Staying Safe in the Winter Waters

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ayla Kelley

The deck was slippery with ice as the freezing rain pelted down. The captain was passing his position over the radio as his crew was zipping up their wet suits. The water pump in the engine room had broken and the ship was taking on water; fast. The crews best hope for survival 15 miles offshore was to climb into the life raft and wait for rescue crews to arrive.

While the scenario above sounds like a scene from a movie, the possibilities of it happing in real life anywhere on the water is real. It is something every professional mariner must prepare for and what the Coast Guard trains for.

With the coming of the winter months, Coast Guard personnel are preparing themselves for cold weather survival and are urging commercial mariners to do the same. Every year from November 1st to May 31st federal safety equipment regulations change for certain types of vessels on the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding areas. These regulations go into effect to help prevent the potential for hypothermia and increase cold water survival awareness during the winter months. Some equipment requirements that will change include having proper life rafts and immersion suits. However, requirements for radios, flares and doing dockside exams of this equipment will not.

The Coast Guard conducts its own cold-water survival training during the month of October to prepare for the winter season. Anti-exposure suits are cleaned and checked for damage like rips and tears in the suits seals and fabric. Once the suit has been checked, Coast Guard members must perform a cold-water swim of 100 yards while wearing the suit. Annual training on how to safely use flares is also conducted to ensure personnel know how to properly use the equipment in case of an emergency.

We do this training to educate ourselves on why we take such measures for safety and to be ready for emergencies, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Posluszny of Sector Baltimore.

The Coast Guard must also prepare to enforce the federal regulations that go into effect November 1st that effect local mariners. The biggest change to occur for commercial and state vessels more than 36-feet in length will be the requirement to have a survival raft onboard. Fishing, cargo and vessels used for public transportation, like ferries, qualify as commercial vessels. This federal law applies to all commercial vessels that operate north of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and includes the Great Lakes and major rivers.

Vessels between 35-feet and 65-feet operating from New Jersey to North Carolina are exempt from the life raft requirement as long as they have an immersion suit for every person onboard, a marine radio on the vessel and at least three distress signals that can be seen during the day and night. Commercial vessels more than 65-feet in length are not exempt from the law and must keep a life raft onboard if they are working three miles off shore or more. The Coast Guard checks for these items during vessel safety inspections.

Commercial vessels are required to complete a dockside safety examination and maintain a current commercial fishing safety examination decal. That decal is good for two years. The Coast Guard conducts random safety inspections throughout the year making sure personal and commercial vessels have all required safety equipment on board and the operators know where it is and how to use it.

The Coast Guard in the Chesapeake Bay will be increasing the number of vessel inspections during the month of November to ensure more mariners are prepared for the winter season. Should any vessel not meet its requirements, the Coast Guard has the right to terminate the vessels voyage under article 46 Code of Federal Regulations 28.65. Depending on what the violation is will determine how long until the vessel is restricted from movement.

“Once terminated, the vessel’s operator cannot get underway until [the issue] is corrected,” said Stephen Oakley, a vessel inspector at Coast Guard Sector Baltimore.  “The time is up to them.”

One of the main items checked during inspections are the immersion suits. Immersion suits are an important tool to provide floatation and protection from hypothermia in the event a mariner should have to abandon ship or falls over board. The immersion suit is made of nylon-lined neoprene or polyvinyl chloride foam and has built in boots, gloves, hood and an inflatable pillow to keep a persons head out of the water. It should have reflective material on the suit located where rescue crews can easily see it.

The Coast Guard created a graph of air and water temperatures to simplify knowing which level of protection to wear. When both air and water temperatures are above 60 degrees, a normal lifejacket will work. When the water is between 50 and 60 degrees and the air is above 50 degrees, coveralls should be worn. When both air and water are below 50 degrees, a wet suit or added layers of wool or polypropylene should be worn to prevent hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below its normal level of temperature and occurs 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. How quickly a person becomes hypothermic depends on many factors, including behavior, environment, how they’re dressed and physical condition.

If someone falls into the water they should get into the Heat Escape Lessoning Position (H.E.L.P) by bringing the arms and legs as close to the body as possible. If two or more people are in the water they should huddle together.

“Its not just for warmth, but to help rescuers’ find you,” said Posluszny.

If a person is suffering from hypothermia, move them out of the cold, remove wet clothing and replace it with a dry covering. If the affected person is able to swallow, have them slowly drink a warm, nonalcoholic beverage. Handle them with care and don’t apply direct heat, use warm compresses instead.

Beyond the immersion suit, many other devices and equipment can be used to increase survival when working in extreme and non-extreme weather conditions. All commercial and personal vessels are also required to carry signaling devices that can be seen during the day or night. This includes flares, flags and anything that can make a loud noise.

“Its important for vessels to have all safety equipment on board because if they don’t it jeopardizes the safety of the crew,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey Shingleton of Coast Guard Sector Baltimore.

A good rule of thumb is to have three or more red flare distress signals on board that can be seen during the day or night. The Coast Guard and other rescue crews recognize an orange flag or orange smoke as distress signals for the daytime. Mariners are also required to have at least one audible device such as a horn, bell or whistle. A whistle without a cork center works best if a person is stranded in the water.

Marine radios are more reliable for contacting the Coast Guard and emergency agencies on the water than cell phones. Hailing the Coast Guard on channel 16 is more likely to put a person in direct contact with a rescue coordinator than a cell phone. Cell phones can lose signal or the battery can die.

Another important piece of safety equipment is the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). This device will transmit a signal to the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other rescue agencies giving them an approximate location.

On November 3, 2000, NOAA announced that satellites processing 121.5/243 MHz emergency beacons would be terminated on February 1, 2009.  EPIRBs using this frequency must be phased out by this date.  The Coast Guard no longer recommends these EPIRBs. Boaters should use an EPRIB that broadcasts on the 406 MHz frequency.

The Coast Guard in the Chesapeake Bay area will make visits to marinas to talk to mariners about winter safety and conduct examinations during the month of October. Mariners can also sign up for safe boating classes administered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary. These courses are recommended if boaters have never done so before or simply want a refresher. All boaters can visit the Coast Guard safe boating website at The Coast Guard wants all mariners to know and understand the importance of safe boating for every season.

The crew in the scenario increased their chances for survival and rescue by being well equipped with the proper safety gear and having been educated in how to correctly use it. The Coast Guard enforces the safety laws of having proper life rafts, immersion suits, radios and flares by doing dockside examinations and vessel boardings on the water. While some of these items are not required on every vessel year round, they could still help save a life.

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