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Take precautions when boating in cold water

May 6, 2012
By MIKE LYNCH - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation issued a statement in mid-March reminding people to be wary of the dangers of falling into cold water while boating. The press release recommended that people wear life jackets, especially in small boats.

Nearly two months later, many of those precautions still apply because the water temperatures are still dangerously cold.

The law requires that life jackets be worn on any boat less than 21 feet in length between Nov. 1 and May 1. Those dates have passed, but it's still prudent to wear one now.

Article Photos

Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
Wearing a life jacket when paddling in the spring can save your life.

"The physiology of cold-water immersion includes an uncontrollable gasp reflex, causing hyperventilation, leading to unconsciousness or to swimming failure as limbs become numb," the press release from state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation stated. "Having a life jacket on may keep your head above water and support your body, should swimming ability fail or you become unconscious and greatly increases chances of rescue."

Some precautions you can take in addition to wearing a PFD or life jacket are to bring matches or some type of fire starter, water and food, whistle, an emergency blanket and extra clothing in a dry bag. These can be used once you get to shore to warm up.

These items can help you even in the smallest emergencies. I remember a few years ago I was paddling on Ampersand Brook in Coreys in the early spring. The last thing I thought could happen was that I'd go into the water on this small stream, but I did.

I fell out of my canoe while I was helping another person get past a tricky section of fast water. I wound up getting soaking wet on a fairly cold day.

Luckily, I had a warm vest and some other extra clothing in a dry bag that day. When I got to the shoreline, I put them on and quickly warmed up. Had I needed to make a fire, I could have done that also.

The food is useful because you need calories to burn to stay warm.

This was never a very serious situation because I got out of the water quickly, but it was still a good idea having the extra supplies with me. It meant I could continue my trip and enjoy it.

I would say in most cases people don't intend to enter cold water when boating recreationally. It happens quickly and unexpectedly.

The Parks department states that should you find yourself in the water, it is recommended that you stay with - and preferably on top of - your boat. Never overestimate your swimming ability, especially in cold water. All too often people underestimate the distance to shore or the effects of cold water and unfortunately drown while attempting to make it to safety.

Of New York's 25 fatalities associated with recreational boating in 2011, almost a third of those deaths involved small manually propelled watercraft, occurring either early or late in the season when water temperatures were cold, according to the Park department. In almost every one of those fatal accidents, life jackets were not worn and in some cases weren't even on board at the time of the accident. The Coast Guard estimates that 80 percent of all boating accident deaths might have been prevented had a life jacket been worn.

"Safety around lakes, rivers and oceans begins with respect for the power of moving water and the debilitating effects of cold water," states Tod Schimelpfenig in "Wilderness Medicine," a National Outdoor Leadership School book. "In two out of three drownings, the victims could not swim, had no intention of entering deep water (and thus were ill-prepared), and were affected by alcohol and drugs. Most drownings occur 10 to 30 feet from safety."



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