Beyond Cold Water Bootcamp


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One of the most important questions facing someone who is immersed in cold water with an overturned or swamped boat is whether to stay with the boat or swim towards safety.

Conventional wisdom has always been to “stay with the boat”.  If rescue from cold water is not likely within an hour (i.e., during the spring or fall where there is little boat traffic), you may want to start assessing alternative options.  Indeed, there are some studies that, in specific circumstances, support the decision to attempt to swim to shore.


The big question is... Can you make it?
A good follow-up question is... What are the consequences if you’re wrong?

If you’re wearing a PFD and you can’t reach shore, you’re still able to float and await rescue. If you’re not wearing a PFD and you can’t reach shore, you’re going to drown.

Before setting out for shore, remember the physiological impacts of cold water (covered extensively in Mechanisms of Heat Loss):

  • Swimming will increase blood flow to the muscles and the periphery, expediting heat loss.

  • The swimming motion also increases convective heat loss, thereby cooling the nerve and muscle fibres which makes swimming and breath coordination more difficult and exhausting.

 Studies have shown, however, that while wearing a PFD in 10°-15° Celsius water, even novice swimmers were able to swim approximately 800 metres.

swim_1500_metersExpert swimmers were found to be able to swim up to 1500 meters.

Average swim time was 45 minutes.

Wind and wave conditions, along with any injuries you may have sustained, will further compromise your ability to swim the required distance.

Swim with a head-up breaststroke at an even and sustained pace.

Once you have started swimming, DON’T CHANGE YOUR MIND AND STOP!  Your energy reserves will continue to decline, your muscle fibres will cool even more, and you’ll lose valuable body heat if you do.


REMEMBER: Consider swimming for shore ONLY if you are wearing a PFD or lifejacket.

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