New Jersey has been fortunate this year with unseasonably warm weather. The spring-like days after a tame winter have already brought anxious boaters back out onto the frigid waters. Sometimes those adventurers pay for their enthusiasm with their lives. This year, State Police have received no notifications of cold-water-related deaths, but in 2010, five fatal boating accidents occurred in March alone in New Jersey.
The off-season months are very dangerous for boaters because of the increased speed at which hypothermia sets in when mishaps occur. Despite recent 60+-degree days, water temps on the Delaware River in the in the Trenton area are still in the mid 40s. The Atlantic Ocean is only in the low 50s, and deeper lakes in the state are about the same.
Falls overboard are the most common types of fatal boating accidents, and boaters hitting that frigid water quickly find their strength sapped and their movements slowed down. The human body cools down 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. Within minutes of being in the water, people can lose manual dexterity, muscle coordination and breath control. Even strong swimmers can become drowning victims without the aid of a personal floatation device (PFD).
A common misconception is that in cold water, hypothermia will kill a person quickly, regardless of whether the person is wearing a PFD. While hypothermia is a serious threat to life, most people would survive sudden immersion into cold water, and ultimately be rescued, if they were wearing a properly fitted US Coast Guard approved PFD when the accident occurred.
Be aware of the “Involuntary Gasp Reflex”
When a person is suddenly immersed in cold water, they will experience an “Involuntary Gasp Reflex” during which the person will immediately exhale, this will be followed immediately by an uncontrollable gasping for air. As this occurs the person will generally panic, and, lacking a floatation aid, may begin to involuntarily inhale water and drown. In many cases, drowning occurs long before the effects of hypothermia are experienced. Again, the best defense is to wear a PFD. While the PFD will not eliminate the gasp reflex, or the associated discomfort, the PFD will immediately float the person to the surface, thus allowing the person to be rescued. Some PFDs will even turn an unconscious wearer face-up, allowing badly injured or exhausted individuals to be rescued.
Boating Safety Tips
Always wear a life jacket. Life jackets are an essential component to safe boating. There are many styles of life jackets available for a multitude of purposes including both extreme heat and cold.
Life Jackets Must Be:
- US Coast Guard approved
- In good and serviceable condition
- The appropriate size for the intended user.
- Wearable lifejackets must be readily accessible.
- You must be able to put them on in a reasonable amount of time in an emergency (vessel sinking, on fire, etc.).
- They should not be stowed in plastic bags, in locked or closed compartments or have other gear stowed on top of them.
- The best lifejacket is the one you will wear.
- Throw-able devices must be immediately available for use
- Place your mobile phone in a waterproof plastic bag and keep it on your person.
- Leave a “Float Plan” with a close friend or relative. A blank float plan can be found on page 43 of the New Jersey boating Safety manual. The boating safety manual is available on the Marine Services Bureau web-site at www.njsp.org/maritime.
- Check the weather forecast
- Speak with locals to learn about local boating hazards
- Bring charts and maps of the area
- Check all safety equipment including VHF radios, GPS devices, emergency locator beacons and flares
- Pack a first aid kit robust enough for significant injuries that could occur while boating/hunting/fishing.
- Pack food and water, even for a short trip.
- Make sure your boat’s drain plug is in place
Dress to protect against hypothermia
Water temperature below 90 degrees is considered cold enough to cause hypothermia. Body heat is lost 25 times faster in water than in air of the same temperature. Dress in layers that will trap body heat even when wet. Wool and Polypropylene are good materials for such conditions. Avoid cotton fabrics.
Follow all boating regulations
This includes having a wearable, Coast Guard-approved PFD for each person on board. Vessels that are 16’ in length or greater must also carry at least one type IV (throw-able) PFD. Check the capacity plate of the vessel and be certain not to overload or overpower the vessel.
If you should find yourself in the water
Relax and stay with the boat. If your vessel has capsized, try to climb out of the water and on top of your capsized boat to await rescue. Do not worry about trying to salvage gear. Anything that falls overboard is worthless compared to the value of your life.
Additional Maritime Information
For more information about New Jersey boating laws and regulations, please visit the New Jersey State Police, Marine Services Bureau website at: www.njsp.org/maritime.