The Golden Rules of Cold Water Safety

by Nancy Soares on October 29, 2012

by Moulton Avery

Editor’s note: Moulton Avery is an expert on heat and cold stress.  He gave his first public lecture on hypothermia in 1974.  He was executive director of the Center for Environmental Physiology in Washington, DC for ten years, and is the founder and director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety.  He is a former ACA Sea Kayaking Instructor and Instructor Trainer.

A little over twenty years ago, Sea Kayaker magazine editor Chris Cunningham stuck his neck out and published my article Cold Shock (Spring 1991).  Cold water safety was a controversial subject at the time, and with one notable exception, every single letter to the editor written in response to the article was negative.  Among other things, I was accused of scaring paddlers, misrepresenting the facts, and making cold water paddling sound a whole lot more dangerous than it really was.  Here’s what Carl White, an editor of ANORAK (Association of North Atlantic Kayakers) had to say about the ruckus:

“Moulton Avery’s bombshell COLD SHOCK article in the spring 1991 issue literally poured ice water all over SKIN’s (Sea Kayaking INdustry) notions of how to deal with the cold water hazard.  The Summer and Fall 1991 issues brought forth in letters of rebuttal some of the most absurd nonsense ever seen in the pages of the magazine.  The ‘challenging conditions’ argument was endlessly repeated, but was also joined with several readers’ injunctions to avoid the need for wetsuits and drysuits by just avoiding capsizing.  Eric Soares’ ringing endorsement of Avery’s article and of habitual wetsuit use was the lone exception to this sorry parade of SKIN rationalizations.”

Eric wasn’t quite world-famous at the time, but he was a a force to be reckoned with in the fledgeling sea kayaking community, and when he wrote that the article should be “taped to the forehead of every sea kayaker”, people took notice.  I don’t have enough words or space to describe how much his letter meant to me personally.  What I can say is that his his firm, unwavering support came at a critical moment, and was invaluable in advancing the cause of cold water safety in our sport.

Fast forward twenty years to the middle of May, 2010.  It’s a gorgeous and unseasonably warm Spring day on the coast of Maine, but the water temperature is still a bone-chilling 48F (9C).  Irina McEntee, 18, and her best friend Carissa Ireland, 20, decide to go paddling.  They are the same age as my own two daughters.

Wearing nothing more than shorts and light shirts, the pair launch their 12 foot blue-green rec boats in calm water at 1:30 pm and begin what they think will be a short, two mile round trip from Peaks Island to Ram Island in Casco Bay.  Irina’s parents actually have a view of the route from their home, and see both girls complete the crossing and land safely on the island.

Casco Bay

Casco Bay

Irina had been kayaking for a number of years, and she’d paddled this route without incident many times before.  Carissa, however, had no previous kayaking experience.  Other than the PFDs they were wearing, neither girl carried any safety or communications gear.  Ram Island is only a mile across the water from Peaks, but the location is exposed – to the East, South, and Southeast, there’s nothing but open ocean, and neither Irina’s parents nor the girls were aware that the National Weather Service had issued a Small Craft Advisory for that afternoon.

By the time Irina and Carissa launched their rec boats for the return trip, the weather had worsened considerably.  The tide was ebbing and the wind had picked up, blowing out of the north and gusting to 22mph.  Unable to make headway in those conditions, they were at the mercy of both wind and tide, which blew them South and carried them East, away from land and into progressively rougher water.

When the girls failed to return home on schedule, Irina’s parents looked out the window and saw much rougher conditions with no kayaks in sight.  By then it was 2.5 hours before sunset.  They called the Coast Guard, which promptly dispatched the 207-foot US Coast Guard cutter Campbell, launched a Jayhawk helicopter and Falcon jet from Air Station Cape Cod, sent out an emergency broadcast on Channel 16, and contacted their “local partners”, setting in motion what was to become a massive search operation.

The Jayhawk Rescue Helicopter

The Jayhawk Rescue Helicopter

As any pilot can attest, it’s not easy to spot small objects from the air.  Nevertheless, by 8:30 pm both kayaks had been located, floating in the open ocean roughly seven miles South of Ram Island, and about a mile SSE of Cape Elizabeth.  One kayak was upright and contained a jacket and T-shirt; the other was upside-down.  Irina and Carissa were nowhere in sight.

After a grueling all-night search involving multiple local agencies and more than 150 people, the girls were found by the Coast Guard at 9:00 am the following morning, floating lifeless in their PFDs, about a mile apart and two miles from where their boats had been found the night before.

I’ve never had an easy time reading about these incidents, and because my daughters were so close in age to the two girls, this one picked me up and shook me like a rag doll.  I knew rationally that their deaths weren’t my fault, but emotionally, as a father, I couldn’t shake the haunting feeling that maybe if I’d done more to promote cold water safety rather than quitting the field at half-time to raise two daughters of my own, Irina and Carissa might still be alive.  I wrestled with that feeling for weeks before finally deciding that I couldn’t live with myself if I walked away from this unspeakable tragedy and went on with my life as if nothing had happened.

That was the crucible in which my dream of starting the National Center for Cold Water Safety was formed – a dream that Eric, with his usual drive, passion, and enthusiasm, came to share.  Shortly before he died, Eric said this to me:  “Moulton, if you just get the ball rolling, good people will come out of the woodwork, as if by magic, to help make this dream come true.” 

He was right, of course.  Good people have indeed come out of the woodwork, and they continue to do so.  The Center is incorporated, we’re a whisker away from obtaining our 501(c)(3) non-profit status from the IRS, and our website will be up by the end of the year.  Eric, I truly wish you were here to see it.

The NCCWS Banner

The NCCWS Banner

At the core of the National Center for Cold Water Safety are five Golden Rules.  Each rule is there for good, realistic, practical reasons that we’re going to explain in detail on the Center’s website. Take a peek. You can find Eric in every single one of them.

1. Always Wear Your PFD

 2. Always Dress for the Water Temperature – No Exceptions!

 3. Field-test Your Gear

4. Swim-test Your Gear Every Time You Go Out

5. Imagine the Worst That Can Happen and Prepare for It

Let’s look at Rule #2: Always Dress for the Water Temperature – No Exceptions!:

A lot of people and organizations pay it lip service, while at the same time jumping through hoops and going to great lengths to argue that it doesn’t apply to them because they are an exception to the rule.

Eric Soares emerges from the surf wearing a full wetsuit and neoprene hood

Eric Soares emerges from the surf wearing a full wetsuit and neoprene hood

In some circles, people are actively discouraged from wearing “extreme” clothing like wetsuits or drysuits – unless, of course, they plan on encountering “challenging conditions” or anticipate “being slammed in the face by a cold wave”.  If that’s the case, then by all means, suit up.  But if they aren’t planning on having any of that rough stuff happen – if they have no intention of capsizing – well, in that case, it’s just fine to skip the protection.  This sort of nonsense can be found in videos, books, magazines, and instruction manuals.  It’s also quite prevalent on the web.

Common Excuses People Give for Making Rule #2 Exceptions

I‘m not wearing a wetsuit or drysuit because:”

  •  I’m not going to capsize.
  • The water temperature is above 60F.
  • I brought extra clothing and warm drinks.
  • I paddle “close to shore” or in “protected waters”.
  • I don’t plan on encountering “challenging conditions”.
  • They’re uncomfortable and get in the way of my paddling.
  •  I paddle with a group and can quickly get back in my boat.
  •  Air temperature + the water temperature = whatever, so it’s safe.
  • The air temperature is too warm and I’m worried that I’ll overheat.
  •  I’m just going out for a quick paddle, not an expedition to the North Pole.
  • They’re too expensive, I’m on a tight budget, and I don’t kayak that often.

The problem with all these excuses is that although they work just fine in Fantasyland, they’re exactly the kind of magical thinking that can get you killed in the real world.  Nobody ever plans on capsizing.  Nor do they ever plan on encountering conditions “challenging” enough to kill them.

The bottom line for anyone paddling on cold water is whether or not they’re adequately prepared for immersion, and the only way to be prepared for immersion is to dress for the water temperature.  No Exceptions!

What’s your own experience with cold water?  What’s your take on the Golden Rules of Cold Water Safety?  Are you always prepared for immersion when you paddle on cold water?  If not, what’s your excuse?  Please comment and let your mates know what you think.

© 2012 National Center for Cold Water Safety. This information is protected by copyright and cannot be reproduced without permission.




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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Fat Paddler October 29, 2012 at 4:08 am

Great article Moulton. I can’t really claim to paddle in REALLY cold water, living in Sydney Australia and all, but I have experienced ridicule for paddling in gear that I feel is appropriate for immersion. Like Eric and the Rangers, I believe paddling is an in-water experience… and being a surf-crazed surfski paddler of dubious skill, I can assure you I spend lots of time swimming and rescuing myself. In winter in particular (and always when rock gardening), I wear a full wetsuit, booties, and depending on where I’m surfing, gloves and helmet as well. I’ve been teased by other surfski purists who paddle to go fast only, who think lycra shorts and singlets are the only way to go, and who accuse me of wearing “more rubber than an S&M dungeon”. But I’ve had some close calls both surfski paddling and rock gardening where there’s no doubt that my gear saved me serious injury or worse, so I stick to my guns on the kit.

Well done on the NCCWS – if it saves a single life, then it has done an amazing thing. Cheers, FP


Moulton Avery October 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Thanks, FP! All this stuff about dressing for the water temperature, wearing PFDs with strobe lights, carrying your communications gear on your PFD etc., etc., always seems like much ado about nothing when you’re safely on shore. Out on the water, when things go sour, it’s a very different story.

Your surfski-purist detractors appear to be suffering from a failure of imagination. The next time they start teasing you about being safety-conscious, tell them about the 10-7-11 incident involving Todd Ellison, 50, on Lake Mille Lacs, Wisconsin.

Todd was a very strong, skilled paddler who went out with four other mates for what they thought was going to be a great 16 mi (26 km) downwind run in 4-6 foot seas generated by 20 – 30 mph (32 – 48 kph) winds. The air temperature was 77F (25C) but the water temperature was 60F (15C). For protection, Todd was wearing a 3 mm Farmer John wetsuit and two “rashguards”.

Todd wasn’t moving as fast as some of his mates wanted to go, so they split the group. Three paddlers went ahead and the fourth stayed behind with Todd. The only communication device they had was Todd’s cell phone, which was in a storage compartment on his ski.

Todd capsized 2.5 miles (4 km) from shore in rougher, shoal water, at which point the Velcro ankle portion of the line tethering him to his ski failed, and his boat blew away (along with his cell phone) faster then you could snap your fingers.

Attempts at towing or carrying him on the other ski failed, so his companion took off on a desperate 45 minute race to shore, in breaking beam seas, to get help. The search was commenced shortly afterwards, around 4:00 pm, three hours before sunset. It was too windy for a helicopter, so a fixed-wing aircraft was used to fly a search pattern augmented by multiple boats on the water.

They searched until 9:00 pm, in the general area of the capsize, without finding him. The following morning, the search resumed, and he was found floating dead in the water about a mile from where he had capsized the previous afternoon. Better thermal protection, as well as a strobe and cell phone tethered to his PFD, would likely have saved his life.


Fat Paddler October 29, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Not a surprising story at all. Here in my part of the world, kayakers are required to wear PFDs offshore but surfski paddlers are not, it’s a throw-back to surfers not requiring PFDs as it’s considered dangerous in surf.

I had a recent incident doing some offshore surfski paddling where I ran into trouble, capsized dozens of times offshore, limped back to the nearest beach before getting dumped into a huge surf-zone and getting stuck in a rip for 40 mins – all the while being bashed by surf. There is no doubt that day that my PFD saved my life as I bobbed about the surf, exhausted, waiting for the rip to spit me out. I also had on immersion thermals which kept me warm. It was the closest I’ve come to dying on the water and I wanted to kiss my PFD afterwards!

More details here:


Moulton Avery October 30, 2012 at 8:54 am

That’s one hell of a wild ride, FP, and I really appreciate you sharing it with us. Your story strikes me as a powerful incentive for surfski paddlers to use personal flotation and thermal protection.

With respect to trying to prevent fatalities, I have a question, FP. Which do you think is more effective in changing behavior: 1) Accounts in which people have died because they failed to wear thermal protection or 2) Accounts in which they survived because, like you, they wore thermal protection? Or do you think the two are equivalent? I haven’t seen any research on this subject, but it’s definitely an important one. Other mates please weigh in with your personal experience on this.


Nancy Soares October 30, 2012 at 9:20 am

Right off the top of my head, I would say stories about people who’ve died are more effective. It’s just more dramatic and death has a kind of fascination – the rubber-neck factor grabs us and makes us pay attention. “La la la, story story story…oh, you mean he/she actually died???” Plus in the back of many heads are visions of rescue helis, ambulances, and the magical medical profession so when we’re reminded that these things can be ineffective in protecting us, we tend to sit up and take notice.


Bryan Hansel January 14, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Just a note: Lake Mille Lacs is in Minnesota. And this happened in Minnesota. A friend of mine was kayak surfing on the lake that day.


Moulton Avery January 17, 2013 at 11:22 am

Thanks so much for that correction, Bryan. If you have any information about the Mille Lacs tragedy that I’ve omitted, please email me at moultonavery(at) I want to write it up for our web site and it would be very helpful if I could run a draft copy by you for comments and/or corrections. I’m also trying to gather more information about David Weitzel – without a lot of success, I might add.


Tina Jones May 31, 2016 at 5:09 am

Hi Fat Paddler, I love reading your stuff. I’m paddling in Jindabyne NSW so this stuff is really relevant to me 🙂 I went out last weekend and it hit me when I went home that I really was underprepared if something had gone wrong…. hence me googling Cold Water Paddling Safety!


Nick Crowhurst October 29, 2012 at 5:07 am

Good work, Moulton, and thank you. I abide by your five rules. One thing I have learned from years of dealing with this issue is that if someone in a paddling group says that she or he is cold, perhaps after a recovery, then take that very,very seriously, and apparently over-react. Get them warm, whatever it takes in the way of food, drink, clothing and shelter.
When I have “over-reacted” in this way, I have never had a complaint from the cold person, who has probably under-stated the problem through not wishing to cause a problem for the group.
I can remember two paddling occasions in the past when I have been cold, both times from sudden clothing defects (drysuit and wetsuit). My quietly mentioning this to the group has not been met with degree of seriousness I felt was warranted.
So my Rule #6 is to take very, very seriously the slightest mention by a paddler that she/he is cold.


Moulton Avery October 29, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Thanks for commenting, Nick. You make an excellent point about the importance of taking very seriously anyone who complains or mentions, ever so slightly, that they are cold. The same goes for anyone who is shivering – an especially serious sign. People are generally quite reluctant to speak up about problems they are having (eg. water in the cockpit, nausea, fatigue, cold, muscle or tendon pain etc.) so I make a point of asking very specific cold-related questions such as “Hey, mate, are your hands and feet toasty warm?” If the answer is “no” there’s a problem and the sooner it’s solved, the better.


Nancy Soares October 29, 2012 at 8:05 am

Moulton, this is huge. Thanks so much for your contribution to this website and for discussing a VERY IMPORTANT topic. There have been plenty of times when I’ve spent more time swimming than surfing and guess what? Because I wear a wetsuit it was no big deal. Swimming in surf is fun! I have never been cold kayaking, and if I get too hot I just jump in the water, get a little down my neck and into my suit, and I’m back in my boat in a flash. If my legs get stiff, same thing – jump out, duck under, jump back in, Bob’s your uncle. My wetsuit has protected me from impact and allowed me to climb on rocks and sea stacks (also fun). With a wetsuit your options are expanded and the kayaking experience becomes multi-dimensional. Eric used to tell me never to kayak where you can’t swim because you WILL be swimming. And I love swimming! With no ego and a custom wetsuit it’s all part of the pleasure of being on/in the ocean.

I remember backpacking with Eric and some others many years ago near Lake Aloha in the Desolation Wilderness in August. We were hiking across the lake, really a conglomeration of many little lakes. We got to a place where we had to swim. We took off our clothes and swam across a small arm of maybe 20 feet. The water was frigid. Even though we were probably immersed for less than a minute as it only took a few strokes to get to the other side, we were literally turning blue and our teeth were chattering when we got out. We were so cold we didn’t stop to put on our clothes but went running across the granite naked, clothes in our hands, to get warm. We ran hard for about 20 minutes until we were warm enough to stop and put on our clothes. Running isn’t an option in the ocean. Once you start getting cold, it’s a problem. And I agree with Nick too. There is no “over-reacting” to someone who is cold. Why do so many people have to bring ego into the equation and minimize the threat?


Moulton Avery October 29, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Nancy, those are all very good points. Did anyone, um, happen to get a video of that sprint? Just wondering…

Your point about cooling off when you get a wee bit too warm is excellent. Lots of people use the excuse of “overheating” as a reason for skipping thermal protection. As you point out, it’s an easy issue to fix in a wetsuit, and in my experience, easy to fix in a drysuit as well. It just takes a little initiative and is definitely well worth the effort.

I think a big reason that people minimize the danger is that they have little or no real experience floating or swimming in cold water. If you say “60F (15C) water” to someone like that, their brain has no sensory reference point for water, so it immediately and seamlessly selects the closest match, which is 60F (15C) air. As a consequence, the person experiences a very secure feeling that the two are physiologically equivalent, which is definitely not the case. It’s quite easy to dismiss cold water if your only frame of reference is cold air.


Nancy Soares October 30, 2012 at 9:27 am

That’s a good point, Moulton; interesting and something I never thought of. Of course if your only experience with 60F temps is air temp you’re not going to have an understanding what 60F water is like. For some reason this reminds me of falling asleep on an unheated waterbed – the water literally drains your body of heat and unless the air temp is in triple digits, it’s really unpleasant.


Rainer Lang October 29, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Moulton, I applaud your efforts and I have no doubt that your work will save lives.

Five Golden Rules; I couldn’t agree more. Paddle sports are in water sports, this must be a part of our culture of safety and survival.

I’ve experienced hypothermia from cold air motorcycling, as well as in the water. It can be very subtle, creeping up slowly, causing loss of dexterity,
coordination, balance and cognitive function.

Thank You!


Moulton Avery October 30, 2012 at 9:07 am

Rainier, thank you for your kind remarks. I particularly like your observation that these rules must be a part of our “culture” of safety and survival. Culture is malleable. I really think it’s the key to changing behavior and that standards of behavior flow from the top down. The example set by the more experienced paddlers is critical in setting the tone for everyone else in the sport. Those who lead best, lead by example.


Neil Hooper October 30, 2012 at 2:52 am

On behalf of anyone whose life may be saved by finally taking the “dress for immersion” imperative to heart, thank you for this post. Their relatives also thank you. The message can never be repeated frequently or insistently enough. I was raised to be a safety Nazi by the likes of Deb Volturno, Mary Hackney, John Lull and (of course) Eric Soares. What a privilege. Whenever Eric spotted me on a beach or on the water he’d beetle across, examine me with a critical expression and check list loudly for all to hear what clothing and safety equipment I was wearing (“if it isn’t on you, you don’t have it”). I loved this professionally because it reinforced the message to those who may only have suited up grumblingly because Cecily and I wouldn’t paddle with them unless they did. I also loved this egotistically because this god of kayaking always gave me a pass grade. Then whenever I got lazy prepping I’d think “Ah, but what if I run into Eric?” and be motivated to go back to the car for the radio, towrope, whatever. And I still do to this day. During a TR rock garden class he handed me his thermal skullcap to wear under my helmet and afterwards insisted I keep it. It did not become a talisman, I am not superstitious: rather it became a treasured possession with a triple safety function, (a) keeping me warm, (b) reminding me by association of the wisdoms impressed on me by others, and (c) emboldening me to pass them on. I’m sure that’s what Eric expected, smart boy!


Nancy Soares October 30, 2012 at 9:29 am

“If it isn’t on you, you don’t have it.” Boy is that true!!! Another dictum that should be taped to all our heads 🙂


Moulton Avery October 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Neil, thanks so much for your comments and the great story about Eric. You sure had the Dream Team for safety coaches! I can really relate to your comment about not paddling with people who refuse to suit up. There have been more than a few surprises at put-ins when I bailed out and went home or went paddling elsewhere when folks turned up dressed for a walk in the woods. Eric planted a lot of acorns, and you don’t have to look far to see the oaks that grew in his wake.

Your point about always wearing the gear you’ll need was a great one. I recently attended the 24th annual Delmarva Paddlers Retreat in Delaware, and one of the keynote speakers was Mia Kanstad Kulseng from Tromsø, Norway. She told me that she’d attended an open water safety session at a storm gathering event in Norway and the instructor, a physician, had driven home the point that if you weren’t wearing it, you didn’t have it. He did it by asking for a volunteer to roll, and whenever a person had to put on gloves, or a hood or whatever (which happened over and over again) he would pass them by and quickly move on to someone else. Mia was the only one fully suited up, and she wound up being the person to demo the roll; everyone else just got an E for effort. Everyone was very impressed by the lesson and I thought it was a great way to get the point across.


Moulton Avery January 17, 2013 at 11:33 am

Hi Neil, Can you email me at moultonavery(at) I’d like to be able to get in touch. That goes for any of you other mates who might happen to read this.


Vern Fischer October 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Wow! Thanks. Considering the way I paddled solo, under-dressed, at night and in all conditions several times a week year-around for my first several years, I shouldn’t be alive. But I am proud of my diligent efforts to reform myself and become a “safety-nazi” through the last several years. I wear a breathable drysuit with ample insulation, and I roll many times to stay cool every time I go out, year-around (in NW Oregon/Washington). Still, your article and readers’ comments jolted me. For example, I have been fastening my VHF radio to the deck of my kayak, and not wearing a strobe light, etc. Please keep up the good work. We need to constantly re-examine our practices and attitudes about cold-water safety.


Moulton Avery October 31, 2012 at 10:51 am

That makes two of us, Vern. We all start out knowing nothing, and back in the early 70’s, I regularly made the same mistake of paddling unprotected – until I learned otherwise. Now that was a wake-up call! Thanks for pointing out that keeping cool while wearing enough protection is simply a matter of technique. It’s easy to learn – even if you can’t roll. I’m also glad you found the advice on securing gear to your PFD useful. Pass the word on to fellow paddlers so they’ll get the picture as well.

I want take this opportunity to make a personal appeal to paddlers about the term “safety nazi”: Let’s stop putting up with it, and let’s also stop using it on ourselves. We’re safety-conscious paddlers – not Nazis by any stretch of the imagination, and when some anti-safety nitwit casually refers to us as “safety-nazis”, it’s a slap in the face. We safety lovers should make that point every time someone uses the other N word to describe us. If some bozos feel compelled to slam our anti-reckless approach to sea kayaking, let them substitute safety nut or safety fanatic.


Nancy Soares October 31, 2012 at 12:25 pm

You know, it’s ironic that you would be talking about our “anti-reckless” approach and “safety nuts”. On the surface, no one could accuse the Tsunami Rangers, especially Eric, of being a safety fanatic. And yet, the reason extreme sea kayaking works is that the people doing it are reality-based. They know what they’re up against and they plan accordingly. The ocean is by definition an extreme environment. Conditions can change in a heartbeat. Anyone who doesn’t get that is taking a big risk. A “safety nut” is simply a realist.


Moulton Avery October 31, 2012 at 7:20 pm

I agree with you 110% on that, Nancy. In my opinion, there are two distinct kayaking states present in nature. One is Fantasyland and the other is Reality. The Tsunami Rangers have always appeared to me to be reality-based when it comes to individual and group skills and safety in general. I hold the same view.

As for goose-stepping on people’s toes, I’ve heard the other N word one time too many lately – frequently directed at individuals or groups that take a stand on safety issues and refuse to cut corners on things like PFD use and dressing for the water temperature. The Chesapeake Paddlers Association has a strict policy on PFD use and cold water safety, and people have occasionally been turned away at the put-in for non-compliance. They get upset and start throwing the other N word around. Some other paddlers, who appear to have great difficulty thinking for themselves, then take up the baseless chant. I think it’s time we put a stop to it. In any event, it’s been my observation that those who sneer at safety have issues best addressed in therapy rather than out on the water.


Vern Fischer October 31, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Thanks. Such a good point you make!
I too shall never use the “safety-n” word again.


Brian October 31, 2012 at 6:26 am

Last February I made a conscious decision to run into 45º water wearing only a bathing suit.

Looking back at the experience, what surprised me wasn’t the shock of the cold water or the uncontrollable urge to reconsider the idiocy of my decision (it was for a good cause after all). The most surprising part was the absolute mental confusion I experienced when my head slipped beneath the water.

My only focus was to get out of the water! Rationally, all I has to do was run back up the boat ramp; the water wasn’t that deep – less than a few feet over my head. But I didn’t think rationally. I panicked and inelegantly thrashed my way back up the ramp even though I knew there were three or four rescue boats in the water and multiple properly suited rescue swimmers nearby.

My take away? Even though I was “mentally” prepared for cold water, that preparation didn’t exempt me from an autonomic panic and confusion response. I can only imagine the confusion of unexpectedly capsizing in cold water.

But I’ll take the Polar Bear Plunge again in 2013!

Thank you for everything you’re doing to promote cold water safety!


Moulton Avery October 31, 2012 at 11:38 am

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Brian. I’m glad you survived your plunge. Now that I’m over 60, I refrain from unprotected immersions in cold water because of the huge blood pressure spike and the greatly increased workload placed on the heart by sudden vasoconstriction of skin blood vessels. Um, well, there’s also the pain, but why split hairs…

The mental confusion you experienced is rarely mentioned in relation to cold water immersion, but it’s a very real and significant phenomenon. As Golden and Tipton point out in their excellent book, Essentials of Sea Survival:

“The sudden lowering of skin temperature on immersion represents one of the most profound stimuli that the body can encounter.”

Translation: Short of being hit by a bus or struck by lightning, cold shock is one of the biggest jolts that your body can experience. Cold water immersion overloads sensory input and makes thinking clearly damn near impossible. See the safety article Dockside Capsize by Jim Payne in the current (Dec 2012) issue of Sea Kayaker and my “lessons learned” analysis of the incident.

Another great first-person account of the mental disorientation caused by cold shock is Randy Morgard’s account in Sea Kayaker magazine (August 2010) of his near-death experience on the freezing Mississippi River: Cold and Alone on an Icy River
and my analysis of the incident:

Cold water vertigo (dizziness, loss of balance) is another frequent cause of disorientation that occurs when the head is suddenly immersed in cold water. It’s triggered by cold water hitting the tympanic membrane in the ear, and it’s caused many a “bombproof” roll to fail.


Nancy Soares November 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I just read the article by Jim Payne. Kudos to him for writing a really good story about an incident some people would be embarrassed to admit to. What a classic example of the “I’m not going to encounter ‘challenging conditions'” mindset. A dockside capsize turns into a life threatening situation. Who woulda thunk? And Moulton, you did a great job on the “lessons learned” analysis.


Neil Hooper October 31, 2012 at 11:41 am

Yikes, Vern, you’re so right. A tongue-in-cheek term meant to to be used ironically can be negatively spun. “Safety Maven”, “Safety Fan” etc, are so much better. I shall never use the N-word again.


Rainer Lang November 1, 2012 at 8:45 am

Since we’re talking about matters of life and death; where being properly informed and dressed for immersion can mean the difference between going for a swim or dying. The Golden Rules are a succinct, real world approach to surviving cold water immersion.
If I could shape the terminology, I would take it this direction: Survival Guru. I refer to people who know much more than I as a Guru. I would much rather use a term that embodies respect.


Nancy Soares October 31, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Hey Brian, thanks for bringing that up about the autonomic response to cold water immersion. And Moulton for your discussion of the effects of cold water on warm human. I’m learning a lot. And can we talk about the headache? That splitting “ice cream headache” that makes you feel like someone’s driving a spike into your brain? There’s more than one reason it’s called “brain freeze.”


Moulton Avery October 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Sure, Nancy. Lots of terms are used to describe the cold-induced splitting headache. “Ice cream headache” and “Brain-freeze” are both colorful and quite popular. “Cold stimulus headache” is more specific…zzzzz.

To the best of my knowledge, two main types occur:
1) Caused by eating or drinking cold substances.
2) Caused by very cold water contacting the face.
The exact mechanism isn’t known, but different causes appear likely for each type. In the second type, the pain results within seconds of cold water contacting the head, which would argue that it’s caused by cold receptors in the skin of the face and/or the scalp. This is another good argument for wearing a snug neoprene hood, although there’s no guarantee that wearing one will completely eliminate the possibility of a cold water headache.


Tony Moore November 2, 2012 at 9:36 pm

Moulton, everything you say on this topic is right on target…you are without a doubt THE expert in this subject. Living in New England, and having participated in cold water activities year round since I was 14, I know how dangerous the cold can be. And yet still people go out unprepared, not considering that they are risking their lives for no good reason. It’s one thing being daring, taking some risks, pushing the limits, but it’s just plain stupid to die for lack of proper thermal protection. You don’t see anyone climbing Mt. Everest in a bathing suit, but that is exactly like going out in a kayak without the proper gear to protect from exposure to cold. I believe you have saved many lives by pointing out the dangers of hypothermia…if only more would listen!


Moulton Avery November 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Thanks for your kind and supportive comments, Tony. I can readily understand what it’s like to be totally clueless and paddling around unprotected, because I’ve been there and done that myself. It’s a little harder for me to understand people who are told about the danger and then willfully choose to completely ignore it – although I still feel that with the right approach, even they can be persuaded to suit-up or stay off the water.

I like your Everest analogy. In a bathing suit, the fact that you’d made a mega-mistake would be obvious early on, because you’d be freezing your bum off before you even got to Base Camp – “Aieeee, Reynaldo, the cold! She burns, she burns…” Nothing subtle about the volume setting on that wake-up call.

Along those lines, I think one of the challenges we face in reaching paddlers is that open water kayaking activity is often more subtle. Very little skill or stamina is required on the low, calm water, rec-boat end, and as long as you don’t make the mistake of capsizing, it’s quite easy to paddle unprotected on 38F (3.3C) water and remain blissfully unaware of your exceptionally perilous situation.

We’re going to use a predator / prey analogy on the NCCWS web site to help get that point across, and it’s going to go something like this:

How careful would you be if you were paddling around the hunting territory of a large, voracious, aquatic predator – one that was fast, powerful, and deadly, with unlimited energy and no need for sleep? To make matters even worse, what if this predator was so perfectly camouflaged that you couldn’t even see it when it was right next to you, ready to pounce? Would that scare you?

Cold Water is all of those things and more. If you’re unaware of the danger, all you see is a sparkling, glittering invitation to get out on the water and have some fun – when in reality, it’s a death-trap just waiting for you to fall in.

Any of you mates who have other analogies or experiences persuading or trying to persuade folks to suit-up – please weigh in with your comments.


Nancy Soares November 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm

I immediately thought of the “salties” down under. Many stories, some of which I’m sure you’ve heard.


Rich Stevens December 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm

On March 6th, 1968, nine elite marines, trained as water survival instructors at the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Academy, capsized while paddling a war canoe across the Potomac River. They wore sweat suits. They had seat cushions but no life jackets. The water temperature was 36 degrees F. None of these men were able to swim the 100 yards to shore.

I suspect these people were in somewhat better shape and better trained than the majority of us. So much for the argument “I plan on staying close to shore”.


Moulton Avery December 28, 2012 at 7:39 am

Thanks so much for taking time to comment, Rich!  The incident you cited is my favorite “man vs nature” example.  They had superb fitness, strength, drive, and determination in their corner, but it simply wasn’t enough.  A very succinct counter to the “I Can Swim” excuse, and as you noted, it covers “Close To Shore” as well.  Most folks have no idea that people can quickly drown in cold water – even though they’re good swimmers.  Stay tuned to this station; another post on cold water is coming very soon.


Nancy Soares December 31, 2012 at 10:41 am

Hey Moulton, thanks again for your contribution. Obviously a hot topic. I would like to post your next cold water safety article on 1/21. I think I previously suggested an earlier post date, but we took a break over the holidays and things got a little backed up. Is that okay?


Moulton Avery January 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Just perfect, Nancy!


Ron Adams January 3, 2013 at 11:13 am

You asked about stories of survival or stories of disaster were more effctive to get the point across. I think you need both. Some people will think it is often just a matter of fate. It is important to show the results of both options.


Moulton Avery January 5, 2013 at 11:53 am

Thanks for contributing, Ron.  Many of the close calls are desperate, harrowing experiences in which Lucky Ducks barely manage to survive, and a number involve groups with six or more paddlers. All are cautionary tales with plenty of material for Lessons Learned.

Close calls serve as a powerful reminder that a lot more paddlers are getting into trouble out on the water than most people realize.  We intend to share both on our web site.


Jenna G January 14, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Great article and information. Thanks a lot! It’s generated some additional discussion and made me think twice about at least one rule I haven’t followed (4. Swim-test Your Gear Every Time You Go Out)

Unfortunately, in Maine it’s not the avid paddlers everyone is discussing that are generally the problem. If you’re going to paddle here, you really need to be prepared. Sure, we have some competent paddlers who I feel aren’t prepared for water temps. Mostly I think these are of the greenland variety wearing tuiliqs who for some reason or other don’t think they’ll swim, and if they do, I don’t know.

But it is the rec paddler, early in the season when the water is still too cold, or even in the middle of the summer further north when where the real education is needed. The problem is, it’s not those folks who will read or see something like this.

Since the example in the article in 2010, we’ve had at least three other incidents, all in less than a year. This one that was so sad, on his honeymoon:
or this one, when his wife watched him die, how horrible:

This one is tragic as well. He may have thought he was prepared as he was wearing a wetsuit, but clearly still not prepared for April water temperatures:

Thanks again.


Fred Randall January 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Moulton, really appreciate you work and the awareness itbrings to the paddling community. But there is an issue that has long troubled me: water temps in mid- 30s, air temps in mid 40s. I have on dry suit, and fleece under, so when I walk in the water or float in it, all is good. Now I am 4 miles into a paddle in my kayak and I am soaked inside my dry suit (Gortex), because I am over dressed for the exertion level. I stop for lunch and immediately start shivering until I change out the fleece. It seems if I am shivering in the air, I would not last long in the water. What is the solution or am I missing something?


Kurt January 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Moulton, Swimthiel here. (Nancy great of you to give Moulton’s this opportunity to showcase his dream.) I’ll take this one; Moulton you can chime in if I get it all wrong. When you stop for lunch Fred, you will shiver if you haven’t done what was talked about in the thread above and that is regulated your temperature earlier in the trip by doing cooling rolls, hand/arm dips or swims. You can also simply splash water on yourself at intervals if rolling, trolling your arms or swimming don’t work for you. The cold you feel in the water even with a wet/damp fleece layer inside will in all likelihood not kill you for a very long time. Certainly being uncomfortable at lunch needs to be dealt with by either taking off the wet/damp fleece insulating garments or you can also put on some fleece over the drysuit while you consume calories until you get ready to get back into your boat and start burning calories and heating up once more.
I think folks may be wearing TOO much insulation under their drysuits. The idea is to feel quite cool if not cold when you walk in to the water at the put-in to see if you stay dry and if you are wearing enough or too much insulation. The choice I make on isulation under my drysuite is worst case estimate of time to dry land/boat or rescue/self-rescue and accept a bit of initial discomfort. I don’t use fleece but rather “Cold Gear” tops and bottoms that seems to transport moisture to the Goretex better. I paddle year round down to the frozen water temperature with ice floes.


Moulton Avery January 22, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Fred, I apologize for my tardy response to your excellent question. You speak for a lot of paddlers when you raise the issue of overheating. To put the issue in perspective, let’s start by taking a close look at a trail hike in 40F weather. When you start up the trail, you’re comfortable at first, but then all the additional heat you’re producing via exercise starts to make you feel too warm. You need to do something about this because otherwise, your body will respond to the excess heat challenge by sweating, which introduces moisture into the system, which compromises your insulation. You want to be warm and dry, not hot and wet, and that’s where layers enter the picture.

The reason you wear layers is not because they provide better insulation than a single garment like a down parka. The virtue of the layer system is that it enables you to use your clothing as a thermostat to regulate comfort. Take some off before you overheat, put some on before you chill. My first choice is my hat, followed by my neck covering. All this takes a little practice because the key to regulating comfort is anticipating the need and acting proactively.

Unfortunately (with one very notable exception), you can’t use the same on/off technique on the water with your drysuit because adding or removing layers is really not a practical option. Instead of adding or removing layers (adjusting your insulation), you have to add cold to the system. As Kurt noted (thanks for weighing in, mate!), you’re surrounded by cold water – just the ticket you need to keep cool.

Here’s an example: Several months ago, I started on a cold water paddle in moderately cold but windy conditions. I dressed for immersion, which meant that I was overdressed for the air temperature. Within about 15 minutes, to avoid overheating, I had to do something to cool off.

For head and neck protection I was wearing an NRS neo hood covered with a neo hat with visor – two layers. I slipped my fingers under the neo – at the top of my forehead – and pulled backwards, slipping both off my head so that they remained attached, but now just covered my neck. I then splashed water on my head and got my hair wet. Problem solved. You can offload a LOT of heat via wet hair, particularly when there’s wind to enhance evaporative cooling. That’s the notable layer exception that I mentioned earlier. BTW – you have to periodically re-apply water as your hair becomes dry.

About an hour later, when my paddling partner and I stopped to pump some water out her boat, I pulled the hood and hat back over my head in anticipation of the extra warmth I knew I would need now that my exercise rate had dropped to zero. What I’ve described is just one possible solution. Alternately, for example, I could have left the neo on and periodically rolled – a method old my kayak partner Brian Price used to call “rotary cooling” back in the day. You can also try keeping a sponge handy and use that to wet yourself. Experiment – that’s what field-testing is all about.

The bottom line, whether you’re on a trail, climbing a big, snow-clad mountain, or paddling, is that you have to be an active participant in the process. It is not a passive system. Finally, in order to give yourself more options and the ability to successfully trouble-shoot problems like the chilling you experienced during that lunch break, you’ll want to become familiar with three things:

• How your body produces heat.
• How your body loses heat.
• How your body conserves heat.

On the NCCWS web site, we’re going to have a special section on Thermal Protection that will walk you through the process.


Nancy Soares January 28, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Just an aside: on the Tsunami retreat last year we were out and about and I saw Deb Volturno do a sweet little move where she planted her paddle blade in the water, leaned against the verticle shaft with both hands, and leaned over to dip her head and shoulder in the water. A sort of 1/4 roll, if you will. Beautiful, efficient.


Rich Stevens January 23, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Has anyone had any luck in getting ACA to drop its long discredited Air Temperature + Water Temperature “rule”, or at least getting them to explain their reasoning to continue to support it? I have e-mailed them several times about this, only to be totally ignored. Unfortunately, many people and organizations rely on ACA to provide factual and accurate advice when it comes to on-water safety. This potentially lethal advice, often directly attributed to ACA, has been picked up and passed on by many other organizations and outfitters. I’ve even run across it in safety brochures where the USCG is listed as a contributor. You would think that the ACA, being located in Fredericksburg, Virginia would know better. The Chesapeake Bay, with its enormous surface area and shallow average depth is known for having some of the coldest winter water temperatures in the lower 48 states. While Spring water temperatures can often be still in the 40s or 50s, it is not uncommon for the air temperatures to be in the 70s or 80s. I’m always amazed at the number of people that you see out on the water wearing cotton shorts and t-shirts on days like that.


Moulton Avery January 24, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Thank you for raising this important point, Rich. I took a look at everything I could find on their web site and to the best of my knowledge, nothing has changed. It’s really unfortunate, and you were absolutely right about other organizations relying on ACA to provide factual and accurate advice. The official website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division links to them for information on paddling safety.

ACA isn’t alone, of course. Misinformation about cold water safety spreads like a virus, and can be found in books, magazine articles, news stories, videos, instruction manuals, and paddling courses. It’s also woven into the vast majority of cold water paddling advice available on the web.

In my experience, the most effective way of addressing a widespread problem like this is to use a three-pronged approach:

• Make accurate information readily available at no cost
• Serve as a resource for organizations like ACA, and partner with them to efficiently distribute that information through existing networks
• Identify misinformation, highlight its flaws, and counter it with facts based on the best scientific and medical research.

That’s the approach we took at the Center for Environmental Physiology back in the 80’s and early 90’s, and it proved to be very effective.

I really do appreciate the frustration that you and others have experienced over the years in addressing misinformation on cold water safety. It can feel like throwing yourself against a brick wall. I think the primary reason that individuals have such great difficulty influencing organizational change is that organizations simply don’t work well with individuals, particularly when it comes to questioning the status quo. Organizations respond best to other organizations. That’s why the National Center for Cold Water Safety is in a unique position to effect change. Our sole mission is the study and promotion of cold water safety and we will speak with authority on the subject.


Jim Palermo January 29, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Loved this piece. I’m in S.E. Michigan, and during the winter it’s common for some of the group to paddle the St. Clair River, Lakes Huron and St. Clair, and nearby while dodging icebergs and slush ice. Each year in January, we have a little get together to test cold weather/water gear. We utilize a small park on the river where it’s possible to stay out of current and in a protected area; and just swim. Checking out whatever combination of gear is used. If it doesn’t work; you know, and immediately have a warm car and drinks to retreat to.

Likewise; having dealt several times with hypothermic paddlers turned swimmers; you just can’t ignore “any” sign of cold, even when that person vigorously denies being cold.


Tag August 29, 2016 at 5:43 am

Great article.

I became seriously interested in kayaking February of this year, so started doing some reading. One of the first sites I found was National Center for Cold Water Safety. I’d like to thank you, Moulton, for the “heads up” that kept me from doing something ill-advised and dangerous. We have cold water here in the spring…. even into the summer… and I know that it is dangerous from first responder training… also from getting in Lake Erie without gear in March and October! But, for some reason, it crept into my head that I would not need to worry about cold water in a kayak on a stream. I’ll be on cold water some day, but not without correct, tested gear.


Moulton Avery September 8, 2016 at 8:40 am

Hi Tag-
Thank you so much for saying such nice things about our web site and the information that you found helpful. Those of us who promote cold water safety plant a lot of seeds on faith – never really knowing whether or not they’re going take root. I don’t get a lot of feedback like yours and it means a lot to me when someone like you takes the time to reach out and tell me about their situation and personal experience.


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