How to: (Cold) Water safety

So … your boat flipped.What do you do?

Recently in exchanging emails with other rowers and coxswains a slightly scary trend emerged in that it seemed like a lot of coaches aren’t going over water safety with their athletes. There is a video from USRowing that everyone is supposed to watch but that thing is so stupid ridiculous that it’s unlikely that the majority of people who do see it actually pay attention to what’s being said or demonstrated. (Raise your hand if you’ve seen it and the only thing you remember is the part about crabs.) Some people have said their team doesn’t even show it anymore because of that exact reason.

This is a problem though because what if something happens while you’re out and you end up in the water? It makes me incredibly nervous when an experienced coxswain says “our four flipped today, the water was freezing, and none of us knew what to do”. (That’s from an actual email I got.) If you don’t know what to do if/when this happens, I honestly can’t imagine a more dangerous situation to be in.

There are a couple different aspects to water safety but what this post is going to focus on is the basics of what you should do if you and your crew end up outside of your boat and the effects that cold water in particular can have on your body. Every aspect of water safety is important but in my opinion these two things rank at the top of the list, particularly right now since some crews are going to be entertaining the idea of getting back on the water within the next couple weeks.

If your boat submerges or flips

The first thing you must do is remain calm. This is not the time to be throwing blame, trying to figure out what happened, laughing because “haha this sucksss“, etc. The good thing in this situation is that regardless of how much water is in the shell (or if it flips) it will still float. The oars will also float and can be used by everyone to hold on to. Because the hull floats, it’s not necessary to remove the oars from the oarlocks so it’s best to just keep them in there. Coxswains, you should grab on to your stroke’s oar – don’t worry, it will support both of you – and quickly do a head count to ensue everyone is accounted for. This might not be easy to do, particularly in the heat of the moment when you’re likely a little panicked, so it’s crucial that the rowers do their best to stay quiet. Similarly to how backseat coxing isn’t OK in a normal situation, it’s even less OK now.

Once you’re sure everyone has been accounted for, the next thing to do is keep everyone with the boat. Do not try to swim to shore. I don’t care if you’re the second coming of Michael Phelps, do. not. leave. your. boat. It is very, very easy to underestimate the distance to shore or how you’ll be affected by the elements (air/water temperature, wind, the current, fatigue, etc.), which can lead to you drowning. When you’re going against the elements and/or are in cold water, being a good swimmer is at most a psychological advantage and nothing more.

The vast majority of the time you will likely have a launch nearby that will already be on its way to you. If the launch is in sight but doesn’t see you in the water, yell, scream, make as much noise as possible to try and get their attention. The launches are required to carry life jackets on board so once it comes over the coach will distribute them and get everyone out of the water. When getting out of the water and into the launch, distributing everyone’s weight is going to be important in ensuring that the launch doesn’t also start to sink. Keeping a low center of gravity will also be important.

If you want to know what not to do … ever … like, EVER … watch this video.

The one good thing about that video is at the end they show how you should get the boat out of the water once you’re back on land. First, you’ve got to bail out as much water as you can using buckets or a pump. Next, you’ll need to get hands on (probably at least two boats worth) and pick it up a little so you can tilt it on it’s side (do not rest the riggers on the dock) and let more of the water flow out. The next step is to get it up and over heads. Yea, it’s gonna be a waterfall and yes, you’re gonna get wet. From here the coxswain will tell you to tilt it left, then right, then left, then right to get even more water out. When you do this you’ll want to make sure the bow and stern caps are open too. (They should always be closed when you’re on the water.)

What should you do while you’re waiting for someone to come get you?

The most important things are keeping your head above water and continuing to talk to one another so that everyone stays alert and conscious. You’ll also want to turn your backs to the waves if the water is choppy. When the air/water temperature is on the colder side, getting everyone on the same side of the boat can give you a little bit of warmth. In this situation I’d recommend linking arms while holding on to the gunnels or riggers, just as another way to ensure everyone stays above water.

Coxswains, you should always stick with the stern pair. Remember, the hull floats, so if the water is particularly cold or you need to get someone out of the water, you can climb (gently) on to the boat and drape yourself across it. If the boat is submerged (but still right side up) then you can roll it over (you can leave the oars in the oarlocks, just make sure everyone is out of the way), which will trap air underneath it and allow it to sit up just a little bit higher out of the water.

What happens to the body in the cold water?

A few things.

You lose body heat 25-30x faster when you’re submerged in cold water compared to just sitting in the open air.

Your gut reaction is going to tell you to keep moving and tread water in order to generate heat. It doesn’t work like that when you’re submerged in cold water though. This will actually cause you to lose body heat faster, which will increase the rate at which hypothermia sets in. You need to stay still, stay upright, and keep your head above water

Within 10-15 minutes your core temp begins to drop, causing your arms and legs to go dumb and eventually resulting in a loss in consciousness (which then could lead to drowning).

You’ll start shivering as a way to generate more body heat and as hypothermia sets in (around 95 degrees Fahrenheit), it will become more intense and you’ll lose the ability to voluntarily stop shaking. When the body temp reaches around 90 degrees Fahrenheit you’ll stop shivering completely because it’s no longer effective. This is usually a sign that you’re in serious danger because after you stop shivering the rate at which you lose body heat rapidly accelerates.

How can I tell if I or one of my teammates is hypothermic?

There are several stages of hypothermia ranging from pre-hypothermia to severe hypothermia. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to remember every detail of each stage but the most important stage to watch out for is the “pre” and “mild” stage symptoms. If you recognize that someone is showing these signs then you can get them out of the water and up onto the hull. This is why it’s very important that you keep talking to each other.

Pre-hypothermia (body temp is around 95-96 degrees Fahrenheit)

Physical symptoms: Hands and feet become stiff and sore as circulation decreases and muscle tension increases due to shivering (although at this stage you can still voluntarily stop). You might also start feeling tired and lethargic, symptoms that could be exacerbated by the fact that you were most likely just rowing.

Mental symptoms: For the most part, you’ll most likely still be all there.

Mild hypothermia (body temp has decreased to 90-94 degrees Fahrenheit)

Physical symptoms: You can no longer control your shivering, your fine motor skills are deteriorating (making it difficult to hold on to things, which is another reason why linking arms with the person beside you with one arm and with the oar or rigger with the other is important), your heart rate and breathing have increased (because of the shivering), and your speech will start slurring.

You might also notice that you spontaneously start peeing – this is pretty standard as part of the fight-or-flight response (and also because you’ve probably been drinking a lot of water) and occurs because the majority of your blood volume is migrating to your core in order to protect the vital organs. The downside to this is that it can rapidly lead to dehydration (you can read about some of the effects of that towards the end of this post).

This is the point where you need to get out of the water to prevent losing any more of your body heat. Hopefully your teammates have recognized this and are taking the necessary steps to get you on top of the hull. When draping them across the hull, don’t just get them on there and go back to where you were. Stay on either side of them and hold on to their arms and legs to keep them from sliding off.

Mental symptoms: You’ll start becoming confused, maybe unaware of your surroundings or how you ended up in the water. Doing simple things like counting from 1-10 or saying everyone’s names can be difficult to do.

Moderate hypothermia (body temp has decreased even further to 83-88 degrees Fahrenheit)

Physical symptoms: At this point, your body is no longer getting anything out of shivering so it stops. Your speech is very slow and you probably sound like you’re drunk when you try and talk. Your muscles have become very stiff and your heart rate and breathing has decreased dramatically. Because your breathing has slowed, less oxygen is getting to your tissues which results in less body heat being produced. If you’re still in the water at this point, the likelihood of you breathing in water (and drowning) has increased because your cough reflex is no longer functioning.

Mental symptoms: You’re operating under pure confusion right now and probably feel like taking a nap.

Severe hypothermia (body temp is now below 82 degrees Fahrenheit)

Physical symptoms: At this stage you’re dangerously teetering on the edge of the point of no return. Your heart rate will be extremely slow and your breathing will be very shallow and less stable. Your teammates will probably think you’re dead based on physical appearance. Drowning is a very likely and very real possibility if you’re still in the water. Even if your teammates were able to get you up on to the hull, waves can still present a threat to water entering your nose and/or mouth.

Mental symptoms: You’re unconscious.

How long will it take for these symptoms to set in?

This all depends on the water temperature. The colder it is though, the more rapidly the onset of symptoms will be. According to USRowing, if it’s under 32 degrees you could be unconscious in as little as 15 minutes. In water that’s around 40-50 degrees, it could be up to an hour before you reach unconsciousness. It’s important to remember that just because you’re out of the water once you’re on the launch or back on land doesn’t mean you’re safe from the effects of hypothermia, especially if you’re still in wet clothes.

Check out this video. Some of the stuff doesn’t necessarily apply to rowing (basically everything involving life jackets) but overall it does a pretty good job of communicating the dangers of being submerged in cold water. (I promise, it’s not super corny or anything and is only ten minutes long.)

So, moral of the story is this: stay out of the water but if for whatever reason you end up in the water, make sure everyone is accounted for, try to get the attention of your coaches, keep everyone talking, and watch for signs of hypothermia in yourself and your teammates. Also, bring up the subject of water safety with your coaches and have them go over it with everyone if they haven’t already. It’s important stuff that everybody needs to know.

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