Coast Guard: don’t be fooled by warmer weather, the water is still cold

9th Coast Guard District News
CLEVELAND – The Coast Guard emphasizes safety for those looking to recreate on or around the Great Lakes this spring when air temperatures are warm but water temperatures are still cold.

At the start of spring each year, the Coast Guard responds to cold water accidents involving boaters lured to the lakes by warm air temperatures resulting in the hypothermia and deaths.

The Coast Guard suspended its search for two people missing in Sandusky Bay Sunday, and rescued eight people in Sturgeon Bay and three people in Lake Ontario in conjunction with partner agencies Saturday.

“The warmer weather can create complacency in boaters,” said Capt. Andrew Sugimoto, chief of response, 9th Coast Guard District.

“Though the air is warm, the water is still cold and in the event of accident, boaters who enter the water can become hyopthermic quickly. I encourage boaters to dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.”

Hypothermia is dangerous because it affects the body’s core and even mild cases of hypothermia affects your physical and mental abilities, and increases the risk of accidents. Severe hypothermia causes loss of consciousness and may result in death. Cold water is especially dangerous because loss of body heat occurs 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. For more information on preventing, recognizing and treating hyopthermia, click here.

Here are five tips to help boaters safeguard their lives and those of their loved ones: 

1. Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Even in sunshine and warm air, if you fall in the water, your body will respond as if you were standing outside naked in 40-degree weather. When someone falls overboard, his or her core temperature begins to drop within 10 to15 minutes. The water doesn’t have to be icy – it just has to be colder than the victim to cause hypothermia. Even worse, our body’s first response to cold water immersion is to instantaneously gasp for air, but chances are that you’ll end up with a mouthful of water and be on the path to drowning. We recommend that paddlers wear a dry suit in water temperatures less than 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Wear a life jacket. Don’t just have a life jacket onboard; wear it. The importance of this tip is amplified in cold water because the heat loss will rapidly impair your ability to use your fingers.

3. Don’t drink and boat. Operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol is illegal. Furthermore, drinking increases the risk of hypothermia because, contrary to the popular belief that alcohol provides a “liquid jacket,” alcohol accelerates heat loss by expanding blood vessels. 

4. Be ready for the environment. Life-threatening weather can develop quickly. Boaters should invest in a VHF-FM marine radio, which receives regular marine weather forecasts and warnings. They should learn the indicators of developing weather. And they should immediately seek safe harbor whenever weather warnings are issued. A radio will also help you call for help more reliably than a cellphone when you’re on the water. Additionally, a personal locator beacon can immediately alert responders to your distress, significantly increasing your chances of rescue. Tell others where you are boating and when you will return, to add an additional level of safety to your outing. 

5. Be a responsible boat owner. You can ensure you stay out of the water by learning and adhering to safe boating regulations and the Rules of the Road and making sure your boat is ready for the season. Keep a sharp lookout for other boaters and avoid excessive speed. Seek out available boating education classes and vessel safety checks, which are often offered at low or no cost by local Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas. Free basic boating courses also are available online. Updating your registration contact information and registering and labeling your paddle craft with an Operation Paddle Smart sticker streamlines the early stages of the search and rescue process.

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