Perspective Newsletter
Spring 2015
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Overboard! How to survive a cold-water plunge

If you fell overboard into chilly water, what would be the smartest thing to do?

  • Tread water to stay warm
  • Pull off your shoes and heavy clothing to keep from sinking
  • Swim for shore.

If you answered "NONE," you're right. Deadly myths abound when it comes to knowing the best way to survive in cold water. Heat loss (and the onset of hypothermia) is as much a risk as drowning. The best survival strategies keep you afloat and conserve heat.

Here's what you should do if you find yourself overboard:

  • Relax and allow your life jacket to keep you afloat. Kicking and flailing accelerates loss of body heat because blood pumps to your extremities. Wearing a good life jacket is key to overboard survival. It's also the law for all children 12 and under.

    Washington life jacket regulations | Oregon life jacket regulations

    If you're not sure how to properly fit your child with a life jacket, check out this life jacket fit video from the Boat U.S. Foundation.

  • Try to get back in the boat rather than swimming to shore. Even strong swimmers can succumb quickly to hypothermia. If the boat is overturned, try to right it. If you can't, crawl on top of it. By getting as much of yourself out of the water as you can, you minimize heat loss.
  • Signal for help. Wave an oar, a hat, or any bright object.
  • Keep your clothes on. Tighten your life jacket, collars, and cuffs. Pull your hood tight. Air trapped inside clothing gives added buoyancy and clothes help insulate you.

H.E.L.P. and HUDDLE diagram  

  • If you can't get any part of your body out of the water, "sit" in the water with your head raised, pull your knees up, and fold your arms across your chest. (It's called H.E.L.P.: Heat Escape Lessening Posture.) If more than one person has fallen overboard, huddle together (with arms around each other and legs dangling) to maintain body heat. Put children and smaller people in the center. Heavy people cool more slowly than thin ones; children cool more quickly than adults.
  • Protect your head. If you're swept downstream in fast-moving water, try to float on your back and go feet-first rather than head-first so you can use your feet to push off objects.

Our boating experts also remind us that the best overboard survival strategy is to avoid conditions that put you at risk in the first place. For example, if strong winds are predicted any time before, during, or after your planned trip, reschedule for another day. As accurate as computer-modeled forecasting has become, it still has a margin of error too great to take a chance on your safety and the well-being of people you hold dear. You'll also want to double-check your boat and equipment. You don't want to be the boater scrambling to recover when he launches his boat and realizes he forgot to replace the bilge drain plug!