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Cold weather boating – part one

This past weekend Hampton Roads weather came back to reality. While we basked in 70-degree temperatures a week ago, last Saturday was a cold slap back to reality because temperatures did not hit 30 in my Driver neighborhood.

The return of crisp fall weather has reminded me it’s time to focus readers on cold weather boating. Believe it or not this time of the year is a wonderful time to get underway on the water. If you are fishermen your favorite spot is probably uncrowded, in fact you may have that special location all to yourselves. The same holds true for recreational boaters – you won’t see nearly as many vessels underway these days, then you do in August.

The colder weather means less congestion, but it also means that you need to take some extra precautions before you ever leave the dock. It also means if a problem occurs, including falling or being thrown into the water, you need to be armed with some tools that will help you get through the ordeal. With this in mind I’ll be spending the next three columns on cold weather boating including preparations, responses to emergencies and the dangers of hypothermia.

First off let’s talk some realities about the fall and winter in Hampton Roads. True, we are not Maine, in which 20 degrees below is a balmy day in January. But sea temperatures in Virginia aren’t exactly Caribbean warm. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Oceanographic Data Center (http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/dsdt/cwtg/satl.html) the current water temperature this past Saturday (when I wrote this column) was 58.1 degrees at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. That’s cold.

The danger and challenges of boating during the winter was reported in the January 2006 edition of the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety’s online magazine &uot;Waypoints.&uot;

A cold weather boating article entitled &uot;The Dangers of Winter Boating: A Chilly Topic&uot; reported that many boaters are surprised to discover that while there are more total fatalities during the summer months of June, July, and August, boaters are almost twice as likely to be involved in a fatal accident during November, January, and February.

Consider this: in 2004, there was approximately one death for every 10 reported boating accidents in June, July, and August, resulting in 87, 122, and 85 deaths respectively. However, in the months of November, January, and February, there was approximately one death for every five reported boating accidents.

These are serious numbers.

So what do you do to make sure your winter boating experience is as safe as possible? Let’s focus on three things.

First off, and perhaps most importantly, carefully chose what you will wear. Keeping yourself warm and dry is imperative. If you are a diehard sailboarder or canoe enthusiast make sure that you are dressed in either a dry suit or a wet suit. A recent case right here in Virginia, which the Coast Guard brought to a successful end, was indeed a happy ending because the sailboarder had on a wet suit.

Second, make sure your vessel’s engine has had its maintenance and that adequate fuel supplies are onboard. I can’t tell you the number of cases that I have read about, throughout the United States during the winter, in which people ran out of gas and became a search and rescue case. Just like with your car engine – make sure your outboard or inboard has been properly winterized!

Third, remember the effects of alcohol. According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, (http://www.fish.state.pa.us/drinking.html), &uot;The body cools faster when alcohol is introduced into the system. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels, increasing heat loss. A few drinks can shorten survival time if a boater is unexpectedly immersed in cold water.&uot;

Next week we’ll take look at Part II of this series on the effects of winter boating – the effects of Cold Shock. Until next week….Boat Safe, Boat Smart and Happy Thanksgiving!