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Cold Water Boating Risks

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Cold Weather … At this time of year in the Northeast United States; high winds, cold rain, snow and ice storms can develop quickly. But don’t fret, cold weather doesn’t mean the fish aren’t running; and, despite the cold temperatures, there are plenty of fish in the sea! Tasty species that are still in season include: Atlantic Cod, Haddock, Weakfish, Bluefish, and Mackerel. The purpose of this safety tip edition is to explore the precautions avid fishermen and fisherwomen should take when heading to the fishing grounds during the winter months.

Cold Weather and You … Keeping warm while boating in cold climates is a challenge. If you are not wearing proper cold weather gear, prolonged exposure to winter wind and rain can lead to hypothermia and frostbite. In fact, bare skin directly exposed to wind chill at sea will rapidly loose temperature and become colder than the standing air temperature. In addition, the effects of cold temperatures, wind, rain, and sea spray, quickly cause fatigue. The overall result is: the mind becomes less attentive, the body’s muscle coordination decreases, reaction times decrease, and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite emerge. Be aware that it only takes a minor change in body temperature to cause negative reactions within the body’s processes which in turn cause negative impacts on physical performance.

Warning Signs … Hypothermia’s warning signs may include: a pale appearance, skin that is cold to the touch, dilated pupils that do not adjust to light, a person becoming incoherent or incapacitated, slurred speech, intoxicated behavior, rigid muscles, a weak pulse, irregular heartbeat, labored breathing, shivering, and unconsciousness. Be aware that hypothermia victims should not be given anything by mouth, especially alcohol. Frostbite is the formation of ice crystals in the body’s tissues. It is most likely to occur when temperatures are below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Victims experience cold and numbness in the affected area. These areas will appear waxy-white or yellow-white. They will be cold to the touch, hard and insensitive. As these areas thaw they become reddish-purple, and are accompanied by painful swelling. Blisters may also appear. Any person who has had frostbite has an increased risk that it will reoccur at the same site.

Prevention … When boating in cold weather conditions it is essential to use high quality cold weather gear that defends the body against cold-related injuries while lowering that person’s exposure to hypothermia and frostbite. By simply being cautious you can add positive impacts to your physical mobility, judgement, and in extreme cases chances of survival. Central to this task is layering your clothing. Wicking is the first layer ... Clothing that is next to the skin must be able to wick any moisture away from the skin’s surface. Synthetic fibers are the best choice for this purpose. They are designed to avoid moisture retention while at the same time they wick moisture away from the skin and transport it to an absorbent outer layer. In extreme cold weather conditions a second absorbent layer is frequently added. Insulation is the second layer ... The performance of insulating fabric is judged by how much air it can hold. That’s why fuzzy loose knitted fabrics are preferred. It is also why multiple layers of thin air trapping fabric work better than one thick layer. A moisture barrier is the third layer … This is the outer most layer of cold weather protective gear. A third layer’s purpose is to prevent wind and water from penetrating into the second and first layers of fabric. Examples of Moisture Barrier clothing are rain gear, anti-exposure coveralls, dry suits, and immersion suits. Protecting Extremities … Heads, hands, and feet are primary contributors to a body’s heat loss potential. Thus, high performance hats, gloves and socks are critically important protective clothing items. A heavy, wicking waterproof rain hat or hood is best for your head. Gloves should be waterproof and include a wicking liner. For your feet, the best option is a durable pair of high top rubber boots. Rubber boots should be worn with heavy inner socks that act as an interior wicking liner. On top of these add a warm material outer sock. Below your protected feet a perforated foam insole is recommended.

Beyond Cold Weather Boot Camp … A few years ago, the award-winning Cold Water Boot Camp video and website were developed to publicize the real-life effects of the cold water shock response, cold incapacitation, and hypothermia. This recently released and updated program offers advanced training for first responders and boating safety educators. The goal is to help educate the public on ways to prevent the needleless fatalities associates with cold water exposure. If you wish to learn more on this topic visit

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