Off-season Boating Tips

Posted: November 1, 2011

Having the water to yourself is nice, but plan for emergencies.

By: John M. Malatak, chief, program operations, U.S. Coast Guard, Boating Safety Division

This is the second of a two-part column about boating in the off-season.

See Part I in the Fall issue of Boating World.

Boating in the fall and winter can be a great way to experience your favorite waterways in a whole new way. The scenery is slightly different, the sunlight is lower in the sky and there are fewer boats to disturb idyllic scenes. Off-season boating carries its own set of risks, too. The sun sets early and the temperature drops fast. Plus, there are fewer boaters to come to your aid or call for help. Experienced boaters know to plan for every emergency before heading out.

Know What to Do

Those occasional warm autumn days can be deceiving, because the water temperature can be frigid. Simple steps can turn a worst-case scenario of a swamped or capsized boat into the best-case scenario for surviving cold-water immersion. To reduce the risk, make sure to not overload your boat, avoid those situations that put you at risk of going overboard and make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket.

Understanding the critical phases of cold-water immersion and knowing some basic techniques to delay hypothermia’s onset greatly increase your chances of survival. Cold shock is an initial deep and sudden gasp, followed by hyperventilation, which has been shown to increase breathing by 600 to 1,000 percent. Keeping your airway clear and wearing a life jacket greatly reduce the risk of drowning. Try not to panic, and concentrate on your breathing. Cold shock will normally pass in one minute.

Over the next 10 minutes, you will lose the effective use of your extremities. Concentrate on self-rescue; if that’s not possible, keep your airway clear and wait for rescue. Remain calm and don’t try to swim. Loss of body heat can be 10 times faster through the movements associated with swimming.

Hypothermia means that a person is losing body heat faster than he can produce it; but even in icy water it may take approximately an hour before a person becomes unconscious. (To learn more about surviving cold-water immersion, visit coldwaterbootcamp.com.) If you cannot get out of the water and help is not immediately available, draw your knees to your chest and wrap your arms across your chest (hugging your life jacket) in the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (H.E.L.P.), protecting the critical areas of heat loss. If others are in the water with you, huddle together with your arms around each other, both to conserve body heat and create a larger target to spot in the water.

Don’t Boat Alone

 With fewer boaters on the water, it’s especially important to not boat alone. If you are injured or fall in the water, having one or two other people on board means there’s someone to help you get back in the boat and call for assistance. 

Winter or summer, every boat operator should file a float plan as a matter of routine, listing a description of the boat, the number of persons on board, the area where you’ll be boating and the anticipated time of return. The Coast Guard makes float plan forms available online (uscgboating.org/safety/float_planning.aspx), and having one on file can potentially save your life. If you change your time of return after leaving the dock, notify the person holding your float plan on shore. 

If you fail to return, the person holding your float plan can relay the information to the local marine police or Coast Guard to initiate a search. Just remember, if you’re delayed for reasons other than an emergency, inform those in possession of your float plan as soon as ¬≠possible. Be sure to notify them when you do return so the float plan can be closed out.

Know Before You Go

Before you head out on the water:

- Take a boating safety course as well as a first-aid and CPR course.

- Know the area you’ll be boating. 

- Make sure your boat has enough fuel and is in good operating condition for winter weather. Make sure you have the required safety equipment on board and that your running lights are in working order.

- Check the weather forecast. 

- File a float plan. And if you stray from the plan, alert the person holding it.

- Carry a VHF-FM marine-band radio. In some inland waters, a CB radio may be more appropriate. 

- Take a GPS with preset coordinates. ? Make sure you have extra batteries.

- Take a well-stocked first-aid kit.

- Pack a basic survival kit in a waterproof bag, including blankets, matches, a lighter, food and warm beverages.