Cold Water Boating: Spring Isn’t Far Away, But Warm Water Is

by VINCENT PICACold Water Boating

We’ve had a few mild days. This reminded many of us that spring is here – and my wife to say, “You’re not thinking of putting the boat in the water already, are you?” Well, much as I’d like to, I’ll bet Ol’ Man Winter has one or two surprises for us before spring finally chases him away. But even then the water will be cold for several weeks and you need to be aware of how dangerous that can be – if you aren’t prepared and savvy. This column is about that.

Warm Air + Cold Water = Risks!

I like a warm day early in the season as much as the next mariner. But the water itself is just about as deadly as it is in the deep of winter. Remember that water takes heat from your body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. You can impress this on your young boaters – and yourself – quite easily. Lay out a glass of water before you turn in one night. It will be room temperature by the morning. Now take two ice cubes from the freezer. Put one on a dry napkin next to the room-temperature glass on water. Drop the second ice cube into the glass. Now, in theory, they are both exposed to the same temperature – room temperature. But when the ice cube on the napkin starts to show a damp line around itself, the ice cube in the glass will have melted away. This is why hypothermia is so insidious and dangerous (see WindCheck, Cold Water Survival, Hypothermia, Rescue & Recovery, December 2011)

Precautions? Yes!

OK, it is a beautiful day in April and you’re just dying to tool out for a while. And why not? How great is it when the waters are too cold for the algae and other microscopic sea life so you can see all the way to the sandy bottom? Great indeed, but don’t make way without a few simple but important precautions.

Step #1

Has the engine been prepped from its long winter snooze? Are you fueled up? Is there some fuel enhancer thrown in? Certainly, there is likely to be some condensation in the tank and that water will precipitate down to the bottom of the tank…and some might get sucked up into the engine…So, engine prepped, fuel tank full and fuel enhancer thrown in – or no-go!

Step #2

Did you file a float plan with somebody? Do it – or no-go. (see Atlantic Maritime, “Seamanship - Float Plans - Nothing but Upside”, 2/2/11.) If you do end up in trouble, getting the “rescue clock” started ASAP is imperative. The environment is inherently more dangerous when the water is cold. So, leave a plan with someone you trust and who will follow up. “Hello, Mystic Marina, is my nephew there with the M/V ‘Charlie’? What? He’s not?!” That float plan and a call to the US Coast Guard can be the difference between a rescue – or an unhappy recovery…


Float Plans Save Lives!

It’s vital to file a float plan with a trustworthy individual on shore, especially in the early season when the water’s cold and other boats are few. Here’s an example of the information a basic float plan should include:

1. S/V Hejira

2. 4 people on board

3. 39’ Concordia yawl

4. Depart Black Rock, CT on Thursday, April 19

5. Arrive Newport Shipyard, Newport, RI on Saturday, April 21

6. Emergency phone # 203-257-1234


Step #3

If you don’t have cold-water life jacket gear, you’re playing Russian Roulette with your own life. When we put to sea, if the water temperature is 60-degrees F or less, USCG regulations require us to be in “mustang” suits (pictured), which aren’t as encompassing as a drysuit but certainly offers us significant protection in the event of an immersion. Admittedly, when the air is warm, those “mustangs” are like Turkish steam baths but we’re safe. At the very least, a float coat provides warmth and at the same time doubles as a life jacket that will float a person. Just acknowledge that it isn’t as safe as a “mustang.”


Be sure that your flotation gear has a whistle and an emergency strobe light attached. If you’ve invested in a PPIRB/PLB, great (see Atlantic Maritime, “EPIRBs, PPIRBs, GPIRBs - What???” 11/29/06 and “Personal Locator Beacons Locate You!” 8/11/10.) And a reflector mirror would be superb. You can signal over 20 miles with one smaller than the size of your fist. Airline pilots are trained to call in sightings of targeted reflections.

Step #4

Review cold water survival techniques and risks with your crew.

1. If you fall in, get out. Even if you have to climb onto the hull of the over-turned boat (yes, Bunky, that happens!), get out. Remember the ice cube experiment.

2. Limit your movements! Strenuous activity increases your heart rate, which increases the rate that blood, cooled at the surface of your body, is circulated to the central core – where it will kill you. Assume a Heat-Emitting Lessening Position (HELP) – in the water or out. Cross your legs to protect your groin area from giving up heat. Put your arms across your chest and your hands under your armpits to do the same thing.

3. If you’re a 200 lb. man, here is a rough guideline of your survival time:

Temperature of water: expected survival time

70–80° F (21–27° C): 3 hours – indefinitely

60–70° F (16–21° C): 2–40 hours

50–60° F (10–16° C): 1–6 hours

40–50° F (4–10° C): 1–3 hours

32.5–40° F (0–4° C): 30–90 minutes

<32° F (<0° C): Under 15–45 minutes

If you’re smaller, less time. If you’re larger, more time. And have a good meal before you make way. It will warm your body from the inside as the fires of digestion do their work. By the way, these times only are applicable if you are wearing a life jacket. If not, you will start to falter as muscle control fades with body temperature – and you will drown. You won’t be around long enough to get hypothermic.

If you are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, online at, and we will help you “get in this thing…” ✦

Captain Joe Vojvodich is the Captain of the Port and Sector Commander for US Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. Captain Vojvodich is responsible for all active-duty, reservist and auxiliary Coast Guard personnel within the Sector. Vin Pica, Chief of Staff for the First District Southern Region in the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, works closely with Captain Vojvodich and his staff to promote boating safety in the waters between Connecticut, Long Island and 200 nautical miles offshore. Sector Long Island Sound Command Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 203-468-4401.

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