Coast Guard warns boaters of hypothermia risk as Lake Michigan cools

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MILWAUKEE — The Coast Guard is warning Lake Michigan mariners that falling water temperatures pose safety risks even as air temperatures remain seasonal.

Cmdr. Max Moser, deputy commander of Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan, in Milwaukee, urges mariners to dress for the water temperature and not the air temperature.

Moser also warns how unpredictable and dangerous Lake Michigan weather conditions can be, especially during seasonal transitions.

“Survival time is greatly diminished for someone immersed in water below 70 degrees,” said Moser.

Ensigns Leah C. Roach and Rian Ellis, both members of Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan, located in Milwaukee, prepare to get underway on a response boat at the sector while wearing their cold water wetsuits, Oct. 9, 2014. Coast Guard units across the country wear protective wetsuits whenever the water temperature is below 60 F and wear drysuits when the water temperature is below 50 F. The Coast Guard recommends that boaters do the same. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Jesse Webster)

Ensigns Leah C. Roach and Rian Ellis, both members of Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan, located in Milwaukee, prepare to get underway on a response boat at the sector while wearing their cold water wetsuits, Oct. 9, 2014. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Jesse Webster)

“Cold water drains a body’s heat up to 25 times faster than cold air. In addition to a life jacket, we recommend mariners wear a dry suit in a cold water environment in order to increase the chances of surviving a fall into the water.”

The National Weather Service reports that the water temperature in Lake Michigan has dropped to near 53 F, while the average air temperatures remain near 60 F. Updated water temperatures can be found on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Forecast System.

In preparation for colder temperatures, Coast Guard crew members around the Great Lakes are transitioning from summer life jackets to insulated coveralls and dry suits.

The Coast Guard offers these tips to help keep you safe:

  • Always wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket, and dress for the lake temperature. A life jacket allows a person to float with a minimum of energy expended and allows the person to assume the Heat Escape Lessening Position (H.E.L.P.) – bringing the knees close to the chest and holding them in place by wrapping the arms around the shin portions of the legs.
  • Never go out on the water alone. Use the buddy system.
  • Ensure your vessel is seaworthy and inspect it thoroughly. Contact the local Coast Guard Auxiliary for a free vessel safety check.
  • Always check and monitor the marine weather forecast before and during any trip out onto the lakes. High winds and dropping temperatures are good reasons to postpone an outing.
  • Carry a registered personal locator beacon in addition to a marine radio to alert the Coast Guard and local safety agencies of potential distress. Consider a waterproof hand-held model that can be worn.
  • Carry all required and recommended safety gear, such as visual distress signals, a sound-producing device and a fire extinguisher. Carry your visual distress signal and whistle in the pocket of your life jacket so they’re close at hand in an emergency.
  • If boating with pets, keep in mind that animals also need the added protection of flotation. Like their human companions, animals are just as susceptible to the harsh elements, including the effects of hypothermia. Several manufacturers make life jackets specifically for dogs and cats, in a variety of sizes.

Every minute counts in a cold water environment. Preparation may mean the difference between a life saved or a body recovered.

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