Winter Boating Safety and Survival by Gary Benton
Each winter thousands of us head for the water. Just like ducks we splash, swim, and play around in the lakes, streams, rivers and even the ponds of America, regardless of the time of the year. The Coast Guard reports that most fatal injuries occur from the period of October through December, and it is easy to see why. I suspect most of us know very little about how to safely prepare for a boating trip, or what to do in an emergency, especially during the cold months. Oh, and I have done some pretty silly boating things myself.
It was a freezing day in January and we had about three inches of snow covering the Missouri Ozarks. Bill and I decided to go on a float trip down the nearby Little Piney River for a few miles and camp over the weekend. His mother would pick us up on Sunday afternoon. This trip, according to Bill, would challenge us and test our winter camping ability.
Our destination was only about fours miles away and if we took it slowly and cautiously it would be no problem to reach. The first day of the trip we got a late start and put into the water at about dusk. We wanted a mile or two behind us, before we would be forced to camp for the night due to darkness. That was our biggest mistake!
The current was lazy as we meandered down the snake shaped river in all directions. As soon as it became dark, we began to look for a place to spend the night. We could not find a suitable camping spot because the river had eroded the banks on both sides of us to the point that ground level was now about five feet above the river. While we were looking for a place to land the boat, we had to use a flashlight to see by.
Suddenly, we entered a stretch of fast water! The river turned sharply to the left as we picked up considerable speed. The boat, without any warning, struck the right bank, drifted sideways, and leaned over enough that we started taking on water. It was only a matter of seconds before I decided to abandon ship and leave the captain of the Titanic to his own doom.
I jumped into the cold water and after the initial shock from the chill; I made my way to the nearest bank. While swimming, I had seen most of our supplies drift pass me headed further down stream. I watched as they floated toward the Mississippi River. As I looked around me, I noticed Bill, a stronger swimmer than I, was already on the same bank. Now, how did that happen? When I was in the boat he was still sitting there cursing.
As I stood in the faint light I looked over at Bill. He gave me a weak smile and said, “Look at yer shoe laces.”
I glanced down and watched ice begin to form on the laces and on the outside of the shoe. In a matter of seconds the whole shoe was encrusted with ice. We both knew we had to do something and do it very quickly. To hesitate even a few minutes could mean our deaths.
As I looked around in fear, I noticed lights across the river. I pointed to the lights and said, “Bill, we have to get to that farm house and do it quickly.”
My buddy didn’t say a word, but nodded his head in agreement. Slowly, Bill and I re-entered the water and swam to the other side. Gradually and drunkenly we made our way to the farmhouse. Strange, but I no longer felt cold, I seemed almost warm and comfortable as I fought the urge to stop and sleep. This lack of concern suddenly triggered an alarm in my pea brain that told me we were close to death. I think both of us were ready to give up when we literally ran into a gate.
The gate latch cut Bill’s hand as he forced it up and open. The cold had deadened the feeling to Bill’s hand to the point that he was not aware he had been cut by the sharp corners on the latch. We would remain unaware of his injury until we thawed out later. As the gate swung open we could hear the aggressive barking of farm dogs. I was suddenly angry, all this way to have a dog eat me alive.
I remember voicing concern about the barking and growling dogs, but we soon discovered they were locked up, thus not a threat. We sluggishly made our way up to the front door of the farmhouse. We knocked and knocked, but no answer. Then we pounded the door. Still we received no response. We both knew we had to do something and fast. It was then I noticed a light in the barn.
We made our way to the barn and opened the door. We were immediately welcomed by the sour smell of animals and of fresh manure. However, in our condition we hardly noticed it. The barn was full of sheep and two old milk cows wearing bells. Dangling throughout the barn was heating lamps.
With grins we both undressed and used the lamps to warm up and thaw out.
The pain we experienced sent tears running down our red cheeks. How had we escaped death? We were both a frozen mess. I believe we resembled frozen T.V. dinners more than we did humans. Bill’s big toe had ice crystals under the nail. It was about then his recently cut hand started to bleed. We wrapped his injury in pieces of his tee shirt and the bleeding soon stopped. All of my life I have always hated to be in a barn, it usually meant work for me, but not on that night.
After a couple of hours warming up in the barn, we decided to attempt to walk to Newburg, which was about a mile away. Our clothes were still slightly damp, but we thought they were dry enough for our purposes. We quickly dressed and made our way to the nearby county road that lead to town. The snowing had quit and full moon was to be seen. As we walked, I noticed the little white puffs of air as we both exhaled. It was still cold, very cold.
We sang, or I should say Bill sang, I have never been called a golden-throated talent, all the way to town. Once in town, we went to an all night restaurant and Bill called his momma to pick us up. She warned us both to get some hot food and drinks in us quickly and she would pay for it when you got there. Like most healthy young men, eating was never a problem at any time. We ordered eggs, bacon, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy and ate as we waited for his mother. We consumed cup after cup of hot scalding cocoa. We spent the rest of the time discussing just how close we had come to dying.
Since that night I like to think I have gotten a little smarter, we were lucky because we did everything wrong and still survived. I have, nonetheless, learned a few more things about boats, winter weather, and survival. Here are a few rules I would like to suggest:
Always tell someone where you are going, when you are going, and when you intend to return. It is a good idea to inform this person of your boat identification registration number. Also, tell them who is going with you and what you plan on doing, i.e., fishing, duck hunting, etc…
Check the weather forecast. If the weather will be too rough to safely be out, consider going another time. Remember, winter weather can change very quickly and you could be caught on the open water.
Have a good quality survival kit with you. Do not use a standard minimum survival kit for your boat. While a standard kit can make up the basis of your kit, you will need to add a few things. I suggest you add at least two casualty blankets (thermal blankets), matches in a waterproof container, a space blanket, a strobe light, flashlight, signal flares, and any other items you might want to have with you in an emergency.
Always wear a floatation device, life jacket or preserver. This is suggested for any time you are in a boat and on the water.
If you have a cell phone, take it along with you as well. It could speed up your rescue in the event of an emergency.
Also, remember that hypothermia is a killer in the water! Hypothermia is the lowering of the body’s core temperature. Most of us, lets say, have a body temperature of between 97 and 99 degrees. When our temperature drops internally to below this normal range hypothermia sets in. If the core temperature is not brought back up, death usually occurs. We have all felt the beginning stages of hypothermia when we start to shiver. In the water, this medical emergency can kill within minutes. Here are a few suggestions if your boat overturns in the water.
Stay dressed! Do not remove any clothing because the air in them will assist in keep you warm, not to mention afloat.
Most body heat is lost through the top of the head. If you have a cap or hat, keep it on at all times. Additionally, if possible, keep your head out of the water.
Do not attempt to swim to shore, even if it looks to be close. Swimming will allow the air pockets in your clothing to escape and may seriously reduce the odds of your survival.
Remain as still as you can. The less movement, the more heat you retain and you need to keep that heat next to you! While the cold is painful and you will experience severe shivers, that is a natural reaction by the body to the cold water.
Keep your head and don’t panic! If there is someone with you, you should huddle together to for increased warmth. Assume Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) to retain heat. Pull your knees up to your chest, and wrap your arms around your legs.
Never drink alcohol when in a boat. Alcohol is very dangerous on the water and it actually increases the dangers of hypothermia. Alcohol causes vasodilatation, an increase in surface blood flow, which leads to increased heat loss.
Additionally, alcohol will impair your thinking, before, during and following an accident. Keep a clear mind at all times on the water.
Winter is not the best time to be out on the water. However, if you decide to go, follow my simple survival suggestions and your trip will end much better. Survival is never easy, but with the proper equipment, preparation, and attitude, you too can survive.