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Air warms but water slower - be careful, sailors, of hypothermia

by US Coast Guard/Sail-World Cruising on 21 Mar 2014
Hypothermia graph - compare your body weight with the local water temperature to see how long you could survive in the water SW
The air is getting warmer, the water is getting a little warmer and more and more sailors are venturing forth to sail into the coming spring. But caution, say our coast guards, because the water warms much more slowly than the air and if you end up in the water hypothermia can be a real threat.

Every year Coast Guard and other rescuers respond to cold water accidents resulting in the untimely deaths of unsuspecting boaters. Examine the graphs above and compare your chances according to the temperature of the water you sail in, and your own body weight.

Hypothermia is dangerous because it affects the body’s core – the brain, heart, lungs, and other vital organs. Even a mild case 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. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature falls below its normal level of 98.6°F to 95°F or cooler.

The Coast Guard strongly urges all boaters to wear life jackets anytime while out on the water and to always check the weather conditions before heading out. Having proper survival gear while underway and filing a float plan with a friend or family member is strongly recommended.

'One of the key things to keep in mind is that even if it’s warm out, the water is still cold,' said Walt Taylor, the first US Coast Guard District’s Recreational Boating Safety specialist. 'When a person falls in cold water, their body responds to the initial shock with an instantaneous gasp for air, which if their head is underwater may cause the person to swallow water and drown.'

Wearing a lifejacket is proven to save lives because it helps keep your head out of the water if you fall overboard.

'By the time you fall in the water, it’s probably too late to try and put on a lifejacket,' said Taylor. 'It only works if you wear it.'

All Coast Guard and rescuing personnel that operate aboard a vessel are required to wear the appropriate hypothermia protection and survival equipment according to air and water temperatures.

It's not sailing, but it's the same water that you encounter, so it's worthwhile consulting the American Canoe Association for more valuable information on cold water survival.
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