees outside so I had to ask myself if cold weather was a good choice for this particular week. Well, as both you and I know, this mild burst of heating-oil-saving 60-plus degree weather is a mere pause, rather than the sudden onslaught of spring. We still have a few months more to go until then!

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Face it, readers, the fall weather is now behind us. The 11 inches that we received in Suffolk last Sunday was wonderful and it reminds everyone that winter is here, and that boating during this season has a few more challenges than it does in the summer.

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest challenge – the water temperature. A quick check of the NOAA web site revealed that the water off Cape Charles is 39.9 degrees. That’s cold! The risk to a boater of hypothermia, the lowering of the core temperature within the body, is considerable. Consider these facts.

When the water temperature drops to 70 degrees, hypothermia 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:

– 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.

-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.

-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, that have previously provided by the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Public Affairs staff for consideration during the cold weather season:

-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 people 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!

-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, by radio. Use them!

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

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

-Be aware of your vessel’s load/stability limitations. Bulky cold weather items add weight and may affect stability.

-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 we’ll look at cold weather boating and some other considerations. Until then, boat safe, boat smart and stay WARM!