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Marine Patrol

Hypothermia - the cold killer

This time of year is, in my opinion, the most dangerous one for boaters in Bonner County because of cold water and hypothermia. The typical boating fatality in our area often involves a small open boat that capsizes in cold water and the occupants either drown or die from hypothermia. For example, two years ago, at this time of the year, two kayakers capsized off Kootenai shoreline on Lake Pend Oreille with tragic results. One drowned, and a passing boater rescued the other. Neither was wearing a personal floatation device.

Even if boaters are wearing a PFD, they could die of hypothermia if they cannot save themselves or be rescued within a relatively short period of time. Those not wearing a PFD will usually drown in just minutes if they are not able to get out of the water immediately. One must remember that while you might be able to stay alive an hour or two in 50 F water, your useful conscious time—that is, the time you have to save yourself—is only a matter minutes. A couple of years ago, in Kootenai County, a boater fell off his boat dockside in cold water and drowned in a matter of seconds.

Even though the air temperature might be warm, our waters are sourced from the winter snow pack and glaciers. Lake Pend Oreille normally reaches a surface temperature of 65 F near the first of July – and 65 F water can lead to hypothermia very quickly. What exactly is hypothermia? It’s is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can be produced causing body temperature to drop below 95 F (normal is 98.6 F). What makes cold water so dangerous is that it robs the body of heat 25 to 30 times faster than air. So, any sudden cold-water immersion is very dangerous. Obviously, getting out of the water is the best course of action, but that option may not be possible. Wear a PFD around cold water to keep afloat and warm. It can help you stay alive longer by enabling you to float without using energy and providing some insulation. Do not swim unless you can reach the shore, a boat, a fellow survivor, or floating object quickly, as swimming lowers your body temperature. Remember the “Rule of 50” which goes something like this: your chances of swimming 50 feet, in water temperature of 50 F, is 50 percent.

The symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, clumsiness, stumbling, slurred speech, confusion, lack of concern about his or her condition, very low energy and loss of consciousness. If a person is exhibiting signs of hypothermia, obtain medical assistance as soon as possible. Remove the person from the cold, remove wet clothing and cover with layers of blankets ensuring that he or she is insulated from the ground. Also, cover the person’s head leaving the face exposed. Warm dry compresses may be applied to the neck, chest or groin. Do not apply heat to the arms or legs as this could force cold blood back toward the heart, lungs and brain, causing the core body temperature to drop—which could be fatal. And do not apply direct heat such as hot water or a heating pad to the individual as extreme heat could damage skin or even cause cardiac arrest.

The bottom line is that cold water is dangerous – very dangerous! If you are going to be boating in cold water, which we have in Bonner County every month except maybe June, July, August and September, take extra safety precautions to ensure that you do not end up inadvertently in the water. Also, wear a PFD so that if you do end up in cold water, you’ll have more time to save yourself or be rescued. Remember that in North Idaho in the spring and fall, the air temperature may be nice and warm, but the water temperatures are quite cold.

Happy and Safe Boating!

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Author info

Cary Kelly Cary Kelly Cary Kelly is a Lieutenant with the Bonner County Sheriff's Office Marine Deputy division

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