Hypothermia - It Is Your Enemy

Hypothermia - It Is Your Enemy

Sailing builds experience over time, each time out is another lesson  The maritime knowledge is passed from generation to generation.  Hypothermia can occur any time of the year.  I hope this one gives you nightmares and keeps you awake at night………….

Falling into semi-cold or cold water has immediate effects on the blood circulatory system in your body.  What happens is when water is cold, that your body begins to shut down blood flow to your arms and legs.  Why?  It wants to protect your organs and keep all of the warm blood in your head and your body cavity.  Also running blood through your arms and legs provides a lot of surface area for the heat to be released and the cooling of the body faster.  For the body to preserve itself, it shuts the flow off to the arms and legs, they’re not vital organs.

Without blood in your arms or legs, what occurs next is that they stop working.  You are fully conscious, your brain is telling the legs to kick, and the arms to paddle, but they don’t.  Without the boost from your arms or legs, fully awake you start going down in the water.  First your mouth is under, then your nose, and your eyes are looking crazy at this moment knowing fully what is about to come – death by drowning and there is nothing you can do about it.

How do we know this?  From the lucky few who have been dead, recovered and revived.  They have described this.  What a horrible way to go.

The following were believed to be cases of hypothermia this year:

On May 8, 2014 a 32 year old fit athletic runner Rebecca Long stopped at the breakwater at Lake Forest  and apparently succumbed to the cold water about 200′ from the breakwater – Chicago Tribune Report.

On May 20, 2014, two Moroccan brother-in-laws ages 36 and 40, 105′ to 150′ from shore at 31st Street Beach in Chicago in 7′ deep water apparently succumbed to the cold water  – Morocco World News Report.

May 31, 2014 a 33′ powerboat with four aboard coming from New Buffalo, MI to Chicago had one engine catch fire some six miles from Chicago at 7PM.  The radio was not working, and they fired off flares and no one saw this occur.  The four donned PFDs and took to the water and apparently the boat sank.  The next morning a charter fishing boat came across one of the victims, and the USCG rescued a second victim.  One of these survived after recovering from severe hypothermia (29 year old man), the other perished after rescue (Ashley Haws, age 26).  The second woman was recovered June 28, 2014 and had passed.  Still missing, a 27 year old woman, and Orest Sopka a 30 year old man who is presumed to be dead.  – ABC7 News Report, Chicago Tribune Report.

The warmer surface water on Lake Michigan is blown from side to side based on the prevailing wind direction at that time.  Some of the time when the warm water is blown away from shore, water from the bottom of the lake comes up to the surface to replace the water that has blown away.  This is called “upwelling.”  Water at deep depths in the Lake can be in the 30’s or 40’s in summer time, bringing this water up to the surface.

When I was 14 years old on a powerboat 1/2 mile off Belmont Harbor at anchor overnight, it reached a low of 95-degrees on land, but we were buried in parkas, blankets, ski caps, gloves, sweaters and we could not stop shivering.  The wind was blowing out of the Southwest and had sent the warm surface water over to Michigan, and was replaced with the frigid bottom water.  Oddly, a murder occurred on the North outer point of Belmont Harbor as we learned of it on the news the next day, we called the police and said we had people on watch all night long less than 1/2 mile away and never heard the gunshot.

For anyone who has been to the beaches on Lake Michigan, you feel the change in temperature the deeper you go in the water.  Each layer of temperature is called a Thermocline.  There are many temperature layers in the Lake.  Once when SCUBA diving,  I went through one at 35′ of depth that felt like ice-water and ice chips being shot into my face.  My face was burning from the cold, and this was late summer!

How can your prevent this and still go out sailing?

  • Perform overboard drills with a basketball or football as the “victim” and see how fast you can make a recovery.  Less time in the water = better survival chances.  There are many different recovery methods online, go search for the different types online and find one that works best for your type of boat.
  • Wear a harness with a tether.  Using this method, if you happen to fall overboard, you are attached to the boat with the tether.  The boat comes to a stop and the rest of the crew pulls you back on board.
  • Wear a PFD with a Crotch Strap if you insist on independence and not be tethered.  These are not easy to find, and most crotch straps are home-made.  However, if you are in the water with the effects of hypothermia setting in, your arms become useless, the easiest thing for the crew to grab is your PFD, and they’ll pull it right off of you and watch you sink without a crotch strap.  PFD’s are rated on their ability to provide flotation.  The four high heat loss areas of your body are the four places where hair grows (except you bald guys!).  By getting a PFD with 35 pounds of flotation, this gets most of three high heat loss areas out of the water and extends your time in the water.  Look for one of these.

Here’s a great slideshow, courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.

Be safe out there, there’s no reason not to come back to shore alive.


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