By Vincent Pica, Commodore, First District, Southern Region (D1SR), United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

When we were kids, it was all about readin,’ ritin’ and ‘rithmetic. On the sea, especially in cold water environments, it’s all about rescue, recovery and re-warming. I don’t expect many boaters are on our waterways now, but some are out there. And the waters will still be cold once April comes around. This column is about that.

He Fell In and Can’t Get Out – Rescue

I’ve written about the new law in New York that requires PFDs on all boaters in boats under 21 feet between November 1 and May 1 of the following year, and about hypothermia. When I wrote about hypothermia, I suggested an experiment to demonstrate the power of water to draw heat out of you – 25x faster than air of the same temperature. Get a glass of water to room temperature and drop an ice cube in it. At the same time, lay an ice cube on a napkin next to the glass. When the ice cube in the glass has melted away, there will still only be a small amount of dampness around the ice cube on the napkin. Furthermore, research by cold-water specialists in Canada (where the water’s cold all the time) has shown that exertion – such as thrashing or swimming – can increase that heat-stealing mechanism up to 10x – that’s 250x now! So, if someone falls in it’s critical to get him out ASAP.

When Rescue Becomes Recovery

By USCG standards, a rescue becomes a recovery when the victim has died. So, if someone just falls in, it’s still a rescue, right? Hopefully, but there are circumstances when death can come almost unbelievably quickly. Sudden immersion in cold water can be a killer long before hypothermia gets to you:

  1. A splash of cold water in your face can cause you to involuntarily inhale water, which is a killer. Not swallowing it into your stomach, but inhaling it into your lungs. This is the “gasp reflex.”
  2. In some people, the reaction doesn’t get that far into their bodies. They hit the cold water and, as soon as it touches the back of their throat, it closes up. The spasm stops water from getting into the body, which is the biological intent, but it also stops air from getting to the lungs. The person bobs back to the surface (their lungs are full of air) and they suffocate in the open water, unable to breathe due to a blocked air passageway. This is called “dry drowning.” There is no water in the lungs. Nor is there any oxygen. I’ve seen a BoatUS report that stated that 15-20% of all drowning are “dry drownings.”
  3. When the difference between your body temperature and the water temperature is greater than 30 degrees, the chance of a heart attack from the sudden immersion goes up dramatically.
  4.  A racing heart from shock and fear can create hyperventilating. Dizziness followed by unconsciousness results as the ratio of oxygen/carbon dioxide changes in the victim’s blood system.

If you are the victim, remember this: an initial deep and sudden gasp followed by hyperventilation can be as much as 600-1,000% greater than normal breathing. You must keep your airway clear or run the risk of drowning. Cold shock will pass in about one minute. During that time, concentrate on avoiding panic and getting control of your breathing. Wearing a lifejacket during this phase is critically important to keep you afloat and breathing.

We Have Him In the Boat – Now, Re-Warm!

Believe it or not, if you apply heat directly to the arms and legs of a hypothermic person you just pulled from the sea, you can kill them. It’s called the “After Drop” – you force cold blood that has pooled in the arms and legs (constricted blood vessels) back toward the heart and brain and that lowers body temperature. Apply heat (hot water bottle, towels that have been microwaved, heating pads, your warm, dry hands) to the head, neck, chest and groin.

Of course, you need to get the person into a warm or at least dry environment. Lie them on their back or side (not face down). This person is dying, so there’s no time to be bashful. Lie on top of them and wrap a blanket around you both. There are two schools of thought on getting the person out of the wet clothes. Some believe that the little bit of water that you can warm with your body can aid in their recovery. My own experiences lead me to believe that, if the alternative is wet clothes or just a blanket around a naked body, go with the wet clothes and cover them up with blankets and your warm body. If they’re conscious, give them warm – not hot – liquids. Add sugar for energy. No alcohol, and avoid caffeine. Bring ‘em back alive, captain.

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

Captain Ed Cubanski is the Captain of the Port and Sector Commander for US Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. Captain Cubanski is responsible for all active-duty, reservist and auxiliary Coast Guard personnel within the Sector. As a Commodore of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary First District, Southern Region, Vin Pica works closely with Captain Cubanski 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.