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Cold Water Survival

Illustration of a person wearing a life jacket, floating in the H.E.L.P. position, which is "sitting" in the water, with the knees drawn close to the chest, the legs crossed, the arms hugging the chest, and the chin resting on the top of the life jacket.Sudden immersion in cold water can induce rapid, uncontrolled breathing, cardiac arrest, and other physical body conditions, which can result in drowning. Always wearing a PFD will help you survive in rapid immersion situations. In other situations where you must enter the water, here are a few things to follow:

  • Wear a PFD.
  • Button up your clothing.
  • Cover your head if possible and enter the water slowly.
  • Keep your head out of the water if at all possible.
  • Assume the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (H.E.L.P.) position.

Immersion in water speeds the loss of body heat and can lead to hypothermia. Hypothermia is the abnormal lowering of internal body temperature. If your boat capsizes it will likely float on or just below the surface. Outboard powered vessels built after 1978 are designed to support you even if full of water or capsized. To reduce the effects of hypothermia get in or on the boat. Try to get as much of your body out of the water as possible. If you can't get in the boat a PFD will enable you to keep your head out of the water. This is very important because about 50% of body heat loss is from the head.

It may be possible to revive a drowning victim who has been under water for considerable time and shows no signs of life. Numerous documented cases exist where victims have been resuscitated with no apparent harmful effects after long immersions. Start CPR immediately and get the victim to a hospital as quickly as possible.

Line chart that illustrates the danger of hypothermia related to water temperature and duration of immersion in hours.  The danger of hypothermia increases as the water temperature declines and as the duration of immersion increases.

The Danger Zone indicates where safety precautions and appropriate behavior (adopting H.E.L.P.) can increase your chances of survival when immersed in cold water.

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