Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Spring Kill

Credit: weblearneng.com
We wait for spring.  We can't wait to get out of doors in our flip-flops,
shorts, and light tops.  But if we are heading to the water, this spring season,
 more than any other, is when we have to remember that water is an alien
environment we have to be ready for.

The day on Canton Lake was really warm for mid-February.  On my way to the lake, I was riding with the pickup window open, and it was still warm.  When I crossed the dam, however, the wind was chilled as it passed over the cold water.  I was afraid while I was ashore that I might be over-dressed in the dry suit, but once on the water, I was quite comfortable.  The air was 74-degrees, but the water was 42, an ideal recipe for a hypothermic catastrophe.  Basking in the warm sun of spring causes more people to die of hypothermia in the spring than any other time of year, even the dead of winter.  It is not the air temperature that one needs to dress for, but the ice-cold water that kills when someone falls overboard or capsizes.  In that 42-degree water, I would retain consciousness for little more than 30 minutes before drowning.  The more I moved, like trying to swim ashore, the faster my body would lose heat.  With a tight-fitting PFD to retain core temperature and keep my head out of the water, I could last 1 or 2 hours before expiring from hypothermia-induced cardiac arrest.  Any PFD is great, even essential, but a loose-fitting PFD, while keeping me afloat and preventing drowning, would allow more water exchange, and lower my survival time, so it’s important to make sure the PFD is properly fitted and snug.  If the combined air and water temperature reach a sum of less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a wet or dry suit is needed in addition to the PFD to prevent core temperature cooling.  The 74 + 42 degree air and water temperatures totaled 116, making a suit essential, especially when on open water alone.

Here is a link to a table every paddler should have laminated and kept handy.  It lists the water temperatures, times for loss of dexterity, loss of consciousness (which translates to drowning), survival time, and the recommended clothing for managing these conditions.  Here is one point that tables don’t include, but which should be remembered.  If on the water with children, you will be totally occupied trying to save yourself.  The kids will be on their own, which means they need to be properly outfitted for their own survival.  You would be very limited to totally incapable of coming to their aid.

There are a couple ways to confirm water temperature.  One is to check for fishing reports on the internet for the body of water you are heading for.  If that information isn’t available, it’s often helpful to have your own thermometer.  This one by Fishpond has a metal case that protects it while it jostles about in a backpack or tackle box.  Remember that surface water will be substantially warmer than what you will be swimming in if you go overboard.  On this day, there was an 8-degree difference in temperature between the water six feet below the surface and water found on the boat ramp in the sunlight, so the reading needs to be taken off the end of a pier or somewhere you can reach at least a depth of six feet.

Fishpond air/water thermometer in metal case.

For a complete understanding of the risks, read this from the Center for Cold Water Safety:

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