Fact: Most kayakers who die at sea do so because they get cold then drown. From what I have read and experienced, there are two main types of cold water immersion problems. Here is my layman’s non-medical understanding of these phenomena.
Cold shock occurs when you are suddenly dumped into frigid or very cold water. I once jumped naked into a small alpine lake dubbed Iceberg Lake, because of the icebergs floating in it. I wanted to feel what it was like. I felt it all right. Instantly, my body froze up, I gasped, and I got a splitting ice cream headache. The bad thing was I panicked, and frantically dog paddled to shore within ten seconds. I doubt I would have lasted ten minutes, and I was a great swimmer in very good shape at age 22. Ever since then I have had an aversion to freezing water.
I believe that a person with medical issues could suffer a seizure or heart attack in water that cold. Even if you are an Iron Man or Maiden, you may still have a hell of a time trying to survive in ice water. As for me, once I got out of the lake, I shivered and blubbered, then strangely felt euphoric after I dried off and donned warm clothes. Ten seconds….
Hypothermia means a person is cold, too cold to function, too cold to live. Hypothermia takes longer to set in than cold shock, and has many faces. As related in CONFESSIONS OF A WAVE WARRIOR, I once got hypothermia by swimming alone in cold water (56F) too long. I was 19 and body surfing at Black’s Beach north of San Diego in the winter when I realized my arms and legs were numb to the bone. I managed to feebly swim to shore but collapsed in the fetal position on the sand and passed out. Luckily, the sun came out and warmed me, and I was okay an hour later. That was close.
The symptoms of hypothermia are often subtle. The person becomes irrational, slow in making decisions, and her fingers and limbs don’t work right. Eventually, metabolism shuts down and the victim is in deep trouble. The scary part is the water doesn’t have to be that cold. The water could be 65F but if it’s windy, heat quickly leaves a person’s body. After three hours in wind spray, anyone could get hypothermia, especially if wearing cotton.
The five-part solution to cold shock and hypothermia is simple. Here we go:
- Dress for immersion! When kayaking in cold water (down to 48F or so), wear a full wetsuit and neoprene hood and booties. In frigid water, wear a quality drysuit with thermal layers underneath and a thick neoprene hood. In either cold or frigid water, wear a good-fitting PFD, as that will keep you a bit warmer and make it so you don’t need to actively swim, as your limbs may not work properly. Remember: Never dream that you won’t capsize. It happens. Even if you don’t, spray can chill you to the bone. Be prepared.
- Be sure to drink water and eat good food so your body is properly fueled. Don’t be dieting when kayaking in cold water!
- Carry signaling devices to summon help (e.g., an EPIRB, PLB, VHF radio, cell phone, flares). If someone in your party gets hypothermic, you may need medical and rescue assistance fast.
- When on the water, if you or someone in your party exhibits possible hypothermia symptoms, as described above, get off the water immediately and get warm.
- Once on shore, if a person is not able to properly walk or talk, treat him very tenderly and get him warm—and to a hospital. If you are hours or days away from a hospital, don’t rub or pat a victim to warm her; get her to a warm and dry place and surrounded in down and others’ body warmth. Once a victim is fully conscious, give warm water and then later a bit of sweet food. It may take days to recover, so abandon your plans and deal with this medical emergency.
To learn more about cold shock, hypothermia, and related cold water immersion disorders, read up on it. You’ll find plenty of good information in print and on the internet, if you search judiciously. Books about hypothermia and some sea kayaking books also give good information and advice.
If you have experienced cold shock or hypothermia, or have dealt with someone who has, please relate your story. If you want to correct me or add to what I’ve written in this post, please do! Just click on the “add comment” button below.