Freeze to Death

Always dress for the WATER temperature

Coast Guard rescues a capsized kayak. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

On a mid-June day, just before summer officially arrived, an energetic 28-year-old man decided to take advantage of the dwindling time left of his honeymoon in Maine. Before he and his wife left their cozy cabin, he prepared to take one last trip on his rented sit-on-top kayak to explore Frenchman’s Bay’s picturesque waters.

The air temperature that day had been a relatively mild 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The water: 47 degrees Fahrenheit. Clad in a PFD, T-shirt and shorts, he told his wife he would be back in one hour, just in time for them to check out of their cabin.

An hour and a half after he promised he would return home, the U.S. Coast Guard and state rescue crews began their search, and found the man before sunset. They were too late.

This tragic story is true and an all-too-common an account of what can happen if paddlers do not get ready for all the elements. Of these, water temperature is the most important for which to prepare, and it can be the most deceiving AND the most dangerous; especially during the first tempting, warm days of the season. In Maine, ocean waters do not typically rise above 63 degrees, and even then not until the very end of the summer or early fall. The alluring lakes and streams in the New England region are even colder.

All paddlers know that each voyage can result in an unintended swim. Paddlers exploring cold regions must prepared for water far below room temperature, even in summer. Sudden immersion in cold water (< 68 ºF) can be fatal regardless of the air temperature or one’s ability to swim. Within a few minutes in cold water, hands, arms and legs become numb and useless. A paddler without proper gear (e.g. a CG approved PFD, dry suit, booties, and gloves) immersed in cold water will be unable to swim, climb out of the water, or even hold onto a capsized boat. Dressing for those cold paddles buys time to work out a rescue in case of an accident. Even the warmest weather does not reduce the danger of cold-water immersion.

The colder waters of New England and the West Coast can provide some of the most scenic vistas and exciting ocean and river paddling in the nation. There are places that should (and some would say must) be explored and experienced from the seat of a kayak or canoe. But before you go out, take the necessary precautions for the water and all the elements. You’ll enjoy a wonderful trip, and come back safe and WARM!

LCDR Colleen McCusker is a CG Recreational Boating Safety officer of Sector Northern New England.
A special thanks to the Maine Association of Sea Kayaker Guides and Instructors (MASKGI)

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  • Moulton Avery

    Bravo! A very timely warning. Air temperature has nothing to do with immersion, and It’s really good to see an article that emphasizes that important point.

    Air Temp + Water Temp = Zip.

    Minor things: It’s actually not “freezing to death”, and the initial threat to life is drowning due to cold shock. Wetsuits are also used by many paddlers for thermal protection.

    Please visit the National Center for Cold Water Safety’s web site and help us spread the word to the paddling community: http://www.coldwatersafety.org

    Like the unfortunate man on his honeymoon, thousands of paddlers have absolutely no idea of the danger.

    • http://twitter.com/CanoeKayakMag Canoe and Kayak Mag

      Thank you very much for the informative response. We learned last weekend during our sea kayaking adventure that even in Mexico during April, it can get too cold for comfort if not prepared for the water. Always important to know.

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